EASTER 1865.—Anderson Ruffin Abbott, a physician educated in Canada who was employed by the Union army as a contract surgeon with the honorary rank of captain, lived and worked in Washington during the latter part of the Civil War. He was in town the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. In 1901, his recollections were published in the Anglo-American magazine. An excerpt:
The days previous to the assassination of President Lincoln were devoted to festivities exceeding in brilliancy and grandeur anything the writer had before witnessed. Washington was brilliantly illuminated and decorated, and the enthusiasm of the people ran up to white heat of felicitation on the downfall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee’s army. All the resources of science and art were brought into requisition to give appropriate expression to the intense feeling of joy which thrilled the heart of the nation. People who thronged Pennsylvania avenue that memorable morning had no thought that a plot was brewing which would turn all that joy and splendor into sorrow’s darkest night.
I wended my way homeward in the evening feeling somewhat hungry, for I had participated so freely in the general enthusiasm that I had neglected to eat anything since morning. After supper, in company with a friend, I again set forth, this time to see a torchlight procession which was to take place in honor of Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War. The light of the torches and the music of the bands told that the procession was approaching from the direction of the Capitol. As far as the eye could reach from the elevated position which we occupied, it appeared like a fiery serpent winding its sinuous course through the streets and avenues of the city. When it reached the Secretary’s residence the people sent up a shout that made the welkin ring. Mr. Stanton came out and addressed the crowd, calmly and earnestly congratulating them upon the speedy restoration of peace.
It was nine o’clock when he had finished speaking, after which my friend and I repaired to another friend’s house, intending to spend the remainder of the evening in a social way. We were about to begin singing, and a young lady had but struck the first chords on the piano when at that instant a fierce ringing of the door-bell arrested our attention. After opening the door and ascertaining the cause of the interruption, our host returned with slow, hesitating steps, and, with an expression on his countenance that I shall never forget, said in a tremulous voice: “I have sad news to tell you. President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater to-night, and Secretary Seward’s throat has been cut, and both are dying.”
The effect of this announcement can be better imagined than described. “Oh, horrible!” exclaimed the ladies. “The Lord have mercy on us! ” was the pious ejaculation of the hostess.
As soon as we had recovered from the shock I proposed that we should go around to Secretary Seward’s, whose residence was but a short distance away, and learn the particulars of so tragic an event.
For the first time during my stay in Washington I was troubled with a feeling of uncertainty regarding my safety. I had been in the city on two other occasions when it had been greatly disturbed, but suffered no such apprehension at either of those times as I experienced on this occasion. To what extent does this infamous plot extend? Is Sumner safe? Is Chase alive? These were some of the thoughts that followed one another through my brain as we walked along. By this time it was half-past eleven o’clock. The night had become very dark, and Washington streets at that time were proverbially dark because of their width, they being but dimly lighted with gas, and the dark shadows of alleys, areas, and porches affording convenient lurking-places for garroters, murderers, assassins, and thieves.
As we passed Secretary Stanton’s house, we observed a cavalryman’s horse at the door.. We supposed it belonged to the courier who had been sent to warn the Secretary of his danger. Lights appeared in houses where all was darkness before, and as the inmates received the startling intelligence the illumination became more general.
In the neighborhood of Secretary Seward’s house we found an excited crowd of citizens and soldiers. By this time the sad news had been very widely circulated. Senators, Congressmen, clerks in the departments, citizens, soldiers, all rushed by in the frenzy of excitement. The soldiers seemed to be arresting every one who looked or acted at all suspicious. An unfortunate man had been found in Lafayette Park, opposite the Secretary’s house. As the gates are locked at 9 P. M., the fact of his being in the park at so late an hour was regarded with suspicion. It required the strenuous efforts of the soldiers to prevent the crowd from lynching him. Two men who had been dragged from their beds in adjoining houses, clothed in their robes de chambre, were pleading for their freedom and lives.
We thought it prudent to keep at a safe distance from the mob. The writer was left in charge of the ladies, while his companion went forward to obtain further information. The latter soon returned with news which too painfully confirmed all that we had previously learned.
