Photo Credit: US National Parks Service
In a bit of a departure from our normal material, the Finest Bagels Founders would like to introduce a new “Sunday Travels” series. These occasional entries will describe the recent adventures of one of our staff writers, while remaining true to our mission of being informative and well researched. In the first of these entries Tom Warwick explores the days leading up to the Lincoln assassination, and reflects on the changing tone of our national politics.
“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” – Inscription above Lincoln Memorial
It was one of the hottest days of the year. I had chosen to wear jeans and my Captain America t-shirt. The Metro was delayed on the tracks. The air conditioner was not working. This trip was off to a less than ideal start. Yet, I was undeterred. The reason why I was sitting sweating in the muggy, hellish, swamptown that could only be DC in the Summer was a childhood obsession with our 16th President and a long tradition of not following through on plans to visit some of DC’s lesser known landmarks. Living within an hour of Washington, there was really no reason not to make the journey to the historic destinations, popular and off the beaten path, that I have read about or seen in documentaries on the History Channel. But due to one reason or another I always found a reason not to make the drive out. This time would be different, throwing my cap over the wall I purchased the non-refundable tickets. Today’s self-prescribed mission was to trace the final steps of Abe Lincoln from his second inaugural to his assassination and ultimate death.
My journey started at the steps of the east side of the Capitol Building. Under the watchful eyes of the Capitol Police, I stared up at the steps and tried to picture the scene that would have taken place over one hundred and fifty years ago. At the time Lincoln’s reelection was far from a sure thing. Despite our reverence for the great man today, in the months leading up to his election there was no guarantee he would be reelected. Even Lincoln himself expected that he would not win (Goodwin, 2013). However, due to some well timed Union victories, the voters faith in the President was restored and Lincoln won in a landslide. Come inauguration day Lincoln stood victoriously before a nation only weeks away from the end of years of bloody war. Most in attendance expected him to “celebrate his victory at the polls and the Union’s imminent victory in the war.” (Goodwin, 2013). Instead, Lincoln delivered a humble vision for a new America. An America “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” we would “strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds” and “do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations” (Lincoln, 1864). As I read these words on my iPhone, blinded by the sun reflecting off of the Capitol dome, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. Lincoln communicated in just over seven hundred words a message of faith, hope, and forgiveness that is almost entirely lacking in our current political theater. When did we lose “the voices of our better angels” and gain “the best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics.”
A few minutes latter the screams of a six year old, who obviously was not enjoying this silent reflection as much as I was, jerked me back into my surroundings. As I began to leave I stopped to look up at the steps one more time, but this time I was looking for a different location. The spot I was looking for was about 15 feet from where Lincoln delivered his speech, where an enraged John Wilkes Booth would have stood already plotting the assassination of the man before him. I began to make my way to a location where I felt much more at home, a bar. Or rather where a bar once stood. After witnessing the President’s inaugural address and knowing the Confederacy’s days were numbered, Booth was determined to give the South a second chance. He believed that by decapitating the US Government he could create anarchy and allow Dixie to reorganize (Goodwin, 2005). Using Mary Surratt’s boarding house and bar as their base of operation, John Wilkes Booth, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Lewis Powell plotted to assassinate the three top ranking US officials: President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Henry Seward (Goodwin, 2005). After Powell failed to kill Secretary Seward, he would flee back to this same boarding house where Ms. Surratt would eventually give him up to authorities. Both would be arrested and sentenced to death, making Surratt the first woman executed by the US Government. Today the Surratt boarding house is a karaoke restaurant located just inside Chinatown. Tens of people eat and sing terrible renditions of “don’t go breaking my heart” wondering why that nerd in the Captain America t-shirt keeps looking around the place and writing stuff in his notebook. I smile to myself wondering what their reactions might be if they really know the history of this place.
After enjoying a delightful lunch of spicy tuna and a few renditions of Hall and Oates’ “you make my dreams come true” at the aforementioned karaoke restaurant, I once again embarked on my recreation of that long ago April day. My next stop was to the White House, where President Lincoln began his last day with a “leisurely breakfast in the company of his son Robert” and a “regularly scheduled Friday cabinet meeting” (Goodwin, 2005). Lincoln would have been in high spirits, the weight of the last four years being slowly lifted from his shoulders. He and Mary were planning to spend the evening at the Theater with General and Mrs. Grant, who had arrived in Washington just that morning. Meanwhile across town, Booth and his fellow conspirators were located in the Star Tavern, just next door to Ford’s Theatre. Booth, being a celebrated actor and a friend of the Ford’s staff, received word that a letter had been sent to the theatre confirming Lincoln’s intentions to come that night (Goodwin, 2005). The conspiracy would be set in motion for that night, the triple assassinations were set for 10:15pm (Goodwin, 2005).
As I walked towards the entrance to Ford’s theatre, via the museum, I looked at the walls lined with a timeline of the events of April 14th, 1865. With a flair towards the dramatic (this is still a working theater after all) the sound of a clock ticking away plays as you, much like Booth, silently approach, waiting for a view inside the Presidential box. As I turn the corner and the stage comes into focus I can feel a morbid sense of awe come over me. The crime scene has been cold for over a hundred years, but the ghost still remain. Booth would have taken a similar path to the one I just walked. Using his celebrity status, Booth wormed his way past the lone guard stationed at the entrance to Lincoln’s box. Once inside he took out his single shot Deringer, took deadly aim, and pulled the trigger. As Lincoln slumped forward, Booth leaped from the box on to the stage that I now stood in front of. Raising a silver dagger to the sky, Booth, echoing the Roman Brutus, declared “Sic semper tyrannis” — Thus always to tyrants. Booth would flee the theater and a few days later was killed by the Union Soldiers pursuing him. After leaving the theater, I traced the path of a then mortally wounded Lincoln across the street to the three story brick Petersen House. Surrounded by members of the Cabinet (less Stewart who was himself fighting for his life), members of the military brass, and the First Lady, Lincoln died at 7:22am the next morning. At the time of his death Secretary of War Edwin Stanton stood and declared to the grief stricken room “He now belongs to the ages” (Goodwin, 2005).
I had originally intended to end my field trip at the Petersen House but I considered it and thought that a trip to the Lincoln memorial might be a more appropriate end to the day. I climbed the stairs and the face of the great man came into view. The words of his second inaugural address are memorialized, larger than life, on the wall to the President’s left. Just as I had that morning I repeated the words to myself and thought about them for a bit. Lincoln was facing a type of crisis that is almost unfathomable today. After Mr. Trump won the Republican Nomination for President I purchased a bottle of Trump winery chardonnay and jokingly “toasted the fall of the republic” with John and Winston. Lincoln was actually confronted with the possibility of the fall of the republic. Yet he preceded not by villainizing those who disagreed with him, on the contrary he appointed his four biggest rivals for the nomination to his cabinet (Goodwin, 2005). He didn’t shrink away from the burden of failure, he openly accepted his shortcomings and worked to fix them. And he didn’t call for vengeance against the enemy, he blamed both sides for the sins of slavery and offered a path forward (Goodwin, 2005). This type of measured substance is missing from the national dialogue today. Instead we get calls to “build a wall,” to deny people entry into the country based off of their religious preferences, and snappy soundbites. I am not so nostalgic to fool myself into thinking that Lincoln lived in some simpler, more agreeable time; there was no such time in American history. I merely believe that in the face of overwhelming odds America’s best hope is not to cast one person against another. Rather, we should remember Lincoln’s words in this “stormy present, an occasion piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.
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