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.

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It didn’t matter. When the president’s party entered the second-story viewing box reserved for them that evening, the orchestra’s conductor took note, raised his baton to interrupt the actors on stage, and signaled the start of “Hail to the Chief.” The more than sixteen hundred people in the theater exploded into applause. Lincoln bowed in response, his hand over his heart, and then bowed again when those below continued their grateful cheers.

Order returned and the play resumed. Not overly interested in the happenings onstage, the Lincolns quietly continued the flirty intimacy they had kindled earlier that afternoon.

“What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so,” Mary asked, referring to her grip on her husband’s hand.

“Why, she will think nothing about it,” he assured.

This teasing continued. Unnoticed was the figure who had just stepped through the outer door of the president’s box. The man was deliberate, even graceful in his movements. He locked the door behind him and then braced it shut with a board he had placed nearby during a visit to the theater earlier that day. Turning then to the inner door, he peered through a hole he had bored just hours before with his pocketknife. He could see what he needed to see: the back of the president’s head.

Unaware of the man and enjoying a newfound tenderness with his wife, Lincoln returned happily to the theme he and Mary had touched upon during their lovely afternoon carriage ride. In a gentle whisper, the president assured that after the war, “we will not return immediately to Springfield. We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest.”

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The figure at the door now stepped silently into the president’s box. He paused and took stock of the mere four feet between himself and the president. Slowly, smoothly, the man pulled a .44-caliber derringer pistol from his pocket and waited. He was listening for lines from the play on the stage below. They would signal his next move.

“We will visit the Holy Land,” Lincoln continued, leaning toward Mary so as not to disturb the others.

Now, hearing what he had been waiting for in an actor’s words, the stranger—himself an actor named John Wilkes Booth—stepped forward and lifted his pistol toward the president’s head.

In the sacred seconds that remained, Lincoln spoke again—before the assassin’s shot entered his brain just inches behind the left ear, before the blood and the confusion and the manhunts and the grief, before the ages took him and the great soul left its earthly home to hover over a nation still struggling to be born. Lincoln spoke once more.

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Stephen Mansfield
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