Biographies & Memoirs

Part Three


The last known photograph of Lincoln, February 1865



FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 


7:00 A.M.

It is Good Friday morning, the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified, died an agonizing death, and was quickly buried. All of this after he had been betrayed by Judas and scorned by a public that had lionized him just days before.

Abraham Lincoln is a religious man but not a churchgoer. He was born into a Christian home in the wilderness, where established churches were rare. His father and mother were staunch “hard-shell” Baptists, and at a young age he attended the Pigeon Creek Baptist Church. Lincoln’s church attendance became sporadic in his adult life. Nevertheless, he took comfort in reading the Bible on a daily basis and often used the words of God to make important points in his public pronouncements. Indeed, his faith has grown because of the war. But because Lincoln never attached himself to an organized religion as an adult, his ability to combine the secular and the religious in the way he goes about his life will later have everyone from atheists to humanists to Calvinists claiming that he is one of theirs. The truth is, Abraham Lincoln does believe in God and has relied on Scripture in overcoming all the challenges he has confronted.

Lincoln rises at seven A.M. Outside the White House, the Washington weather is a splendid, sunny fifty degrees. Dogwoods are blooming along the Potomac and the scent of spring lilacs carries on the morning breeze as the president throws his size 14 feet over the edge of the bed, slides them into a pair of battered slippers, pulls on an equally weathered robe, pushes open the rosewood bedroom door, says good morning to his night watchman, and walks down a second-floor hallway to the White House library. The quiet night at home has been good for his soul. Lincoln’s sleep was restful. All symptoms of his migraine have disappeared.

Petitioners sleeping in the White House hallway leap to their feet upon the sight of Lincoln. They have come seeking presidential favors—a pardon, a job, an appointment. The president is courteous but evasive at their shouted requests, eager to be alone in the quiet of the library. That strangers actually sleep on the White House floor is commonplace at the time. “The multitude, washed or unwashed, always has free egress and ingress” into the White House, an astonished visitor wrote earlier in Lincoln’s presidency.

The White House’s open-door policy ends today.

The president’s favorite chair is in the exact center of the room. He sits down and opens his Bible, not because it is Good Friday but because starting the day with Scripture is a lifelong custom. Glasses balanced on the end of his prominent nose, he reads a verse, then another, before setting the Good Book on a side table. He leans back in the chair to meditate, enjoying the only quiet and solitary moments he will know this day.

Lincoln traipses down the hall to his office. His desk is mahogany, with cubbies and shelves. Behind him is the willow-lined Potomac, seen clearly outside the window.

Secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay have laid the mail on the desk, having already removed the love letters Lincoln sometimes receives from young ladies, and the assassination letters more often sent by older men. Typically, the president gets almost three hundred letters a day, of which he reads only a half dozen, at most.

Lincoln skims the mail, then jots down a few notes. Each is signed “A. Lincoln” if it is of a more official nature, or just “Yours truly,” as in the case of his note to William Seward. The secretary of state continues to recover from his horrible accident, his jaw and shattered skull mending slowly. Now he lies in bed at home, a convenient stone’s throw across the street from the White House.

Breakfast is scheduled for eight o’clock. Lincoln finishes his brief business and enters a small room, where he grooms himself. Daily baths and showers are rare, even in the White House. Lincoln is eager to be downstairs, for his son Robert is just back from the war and will be joining him, twelve-year-old Tad, and Mary for breakfast. More importantly, Robert was in the room when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Though Lincoln heard the story from Grant yesterday, he is keen to hear more about this landmark event. The war’s end is one topic he never gets tired of talking about.

Just twenty-one, with a thin mustache and a captain’s rank, Robert is still boyish, despite his time at the front. As Lincoln sips coffee and eats the single boiled egg that constitutes his daily breakfast, Robert describes “the stately elegant Lee” and Grant, “the small stooping shabby shy man in the muddy blue uniform, with no sword and no spurs.”

When Lincoln asks what it was like to there, his son is breathless. “Oh, it was great!” the normally articulate Robert exclaims, unable to find a more expressive way to describe being present at one of the seminal moments in American history.

Robert hands Lincoln a portrait of Lee. The president lays it on the table, where it stares up at him. Lincoln tells his son that he truly believes the time of peace has come. He is unfazed by the small but bitter Confederate resistance that remains. His thoughts are far away from the likes of John Wilkes Booth.

Pressing business awaits Lincoln in his office, but he allows breakfast to stretch on for almost an hour. He can permit himself this luxury, with the war finally over. At last he stands, his body stooped, now just an inch or two less than the towering height of his youth. He is relaxed and happy, even though his severe weight loss makes him look like “a skeleton with clothes,” in the words of one friend.

Lincoln reminds Mary that they have a date for a carriage ride this afternoon. To Robert, he suggests that the time has come to remove the uniform, return to Harvard, and spend the next three years working on his law degree. “At the end of that time I hope we will be able to tell if you will make a good lawyer or not,” he concludes, sounding more serious than he feels. The words are a sign that he is mentally transitioning from the easy part of his day into those long office hours when, even with the war concluded, the weight of the world presses down on his shoulders.

By nine A.M., President Lincoln is sitting at his desk in the Oval Office.

Every aspect of Lincoln’s early morning has the feel of a man putting his affairs in order: reading the Bible, jotting a few notes, arranging for a last carefree whirl around Washington with his loyal wife, and setting his son on a path that will ensure him a successful future. All of this is done unconsciously, of course, but it is notable.

Even if it is not mentioned on this day in the White House, the potential assassination of the president is a topic of discussion in and around Washington. The chattering class doesn’t know when it might occur, but many believe an attempt will come very soon.

“To those familiar with the city of Washington,” a member of his cavalry detail will later write, “it was not surprising that Lincoln was assassinated. The surprising thing to them was that it was so long delayed. It is probable that the only man in Washington who, if he thought upon the subject of all, did not think that Mr. Lincoln was in constant and imminent danger, was Mr. Lincoln himself.”

But today it is as if Lincoln subconsciously knows what is about to happen.

A mile down Pennsylvania Avenue, the man who does know what is about to happen is also setting his affairs in order.

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