President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

History is full of emotion. From the anger present in American households after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to the elation at hand when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, emotion walks hand-in-hand with history.

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater is no different. Journeying through the diary of Horatio Nelson Taft provides a front row seat to the emotion experienced as a nation’s hero fell under an enemy’s gun.

Nelson was uniquely situated to comment on Lincoln’s assassination. Not only was he able to have his own interactions with the president as a United States patent Office examiner, his son Charles was a physician in attendance at Ford’s Theater on that fateful April night. The two accounts combined, Taft’s diary offers a chilling account of a day which stood still for many. 1

At 10:30 p.m. on April 14, 1865, Taft first noted Lincoln’s assassination. “O, fatal day. O, noble Victim,” he writes after he confirmed Lincoln’s shooting. “Treason has done its worst.”

It is not until 16 days later that Taft addressed the raw emotion of Lincoln’s death. Writing again on April 30, 1865, Taft described the setting, and John Wilkes Booth’s preparations, in intricate detail:

This Box was in the 2nd Tier and entered from the Dress circle through a narrow corridor some three feet wide and eight or ten long. There was a door at the dress circle end and at the other end there were two doors, one for each Box but now the two Boxes being thrown into one, one of the doors was closed. The other was open, and all of them unguarded. The assassin J Wilkes Booth had made his arrangements in the most deliberate manner (probably during that day). He had fixed a bar across the door leading into the dress circle and had cut a hole through the closed door leading to the Box, which enabled him to see the exact position of the President and others in the Box without being seen himself.

Taft used similar detail to describe the actual assassination:

At about ½ past 10, he entered the corridor from the Dress circle, bared the door to prevent any one from entering, examined the position of Mr Lincoln through the hole in the closed door. Then entered the Box behind all who were there (as they were looking toward the stage) and standing within three or four feet of Mr Lincoln, Shot him in the back of the head. The ball entering about two inches from the left ear near the base of the skull and lodging in the brain about two inches back of the right eye. His head was probably inclined forward at the time. The Murderer rushed to the front of the Box with a dagger in his hand. Major Rathbone caught his coat but Booth struck him on the arm with the dagger wounding him severely, which compelled him to let go his hold. Booth vaulted over the front of the Box and as he did so exclaimed “Sic Semper Tyranis” (Thus To Tyrants).

A rendering of Lincoln's box at Ford's Theater

A rendering of Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater

Taft’s son, Charles, was one of the first physicians to the scene. On the ground below the president’s box, he “was lifted up from the Stage to the Box by those present.” Charles found the president lying on the floor, unresponsive “in attempts to revive him.”

At 7:22 a.m. the next morning, Lincoln’s “pulse ceased to beat.” At that moment, Taft’s son “had his hand on [Lincoln’s] heart” and reported that “it fluttered or trilled 10 seconds longer.”

The real emotion, however, shows as Taft described the scene surrounding Lincoln’s death. Approaching the fateful moment, an “utmost stillness had prevailed in the room, not a word, not a whisper was heard.” He wrote that “when Mrs L went in and saw her husband [after he died] she fainted and was carried out insensible.”

True sadness is present as Taft focused on the tale of Lincoln’s own son, Thaddeus, learning of his father’s death. Waiting at the White House for his parents to return, he met his mother at the portico. “Where is my Pa?” he asked, unaware of his father’s passing. Learning the fateful news, Taft described Thaddeus as unleashing an “agony of grief” as he worried that his mother would be next to die.

Dr. Phineas Gurley

Dr. Phineas Gurley

Taft’s final words in his April 30 entry focus on what a friend, Dr. Phineas Gurley, told him as they returned to Taft’s house. The doctor, a man who was present at Lincoln’s bedside and when Thaddeus learned of his father’s death, “felt as though I had been engaged all night in a terrible Battle and had just strength enough to drag myself off the field.”

Taft never explained the 16-day gap in his journal from when he learned of the president’s shooting to his comprehensive account. It is simple to speculate, however, that Taft was profoundly affected by his president’s death and simply could not bring himself to write just as David Letterman wondered if comedy still had a place in a post-September 11 world.

Luckily, he found the will to write on April 30 and left us with an account of Lincoln’s assassination that is describes the scene in stark detail and is raw in emotion.

Notes:

  1. Washington During the Civil War: the Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, March 5, 2014, http://www.loc.gov/collection/diary-of-horatio-taft/about-this-collection/