The Darkest Dawn
Lincoln, Booth, and the Great American Tragedy
Publication Year: 2005
Published by: Indiana University Press
Cover, Title Page, Copyright
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With the possible exception of one or two screaming infants, I was undoubtedly the most disgruntled and agitated person in the audience. While the excited, noisy chatter among the pre-teens and tour groups rose to a roar as the curtain call approached, I sat mostly mute. Deb and I had come to Washington the day before to conclude research on a book we’d been pounding out for nearly a year,...
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Prologue: The Omen
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Those who witnessed the phenomenon that day would never forget it. The sight was so sudden and unexpected that most could only look to the sky, then to their neighbors, then shake their heads in stony disbelief. Some, those of a religious strain, stared in awe and considered what they were witnessing as nothing short of a heavenly message sent from on high. Others in the throng, those earthbound...
Chapter One: Three Electric Words
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Click, click, clickity-clack. . . . click, click, click. . . . clickity-clack. Staccato sounds. It was as far from glory and honor as any man or boy could get. It was here at the War Department in Washington that news from the battlefields of the South first touched the North. Along with other employees, it was the job of a “bright-faced Vermont boy,” Willie Kettles, to translate the clicks and clacks...
Chapter Two: The White City
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Where the Appomattox and James rivers join, a long estuary is formed that eventually opens into Chesapeake Bay. Here, at the junction of the two streams, was situated City Point, Virginia. As a staging ground for Northern army operations directed at Richmond, Petersburg, and central Virginia, the site was nearly ideal. With supply lines safe and sound on the bay, the Union navy could disgorge...
Chapter Three: The Last Man
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For the past four years, the cry “On to Richmond!” had been heard throughout the North. And for the past four years, the cry had gone unheeded. Now, with the coveted prize finally in the Union’s grip, many realized that the grand goal had been illusory. When the shouting, speech-making, and band music had finally faded, most soon understood that it was not the city of Richmond that had thrashed the...
Chapter Four: Star of Glory
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Although many of the monuments, statues, and buildings would have been ornaments in any European capital, and although the promise of its future now seemed secure, by the spring of 1865 Washington, D.C., still remained a backward, rambling, shameless embarrassment on the world political map. Like a bejeweled but besotted harlot, the nation’s capital was at once both beautiful and ugly...
Chapter Five: The President and the Player
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It was a bright and breezy day on Charleston Harbor. The sea was stirred and choppy. Those assembled inside and along the crumbling brick walls of Fort Sumter might have seen vistas of billowing whitecaps covering the blue water of the bay had it not been for the hundreds of naval vessels. “A brilliant gathering of boats, ships, and steamers of every sort had assembled around the battered ruin of the fort,”
Chapter Six: Sic Semper Tyrannis
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If anyone had the slightest doubt that the Great Rebellion was all but over, the scene on Pennsylvania Avenue would have quickly cured them of their delusion. Cordoned by guards, more than four hundred Confederate officers captured in the recent fighting around Appomattox now trudged dejectedly through Washington.� As word spread, hundreds, then thousands, of curious citizens lined...
Chapter Seven: Towards an Indefinite Shore
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By late afternoon, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. When the couple had set out earlier, the day was sunny and the thermometer was reaching for seventy. Now a cold, raw wind came whistling down the streets from the north, and the dark clouds above portended rain.� Nevertheless, little or nothing could dampen the joy of the carriage ride. Following an inspection of the Montauk,
Chapter Eight: The Clown and the Sphinx
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Prior to the 4th of March last, he stood high in the esteem of the people of the United States. He was borne into the Vice Presidential chair by the votes of more than two millions of freemen; and up to the day on which he took the oath of office, not a word of reproach had ever been uttered against his character. But on the occasion of his inauguration. . . . [w]e all felt mortified and...
Chapter Nine: One Bold Man [Includes Image Plates]
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Like the man on a mission, impervious to his surroundings, John Wilkes Booth moved swiftly through the crowded streets of Washington. As the afternoon deepened, every minute now mattered. The life or death of his beloved Southern Confederacy rested on his shoulders and his alone. Stopping here on the Avenue to whisper with an intimate, hurrying there to an apartment where last-minute details...
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Chapter Ten: A Night to Remember
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Shortly before 8:30 p.m., as drizzle began to fall softly on Washington, a carriage halted outside the imposing facade of Ford’s Theater. Despite the weather, a large number of curious spectators were on hand, some to see the president, but most to view for themselves the man so much had been made of recently, Ulysses Grant. When the four occupants finally stepped down and into the light, however,...
Chapter Eleven: Terror on Lafayette Park
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As a servant in the Seward home, William Bell’s job was to ensure that the household ran smoothly. Among his many duties was screening those who called on the secretary of state. Since the carriage accident earlier in the month, the parade of friends, well-wishers, and the merely curious had been heavy, but with few exceptions most were turned away. Although he was slowly recovering, the secretary...
