Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

THURSDAY, APRIL 13, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

NIGHT

There once was a fifth conspirator, the one Booth traveled to Baltimore to corral the day before. Mike O’Laughlen, a former Confederate soldier who grew up across the street from Booth, was one of the first men recruited by him last August. Just a month earlier the two men had lain in wait together for a certain carriage making its way down the lonely country road to the Soldiers’ Home, only to find that its occupant was a Supreme Court justice instead of the president.

Hiding in the tall grass along the side of the road, O’Laughlen had weighed the repercussions of actually kidnapping the president of the United States and realized that he would hang by the neck until dead if caught. He was actually relieved that the carriage belonged to Salmon P. Chase instead of Lincoln.

The twenty-four-year-old engraver returned to Baltimore and put the kidnapping plot behind him. He wanted a normal life. When Booth came calling a week later with an even more far-fetched plot to kidnap the president by handcuffing him at the theater and then lowering his body to the stage, O’Laughlen shook his head and told Booth to go away.

But Booth is nothing if not relentless. In Baltimore, he tried to convince O’Laughlen to rejoin the conspiracy. O’Laughlen told the actor he didn’t want any part of the killing. Yet the same day he apparently changed his mind, and he traveled to Washington a short time later. O’Laughlen started drinking the minute he arrived, bellying up to the bar at a place called Rullman’s until his behavior became erratic. Like Booth, who now prowls Washington in the desperate hope of finding Lincoln, O’Laughlen prowls the bustling thoroughfares, unsure of what to do next.

Meanwhile, General Sam Grant, whose idea of a stellar evening is chain-smoking cigars and sipping whiskey, would be very happy staying in for the evening. But as Julia points out, General and Mrs. Grant have not attended a party together for quite some time. Sitting in their room on this very special night, no matter how luxurious the accommodations, would be a waste. Julia shows her husband invitation after invitation to party after party. She is thrilled to be in the city but also eager to leave as soon as possible to rejoin their four children. Knowing that they have perhaps just this one night in Washington, Grant agrees that they should venture out.

Reluctantly, Grant leaves the hotel. They engage a carriage to take them to the home of Secretary of War Stanton, who is holding a gala celebration for War Department employees. Four brass bands serenade the partygoers from nearby Franklin Square, and a fireworks demonstration will cap the night.

Grant has been a target ever since he took command of Lincoln’s army. But even with all the people in the streets he is unafraid. The war is over.

The Grants arrive at Stanton’s home. A bodyguard stands at the top of the steps, one of the few the general has encountered in Washington. The Grants are greeted with a loud round of applause as they join the partygoers, but they are soon lost in the sea of other prominent faces. Grant gets a drink and settles in to endure the politicking and glad-handing soon to head his way.

But the Grants have been followed. Mike O’Laughlen, wearing a dark suit, marches up the front steps of Stanton’s house and tries to crash the party. The sergeant providing security brushes him off, telling the unwanted guest, “If you wish to see him, step out on the pavement, or the stone where the carriage stops.”

O’Laughlen disappears into the night, only to return later asking to see Secretary Stanton. Coincidentally, Stanton and Grant are both standing just a few feet away, watching the fireworks. There is still something of the conspirator in O’Laughlen, a willingness to take risks where others might not. He takes a bold gamble, blends in with the crowd, and slips undetected into the party, despite the security detail. He then goes one better by walking over and standing directly behind Stanton.

But Mike O’Laughlen does nothing to harm the secretary of war. Nor does he bother Grant. The fact is, he doesn’t know what Stanton looks like, and as a former Confederate soldier with a deep respect for rank, he is too nervous to speak with Grant.

Observers will later remember the drunk in the dark coat and suggest that his intentions were to kill the general and the secretary. Nothing could be further from the truth: the surprising fact is that O’Laughlen is actually here to warn them about Booth. But even after all those drinks, Mike O’Laughlen still can’t summon the courage. He thinks of the repercussions and how if he informs on Booth, his childhood friend will most surely reveal the story about the kidnapping attempt four weeks earlier. That admission would mean the same jail sentence—or even execution—for O’Laughlen as for Booth.

No. Nothing good can come of telling Stanton or Grant a single detail of the plot. Mike O’Laughlen disappears into the night and drinks himself blind.

Meanwhile, a crowd gathers in front of Stanton’s home. For all his attempts at avoiding the limelight, word of Grant’s location has spread throughout the city. Cries of “Speech!” rock the night air, his admirers thoroughly unaware that Grant is terrified of public speaking.

Stanton comes to the rescue. Never afraid of expressing himself, the secretary throws out a few bon mots to pacify his audience. Grant says nothing, but the combination of a small wave to the crowd and Stanton’s spontaneous words are enough to satiate Grant’s fans. Soon the sidewalks are bare.

On the other side of town, John Wilkes Booth steps back into the National Hotel, frustrated and tired from hours of walking bar to bar, party to party, searching for Lincoln. The Deringer rests all too heavily in his coat pocket, in its barrel the single unfired round that could have changed the course of history. There has been no news of any other assassinations, so he can only assume that his conspirators have also failed—and he is right. Herold, Atzerodt, and Powell were all unable to conquer their fears long enough to cross the line from fanatic to assassin.

Perhaps tomorrow.

One mile away, in his White House bedroom, Abraham Lincoln slumbers peacefully. A migraine has kept him in for the night.

Hopefully that will not be the case tomorrow evening, for the Lincolns have plans to attend the theater.

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