Everything seemed tranquil in the Secretary’s house. In only one room could a light be seen, and only at long intervals did any one pass in or out of the house. A deep gloom hung over it, and the ominous silence within indicated that something serious was transpiring.
The crowd had grown much larger while we waited, and fearing that our egress would be entirely blocked we thought it prudent to retire. After escorting the ladies to their homes we returned to our respective places of abode and were soon asleep. But the writer’s experience of the tragedy had not ended. About two o’clock in the morning a messenger came to the door with a request from Mrs. Lincoln that Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, who usually dressed Mrs. Lincoln for her receptions, should come to her. I volunteered to accompany Mrs. Keckley, but it was with much difficulty that we reached the White House, owing to the crowd that thronged the streets. A further barrier to our progress we found in a cordon of troops that were drawn up in front of the White House, and so strict were the orders excluding every one that we found great difficulty in even getting some one to take in Mrs. Keckley’s card.
However, after some persistence we succeeded, only to find that Mrs. Lincoln was with the President at No. 453 Tenth street. We had, therefore, to make our way to that point. A cordon of military was drawn up there also, but a card to Mrs. Lincoln furnished an open sesame for us. It was a three-story brick house opposite the theater, in one room of which was the dying President, while his companion was lying in an adjoining room prostrate with anguish.
Then I returned to my lodgings, thoroughly exhausted, and not long after had again succumbed to nature’s sweet restorer. In fact, I was not conscious of anything until aroused by the first stroke of the bell, at twenty minutes past seven next morning, which announced the painful intelligence that our beloved President was no more.
A widespread apprehension existed next morning that the water in the city reservoir had been poisoned, so that the use of tea and coffee had to be abandoned. The report, however, proved to be false, but it was an indication of the feeling of anxiety which prevailed.
The city rapidly assumed a funereal aspect, in striking contrast to the gay and festive appearance presented the days previous to the assassination. The draping of the public buildings, business houses, and residences was quite general. As the writer rode around the outskirts of the city, he noticed that even the cabins of the freedmen bore some emblem of mourning, even if, as in one case, it was nothing more appropriate than a black skirt hung over the door.
There was an ill-disguised expression of anxiety on the face of every one as to the extent of the conspiracy. The lives of Cabinet ministers and other prominent government officials were not considered safe, and special detectives were detailed to accompany them wherever they went.
At that time I was shown a cardboard box containing the index finger of a negro and a pen-picture of a coffin surmounted by a drawing of a skull and crossbones, with the word “beware” inscribed upon it, that had been sent to Senator Sumner. A colored man armed with a loaded revolver slept at the door of the Senator’s sleeping-chamber for several weeks.
The surroundings of the White House were somber in the extreme. The heavy mourning drapery, the deep gloom of the interior, the hushed voices and muffled footsteps, all gave painful evidence of the presence of the remains of the illustrious dead. As the writer looked upon the pale, cold face of the President as he lay in state in the guests’ room, a great sorrow weighed heavily upon his heart, for he thought of the loss to the negro race in their nascent life of freedom, of the great guiding hand that now lay paralyzed in death.
It would be ungracious to pursue this description into the circle of the afflicted family. Suffice it to say that the anguish of the widow in the privacy of her apartments, surrounded by her children, and with Mrs. Keckley as her sole companion, was pitiable in the extreme. It was so intense I think Mrs. Lincoln’s mind never recovered its equilibrium after the shock of that awful tragedy at Ford’s Theater.
The remaining weeks that Mrs. Lincoln spent in the White House, after the removal of the President’s body to Springfield, 111., were spent in disposing of her late husband’s personal effects. Several articles which he valued very much, and which were much used by him, were given away as mementos to his friends. The writer received the plaid shawl which Mr. Lincoln was frequently seen wearing of a chilly evening when going to the War Department to consult Mr. Stanton on important state business. This shawl has been preserved in my family for the past thirty-six years, and is regarded as a most precious heirloom.
Image source: Toronto Public Library
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