Chapter Twelve: The Last Bullet
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James Ferguson was upset. The saloonkeeper had not paid good money for two tickets to simply sit all evening and watch a thread-bare play that he knew almost by heart—he had come expressly to see with his own eyes the hero of the day, Ulysses S. Grant. Thus, while his female companion watched the play, for most of the night Ferguson’s restless eyes peered through opera glasses at the box directly...
Chapter Thirteen: Murder in the Streets
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Although word of the horrible deed spread from Ford’s moments after it occurred, it was only when the soldiers forced the frenzied, wild-eyed audience from the building that the city felt the full, chilling impact of the assassination. “Every man and woman in the theater rushed forth to tell it,” wrote a chronicler. “Some ran wildly down the streets, exclaiming to those they met, ‘The President is killed! The President is killed!’
Chapter Fourteen: A Spirit So Horrible
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A stroke from Heaven laying the whole of the city in instant ruins could not have startled us as did the word that broke from Ford’s Theater a half hour ago.¹ Thus wrote a dazed New York reporter, trying to describe the devastation the human mind suffered when it was forced to shift from happiness and hope to darkness and despair in only a heartbeat. With thousands of candles, lamps, and gas...
Chapter Fifteen: The Darkest Dawn
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As James Tanner neared the street his boarding house sat on, he found his steps increasingly slowed. Several hundred yards from the building itself, the twenty-one-year-old former soldier found his path blocked entirely. In contrast to the riotous mobs elsewhere, a ghostly silence pervaded the dense crowd that stood outside the Petersen house. Dismayed, yet determined to reach his room, Tanner edged...
Chapter Sixteen: Hemp and Hell
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Ironically, the one man in America whose job it was to have known of the tragic developments in the capital was one of the last to learn. While events swirled madly about him, newsman Noah Brooks lay in his room, oblivious to all, bedridden by a violent bout of flu. During the night, he and his roommate were aroused by the clatter of cavalry in the streets. Other than a dry joke about rebel raids...
Chapter Seventeen: This Sobbing Day
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With little or no respite, the rain that came with Lincoln’s death continued throughout the day in Washington on Saturday, April 15. Despite the downpour, the streets of the capital were crowded with citizens. Little was said. Faces full of sadness said all.¹ It was if the people were compelled by some mysterious force to join with others and mourn over a loss so profound that words were meaningless. Many...
Chapter Eighteen: Black Easter
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Unlike the day before, Sunday, April 16, 1865, broke bright and beautiful over the land. From Maine to Missouri, the dark clouds and rain that had seemingly engulfed the world gave way to warmth and sunshine. All the same, in the hearts and minds of millions, no amount of blue sky or green grass could erase the deep gloom of “Black Easter.” Across the nation, as if fleeing some great calamity, Americans...
Chapter Nineteen: A Double Disaster
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With much of the South’s infrastructure smashed by war, communications throughout the region were slowed to a crawl. News of Lincoln’s death took days, even weeks, to reach many in the fast-shrinking Confederacy. As a rule, federal-held territory along waterways was first to hear. In Virginia, a steamer on the James River spread the word to both shores by displaying a huge placard on an upper deck...
Chapter Twenty: In Dungeons Dreadful
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While much of the stark horror and shock had lessened somewhat in the forty-eight hours following the assassination, the suspense in Washington was perhaps even greater than on the night of the murder. Rumors were rife. Most citizens felt that the full extent of the conspiracy was being withheld from a panicky public. Some believed that not only Lincoln, but most of his cabinet and many top political and...
Chapter Twenty-One: The Wrath of God and Man
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Shocked, stunned, saddened by the daring deed at Ford’s Theater, millions of ordinary citizens willingly and eagerly joined the largest manhunt in American history. “Let each man resolve himself into a special detective policeman,” urged the New York Herald, “sparing no vigilance or labor until these detested wretches are hunted down and secured for justice. It is a duty which every man owes to...
Chapter Twenty-Two: The Curse of Cain
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While Americans, with visions of vengeance and fabulous wealth, scanned the faces and scrutinized the actions of strangers on trains, boats, and city sidewalks hundreds of miles from Washington, the object of their search was only a proverbial stone’s throw from Ford’s Theater. On the ground, in a tangle of pines, surrounded by a swamp, near Port Tobacco in his native state of Maryland, lay...
Chapter Twenty-Three: The Mid-week Sabbath
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At noon on April 19, the doors to the White House were closed, and the formal funeral for Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States, began. Because of space limitations in the East Room, only a relatively small group of individuals could be accommodated. In the twenty-four hours preceding the official ceremony, however, an estimated thirty thousand citizens had passed the body...
Chapter Twenty-Four: Oh! Abraham Lincoln!
