Biographies & Memoirs


TUESDAY, APRIL 11, 1865 



It seems strange how much there is in the Bible about dreams,” Lincoln says thoughtfully, basking in the afterglow of his speech. It is just after ten P.M. The people of Washington have moved their party elsewhere, and the White House lawn is nearly empty. Lincoln is having tea and cake in the Red Room with Mary, Senator James Harlan, and a few friends. Among them is Ward Hill Lamon, the close friend with the beer-barrel girth. Lamon, the United States marshal for the District of Columbia, has warned Lincoln for more than a year that someone, somewhere will try to kill him. The lawman listens to the president intently, with a veteran policeman’s heightened sense of foreboding, sifting and sorting through each word.

Lincoln continues: “There are, I think, some sixteen chapters in the Old Testament and four or five in the New in which dreams are mentioned … . If we believe the Bible, we must accept the fact that in the old days, God and his angels came to men in their sleep and made themselves known in dreams.”

Mary Lincoln smiles nervously at her husband. His melancholy tone has her fearing the worst. “Why? Do you believe in dreams?”

Yes, Lincoln believes in dreams, in dreams and in nightmares and in their power to haunt a man. Night is a time of terror for Abraham Lincoln. The bodyguards standing watch outside his bedroom hear him moan in his sleep as his worries and anxieties are unleashed by the darkness, when the distractions and the busyness of the day can no longer keep them at bay. Very often he cannot sleep at all. Lincoln collapsed from exhaustion just a month ago. He is pale, thirty-five pounds underweight, and walks with the hunched, painful gait of a man whose shoes are filled with pebbles. One look at the bags under his eyes and even hardened newspapermen write that he needs to conserve his energies—not just to heal the nation but to live out his second term. At fifty-six years old, Abraham Lincoln is spent.

There have been threats against Lincoln’s life ever since he was first elected.

Gift baskets laden with fruit were sent to the White House, mostly from addresses in the South. The apples and pears and peaches were very fresh—and very deadly, their insides injected with poison. Lincoln had the good sense to have them all tested before taking a chance and chomping down into a first fatal bite.

Then there was the Baltimore Plot, in 1861, in which a group known as the Knights of the Golden Circle planned to shoot Lincoln as he traveled to Washington for the inauguration. The plot was foiled, thanks to brilliant detective work by Pinkerton agents. In a strange twist, many newspapers mocked Lincoln for the way he eluded the assassins by wearing a cheap disguise as he snuck into Washington. His enemies made much of the deception, labeling Lincoln a coward and refusing to believe that such a plot existed in the first place. The president took the cheap shots to heart.

The Baltimore Plot taught Lincoln a powerful message about public perception. He adopted a veneer of unshakable courage from that day forward. Now he would never dream of traveling in disguise. He moves freely throughout Washington, D.C. Since 1862 he has enjoyed military protection beyond the walls of the White House, but it was only late in 1864, as the war wound down and the threats became more real, that Washington’s Metropolitan Police assigned a select group of officers armed with .38-caliber pistols to protect Lincoln on a more personal basis. Two remain at his side from eight A.M. to four P.M. Another stays with Lincoln until midnight, when a fourth man takes the graveyard shift, posting himself outside Lincoln’s bedroom or following the president through the White House on his insomniac nights.

The bodyguards are paid by the Department of the Interior, and their job description, strangely enough, specifically states that they are to protect the White House from vandals.

Protecting Lincoln is second on their list of priorities.

If he were the sort of man to worry about his personal safety, Lincoln wouldn’t allow such easy public access to the White House. There is no fence or gate blocking people from entering the White House at this time. The doorman is instructed to allow citizens to roam the first floor. Friends and strangers alike can congregate inside the building all day long, seeking political favors, stealing scraps of the curtains as keepsakes, or just peering in at the president while he works. Some petitioners even sleep on the floor in the hallways, hoping to gain a moment of Lincoln’s time.

Lincoln’s bright young secretary John Hay frets constantly about his boss’s safety. “The President is so accessible that any villain can feign business, and, while talking with him, draw a razor and cut his throat,” Hay worries aloud, “and some minutes might elapse after the murderer’s escape before we could discover what had been done.” Lincoln, however, reminds Hay that being president of the United States stipulates that he be a man of the people. “It would never do for a President to have guards with drawn sabers at his door, as if he were, or were assuming to be an emperor,” he reminds them.

Death is no stranger to Abraham Lincoln, and in that way it is less terrifying. The Lincolns’ three-year-old son Edward died of tuberculosis in 1850. In 1862, the Lincolns lost eleven-year-old Willie to a fever. Willie was a spirited child, fond of wrestling with his father and riding his pony on the White House lawn. Mary, who already suffered from a mental disorder that made her prone to severe mood swings, was emotionally destroyed by the loss of her boys. Even as Lincoln was mired in the war and dealing with his own grief, he devoted hours to tending to Mary and the silent downward spiral that seemed to define her daily existence. He indulged her by allowing her to spend lavishly, to the point of putting him deeply in debt, though he is by nature a very simple and frugal man. Also to please Mary, he accompanied her to a night at the theater or to a party when he would much rather conserve his energies by relaxing with a book at the White House. And while this indulgence has worked to some extent, and Mary Lincoln has gotten stronger over time, Lincoln of all people knows that she is one great tragedy away from losing her mind.

Normally, their history precludes Lincoln from talking about death with Mary present. But now, surrounded by friends and empowered by the confessional tone of that night’s speech, he can’t help himself.

“I had a dream the other night, which has haunted me since,” he admits soulfully.

“You frighten me,” Mary cries.

Lincoln will not be stopped. Ten days ago, he begins, “I went to bed late.”

Ten days ago he was in City Point, each man and woman in the room calculates. It was the night Lincoln stood alone on the top deck of the River Queen, watching Grant’s big guns blow the Confederate defenders of Petersburg to hell. “I had been waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream.”

In addition to being the consummate public speaker, Lincoln is also a master storyteller. No matter how heavy the weight of the world, he invests himself in a story, adjusting the tone and cadence of his voice and curling his lips into a smile as he weaves his tale, until the listener eventually leans in, desperate to hear more.

But now there is pain in his voice and not a hint of a smile. Lincoln isn’t telling a story but reliving an agony. “There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room. No living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms. Every object was familiar to me. But where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this?”

Lincoln is lost in the world of that dream. Yet his audience, uncomfortable as it may feel, is breathless with anticipation. “Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and shocking, I kept on until I arrived in the East Room, which I entered. There I was met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards. And there were a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was the answer. ‘He was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd.”

Mary can’t take it anymore. “That is horrid,” she wails. “I wish you had not told it.”

Lincoln is pulled back to reality, no longer sound asleep on the River Queen but sitting with a somewhat shell-shocked gathering of dignitaries in the here and now. Young Clara Harris, in particular, looks traumatized. “Well it was only a dream, Mary,” he chides. “Let us say no more about it.”

A moment later, seeing the uneasiness in the room, Lincoln adds, “Don’t you see how it will all turn out? In this dream it was not me, but some other fellow that was killed.”

His words convince no one, especially not Mary.

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