Biographies & Memoirs


TUESDAY, APRIL 11, 1865 



Lee’s surrender at Appomattox is just two days old, but events are moving so quickly that it might as well be two months.

The citizens of Washington have spent today sleeping off their celebratory hangover. Now, as evening falls, they again spill out into the streets and sip a drink or two. Just like that, the party starts all over. As it grows and becomes more rowdy, every guzzle and utterance has a hum, an anticipation: Abraham Lincoln is speaking tonight. Love him or hate him, the president of the United States is making a personal appearance at the White House, and everyone wants to see it.

And then, once again, the crowd is on the march. The spring air is thick with a warm mist as the sea of humanity parades down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands upon thousands are on their way to hear Lincoln speak, trampling the White House lawn and standing up to their ankles in the mud of once-manicured daffodil beds, pushing and straining against one another, climbing into trees, and even pressing up against the great building itself. All are desperate to be as close to Lincoln as possible. But hungover, dehydrated, and sullen, this is not the lighthearted crowd of the night before. It is something akin to a lynch mob, thirsty for Lincoln’s words, and yet ready to pass judgment on them.

And this is what the mob wants to hear: the South must be punished.

These men and women of the North, who have endured the loss of their sons, brothers, and husbands, want vengeance. They want the Confederate leaders and generals hanged, they want the South to pay war reparations, and they want Lincoln’s speech to be full of the same self-righteous indignation they feel so powerfully in their hearts.

Booth leans against a tall tree, using it as a buffer against the crowd. He is close enough that Lincoln will be a mere pistol shot away. With him are two co-conspirators. David Herold is a former pharmacy clerk who was born and raised in Washington, D.C. Like Booth, he possesses matinee-idol good looks. But he is more educated and rugged. Herold’s degree comes from Georgetown, and he is fond of spending his leisure time with a rifle in his hand, hunting animals. It was John Surratt who introduced the two, four months earlier. Since then, Herold has been an impassioned and committed member of Booth’s team.

The second co-conspirator is Lewis Powell—who also goes by the name Lewis Payne—a twenty-year-old who served as a Confederate soldier and spy before joining Booth’s cause. Like Herold, he has fallen under Booth’s spell.

The actor hasn’t told either man that the plan has changed from kidnapping to assassination. That can wait. He brought them along to hear the speech, hoping that some phrase or anticipated course of action will fill them with rage. Then, and only then, will Booth let them in on his new plan.

Soon Lincoln stands before an open second-story window, a scroll of paper in one hand. The president is wearing the same black garb he usually wears but no hat. He is somber. His speech is now written, and he is ready to give it.

Unseen by the crowd, Mary Lincoln shows her husband her support by standing next to him. She has invited Clara Harris, her dear friend and the daughter of a New York senator, to stand with her and witness this historical moment.

Outside, the mere sight of Lincoln elicits a prolonged ovation. The applause rolls on and on and on, continuing even as Lincoln tries to speak.

The crowd cannot possibly know the tremendous weight pressing down on Lincoln’s shoulders. Looking out into the audience, he prepares to tell them about the daunting task ahead and how the ability to trust the southern states to peacefully rejoin the Union will be as great a challenge to the nation as the war itself. Lincoln clearly sees the faces of the crowd, with their spontaneous smiles and unabashed joy, and prepares to deliver a speech that is anything but warmhearted. It is, in fact, a heavy, ponderous, de facto State of the Union address, specifically designed to undercut the revelry and prepare America for years of more pain and struggle.

The president begins gently. “We meet this evening not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart,” Lincoln says. He thanks General Grant and the army for their struggle, and promises to have a national day of celebration very soon, with a great parade through Washington.

Lincoln is one of the best speakers in America, if not the world. He can read the mood of a crowd and adjust the cadence and rhythm of his voice for maximum effect, coaxing whatever emotion or response is needed to hold the audience in the palm of his hand. Lincoln’s voice is clear, his pronunciation distinct. He understands the power of words and emphasizes certain phrases to make a lasting impression. The Gettysburg Address is perhaps the best example of Lincoln’s oratorical genius.

But tonight there is no theatricality. No tricks. Just cold, hard facts, delivered in a somber and even depressing monotone. The speech is so long and so unexciting that people in the audience begin shifting their feet and then lowering their heads and slipping away into the night, off to search for a real celebration. Booth stays, of course. He doesn’t want to miss a single word. He listens as Lincoln talks of extending suffrage to literate blacks and those who fought for the Union.

Booth seethes at the outrageous notion that slaves be considered equal citizens of the United States, able to own property, vote, run for elected office, and maybe even marry white women. Suffrage, as preposterous as it sounds, means a black man might someday become president of the United States. Booth cannot let this ever happen.

“That means nigger citizenship,” he hisses, pointing to the navy revolver on Powell’s hip. Fourteen inches long, with a pistol sight and a .36-caliber round, the Colt has more than enough pop to kill Lincoln from such close range. “Shoot him now,” Booth commands Powell. “Put a bullet in his head right this instant.”

Powell is a dangerous young man, with powerful shoulders and a psychotic temper. But he refuses to draw his weapon. He is terrified of offending Booth but even more afraid of this mob, which would surely tear him limb from limb.

Booth sizes up the situation. It would be easy enough to grab Powell’s gun and squeeze off a shot or two before the crowd overpowers him. But now is not the time to be impulsive. Booth certainly doesn’t tell this to Powell. Instead he lets Powell believe that he has let Booth down. Only when Powell believes that he has really and truly disappointed Booth will he begin thinking of ways to make it up to him. And that’s when Booth will tell him about his amazing new plan.

“I’ll put him through,” Booth sneers, planting another seed about assassination in the minds of Powell and Herold. “By God. I’ll put him through.”

Then Booth spins around and fights his way back out of the crowd. Twenty-four hours ago he was still thinking of ways to kidnap the president. Now he knows just where and how and when he will shoot Abraham Lincoln dead.

The date will be Thursday, April 13.

Or, as it was known back in Julius Caesar’s time, the ides.

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