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Early on Friday, April 21, after a prayer delivered by Phineas Gurley, the coffin was closed and the body of Abraham Lincoln was carried from the Capitol. One week after the assassination, the slain president at last began his long trip back to the home he had left four years before. Preceding the long column through the cold, rainy streets was a wedge-shaped detachment of cavalry.
Chapter Twenty-Five: The Fox and the Hounds
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Eight days have intervened since the shocking news of his assassination fell on their startled senses, but their sorrow and anguish abate not. Men walk about the streets with downcast brows and sad features, and . . . they refuse to be comforted.� So wrote the editor of the Chicago Tribune. What was true for Chicago was generally true for the rest of the North. In many ways, even eight days was not sufficient space for the shock to fully set in.
Chapter Twenty-Six: Blade of Fate
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He lay carelessly in the grass, stretched out on the thick, soft carpet that felt like velvet. It was a bright and warm spring day in northern Virginia. Above, the young leaves of an apple tree gave cool shade, and the fragrance from the snowy blossoms filled the air with a sweet perfume. Around him, the little children watched in fascination. Their staring eyes followed the needle of the compass as it dutifully...
Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Bad Hand
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In the dark morning hours of April 26, a column of cavalrymen drew up on the road just beyond the farm of Richard Garrett. Riding rapidly back along the line, Lieutenant Edward Doherty of the 16th New York ordered his men to draw their revolvers and move quietly through the gate. When the last trooper had passed in, the charge was sounded.� In a matter of moments, the thundering...
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Hate of Hate
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At 9 a.m. on April 26, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., was escorted by several detectives to the War Department for questioning prior to his confinement in the Old Capitol Prison. On the previous day, the eldest Booth brother had been arrested at the home of a relative in West Philadelphia. His nervous system already shattered by the narrow escape from Cincinnati and the abuse heaped upon his name,...
Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Heart of Israel
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On the morning of April 27, the Lincoln funeral train, draped in black cloth, left Buffalo, New York, and continued its slow journey west. Although an estimated one hundred thousand people, including a tearful Millard Fillmore and many Canadian visitors, passed the coffin as it lay in St. James Hall, the funeral was considered by many to be a failure.� Because Buffalo had earlier staged its own extravagant...
Chapter Thirty: Dust to Dust
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Late on the night of April 27, Lafayette Baker and his cousin Luther stepped from a small boat near the Old Arsenal in Washington. With the help of several men waiting by the river’s edge, oarsmen quietly gathered up an ungainly bundle and placed it onto a waiting cart. Silently, the procession moved off through the pitch-black darkness toward the nearby prison.¹ Throughout the day, the two Bakers had engaged...
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Chapter Thirty-One: Old Scores
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The April just closing has been crowded with memorable events. . . . Had ever any April more of alternating sunshine and gloom?� Thus wrote the editor of the St. Louis Democrat after reviewing in amazement the past thirty days. From the fall of Richmond to the burial of Lincoln, it seemed to many as if an eon had elapsed, and yet, when people looked back as did the above journalist, they found to...
Chapter Thirty-Two: The Living Dead
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On May 10, 1865, the same day that Jefferson Davis was captured in Georgia, the “trial of the century” began in Washington. The site chosen for the event was the prison at the Old Arsenal, located on a point of land where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers joined. Prior to that day, the only momentous event to occur on this spot had come in 1814, after Washington was captured and burned by the...
Chapter Thirty-Three: The Most Dreadful Fate
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Though the focus of Washington and much of the reunited nation was naturally on the trial taking place at the Old Arsenal prison, other events crowded in as summer deepened. Most heartening of all, at least to Northerners, was the entire collapse of the former Confederacy. Only scattered guerrilla bands and a remnant of regular soldiers in Texas and Indian Territory still held out. The imprisonment...
Chapter Thirty-Four: Beads on a String
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Dawn broke bright and clear, but exceedingly hot, in Washington on July 7, 1865. In contrast to typical Fridays in the throes of summer, the dusty streets of the capital were already astir with activity at an early hour. At the railroad station, noisy trains continued to unload hundreds of excited passengers, as they had throughout the night. Along the Potomac, ferries from Alexandria and points below brought...
Epilogue: The Haunted Stage
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“The curtain has fallen upon the most solemn tragedy of the nineteenth century,” wrote the relieved editor of the Washington National Intelligencer. “God grant that our country may never again witness such another one.”¹ As the words above attest, after four years of terrible war, which had ended on the most tragic note imaginable, Americans desperately longed to put the past behind...
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Many great folks had a hand in this book, some of whom went far beyond their job descriptions to help me. A special thank you goes out to Dr. John Sellers at the Library of Congress, not only for making available the heretofore unpublished Horatio Nelson Taft diary but also for his friendship and critical comments upon reading the manuscript; Suzanne Kelly and the late Mike Maione at Ford’s Theater,...
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Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 20 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2005