150 Years Ago: The Nation Loses Its President

John Wilkes Booth in a casual seated pose

John Wilkes Booth [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

It was a desperate plan to save the Confederacy. In the waning days of the Civil War, Confederate sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth, and several associates forged a plan to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln and take him to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. The plan was thwarted when President Lincoln did not come to where the kidnapping was to take place. Richmond would fall two weeks later.

After his original plot was averted, John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators devised a new plan. Upon learning the president was to attend a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, Good Friday, the plan progressed to assassinate the President, his Vice President Andrew Johnson and his Secretary of State William Seward. Killing Lincoln and his top two successors would, Booth surmised, throw the country into chaos.  Between 10:00-10:30 as President Lincoln was watching the play from his official box, Booth entered and shot the him once in the back of the head.

John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.

Lincoln Assassination Slide, c. 1900 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

President Lincoln succumbed to his injury the following morning, April 15, 1865.  The president’s body lay in state from April 17 until his funeral on April 19.  Mourners solemnly waited in line over a mile long to pay their respects to the fallen leader.  On April 21, a train carrying Lincoln’s body left Washington for the journey to his final resting place in Illinois.  President Abraham Lincoln would be “the final casualty of the war.”

While his fellow conspirators were giving into the force of the federal government’s pursuit, Booth remained on the run heading to Maryland and finally to Virginia.  It was there in a tobacco barn he would be felled by soldier’s bullet on the morning of April 26.

Shortly after the president’s assassination Walt Whitman wrote a mourning poem for President Lincoln — O Captain! My Captain!  A metaphor for the Union and the death of the president, it would lift up a grieving nation.

 My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

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