The days following Lee’s surrender were busy ones for President Lincoln. As he worked on his plans for reconstructing the Union, visitors remarked on his changed appearance; relieved of the terrible burdens of civil war, he seemed vibrant and renewed. On April 14 it was announced that he would attend a performance that evening of a light comedy, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
One of those who learn'ed of the President’s plans was 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth, a promising actor from a well-known theatrical family. Booth was an outspoken advocate of the Confederate cause—although he never carried his convictions to the point of joining the Southern forces—who for months had been conspiring with a small band of fanatics to bring down the Lincoln government. Now he decided this was his chance for vengeance. Meeting with his fellow plotters, he marked various officials for assassination; as his own target he selected the President.
Lincoln and his party arrived at Ford’s about nine p.m. and took their seats in the presidential box overlooking the stage. Booth, who as an actor had free run of the theater, was waiting, armed with a pistol. The President’s incompetent bodyguard left his post outside the backstage entrance to the box in order to see the performance. Just after ten o’clock, Booth slipped into the box and from point-blank range fired a single bullet into Lincoln’s head. The assassin then leaped to the stage, breaking his ankle as he landed, shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus shall it ever be for tyrants!”) and
staggered backstage. Mounting his waiting horse in an alleyway, he galloped off into the darkness. (Twelve days later, he would be tracked to his hiding place in a Virginia barn and mortally wounded.)
The stricken President was carried to a bed in a boardinghouse across the street from the theater. Doctors worked frantically but with fading hopes. Washington was plunged into shock as the news of the attack spread, and as reports came in of the wounding of Secretary of State William H. Seward by another of the conspirators. At the President’s bedside the all-night vigil continued. At 7:22 a.m. on April 15 Abraham Lincoln’s life flickered out.
Wrenching grief swept the nation. Southerners, too, mourned, sensing that their hopes for a true peace, with justice for all, had died along with Lincoln. On April 21 a funeral train, shown on the medal, carrying the slain President began a slow, week-long journey back to Springfield, Illinois, which he had left four years before to save the nation. Special services and slow-tolling bells marked the train’s arrival in major cities. In the countryside, uncounted thousands from every walk of life lined the tracks day and night to watch in silent mourning as the black-draped train drifted past. Walt Whitman spoke for all of them:
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.