The Last Words of Abraham Lincoln
Author Stephen Mansfield breaks down the final moments of the life of Abraham Lincoln in this provocative excerpt from his new book Lincoln's Battle with God.
BY: Stephen Mansfield
Excerpted from Stephen Mansfield’s upcoming book Lincoln’s Battle with God, available here!
Among the memories of those who lived through that dreadful April day so many years ago was the way the afternoon sunshine quickly descended into evening gloom. With darkness had come fog and a gentle mist that dampened the nation’s capital. A chill followed, an unwelcome surprise after the warmth of day. Then there was the moon. It appeared late on that Friday night, leaving the hours just after sunset dark and unusually dreary. It announced itself first in the silvered edges of clouds and then, unhurriedly, came fully, brightly into view. In the years after, more than one man swore that before the night was done, the moon had turned bloodred. If true, it was a fitting banner over the events unfolding below.
At the White House, the Lincolns dined together. The president and First Lady listened as their son Robert, a young officer on General Grant’s staff, excitedly described the siege of Petersburg and the magnificence of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The Lincolns’ other son, twelve-year-old Tad, felt slighted by the attention trained on his older brother and misbehaved to correct the injustice. It worked. Mrs. Lincoln scolded him for neglecting his meal and then, prompted by the mention of the Grants, told her husband that she had invited that lovely Clara Harris, daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York, to accompany them to Ford’s Theatre later in the evening. Young Miss Harris had thrilled at the chance to attend the play Our American Cousin with the First Family and had assured Mrs. Lincoln that her fiancé, Major Henry R. Rathbone, would cherish the opportunity as well. It was settled, then. The Lincolns would collect the young couple at the Harris home on H Street near Fourteenth.
Lincoln answered the news with a nod, but must have winced inwardly. He knew the truth: Miss Harris and Major Rathbone were to accompany the Lincolns because the more distinguished names in Washington had refused to attend. This, Lincoln had long understood, was his wife’s fault. He genuinely loved Mary, but she was not an easy woman to abide. One of her traits in particular haunted his life: she was notoriously jealous. She screamed viciously at any woman who dared even to walk next to her husband. Many a Washington official’s wife had been humiliated in public by the enraged First Lady, who thought nothing of making loud and tearful allegations of impropriety no matter who looked on. After one such scene, General Grant’s wife swore she would never be in Mary Lincoln’s presence again. So the Grants had excused themselves from this night at the theater, as had half a dozen of the city’s eminent couples. This left the president of the United States and his First Lady to an outing with a junior officer and his date. It was galling to Lincoln, particularly on this night—when victory was in the air and the president was the toast of the Union. All of Washington knew that Mary’s antics kept her husband from the honor due him, and they marveled at Lincoln’s love for his wife.
Still, it had been a good day. After breakfast and the usual early visitors, there had been a cabinet meeting, this one attended by the victorious General Grant. As always when Lincoln’s cabinet assembled, there was fierce debate. Today, the topic was the way Confederate leaders should be treated after the war and what economic aid ought to be offered to the Southern states. Lincoln listened, commented almost absentmindedly from time to time, and then turned with eagerness to General Grant. The president was desperate to know: What had it been like at Appomattox five days before? What kind of man was General Lee, and how had he handled himself in surrendering? With each word Grant spoke, Lincoln grew increasingly peaceful, ever more satisfied. There had been so much horror, so many years. He could be forgiven for reveling in the details of the end.
After a lunch with Mary, he had endured a series of still more meetings—with Vice President Johnson, with the assistant secretary of war, and with Nancy Bushrod, a former slave. Before the day’s paperwork was done, he had pardoned a deserter who had been sentenced to death. “I think the boy can do us more good above ground than underground,” he quipped.