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Exclusions apply. And we continue with our American stories. Up next, the short, happy life of Abraham Lincoln. His final days. By all accounts, Good Friday, just two days before Easter on April 14, 1865, was the happiest day of President Abraham Lincoln's life. It had most certainly been the happiest few weeks of his life, according to James Swanson, author of the New York Times bestseller Manhunt. The 12 day chase for Lincoln's killer.
Here is what Swanson wrote. Lincoln had won the war. Richmond fell on April 3rd.
Lee surrendered on April 9th. And Lincoln gave his final speech from the White House grounds the evening of April 11th. The night before the night Lincoln was shot by his assassin, local newspapers reported it being the most beautiful night in the history of Washington as the city celebrated the ending of the bloodiest and costliest war ever fought on American soil.
Fireworks, flares, and other sources of every imaginable variety illuminated the evening sky. Again, James Swanson. One of the papers said that the Capitol dome was so beautiful that night that it looked like a second moon had descended upon the earth as a sign of God's favor for the union and for the victory. The very next morning, an idyllic spring morning on April 14, Lincoln met his son, who'd been working for General George Meade, and then he met with his cabinet. A rare visitor joined that last meeting Lincoln would ever hold with his staff, none other than General Ulysses S. Grant. They discussed affairs of state, and things ended with Lincoln sharing a dream he'd had the night before. In it, he was at the head of a mysterious vessel, moving towards a distant shore.
He was alone. Lincoln added that whenever he had that dream, and he'd had it many times before during the war, something of critical importance transpired. I'm convinced something of major significance is about to happen, Lincoln told his men. When the meeting ended, he and his bride Mary took a carriage ride to enjoy the open air and talk about matters of the heart.
Here again is James Swanson. During that ride, Lincoln told her he knew they'd been very unhappy ever since the death of their 11-year-old son Willie in the White House in 1862. The death count in the Civil War, over 600,000, had taken its toll on Lincoln, too.
It had been a crushing burden on him, and the two of them had grown apart during the war for so many reasons. He told Mary, we must be happy again. Mary even wrote a note later that day about her husband's rejuvenated spirit.
You alarm me, she said, because I have never seen you this happy since just before the death of our child. Just two days before Easter, the day Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Lincoln had experienced a resurrection of his own. That night, he and Mary attended Our American Cousin, a popular comedy of the day by British playwright Tom Taylor.
The couple arrived at Ford's Theatre 30 minutes late, and the play was stopped immediately as the band rose and played Hail to the Chief. The crowd went wild. They were celebrating their great leader. They were also celebrating the end of a terrible war. They too had borne the heavy burden of the greatest conflict on American soil.
They too had the feeling of being reborn. That moment may well have been the happiest of Lincoln's life. On the day that marked a new and happy beginning to Lincoln's life and the nation's, John Wilkes Booth was plotting to make it the president's last. Here's James Swanson on Booth. The 26-year-old was one of the most popular actors in America, exceedingly handsome and athletic.
Women and men would stop in the street to watch him as he passed. Generous, vain, funny, egomaniacal, politically motivated to be a lover of the South, and a supporter of slavery who once said, slavery is the best thing that ever happened to the black man. On the day Lincoln gave his last speech from the White House grounds, Booth was present, seated not far from him. When Lincoln spoke to the adoring crowd about giving blacks the right to vote, Booth turned to a Confederate sympathizer. He knew well and said, that's the last speech he'll ever give. It turns out Booth had considered killing Lincoln before. At the president's second inaugural address, he sat a mere 50 feet from the man he hated. Here's James Swanson. Getting drunk at a bar shortly after that, Booth pounded his fist on the table and said to a friend, what an excellent chance I had to kill the president on Inauguration Day.
He was almost as close to me as you are now. Then came the catalyst that drove Booth into action. While visiting Ford's Theatre midday to pick up his mail, a woman told the actor that Lincoln was attending the play that night. That, according to James Swanson, set off the imaginary clock counting down in Booth's head. What motivated one of the leading actors of his day to do such a thing?
Again, James Swanson. Lincoln was an American Caesar to Booth. He wanted to punish Lincoln the tyrant. He hoped to change history, and of course, he wanted eternal fame. He had it in his lifetime, but Booth wanted to be immortalized as a southerner and ultimately an American patriot.
The rest of the story, what Herman Melville called that bloody awful night, is embedded in the American memory. The details of the assassination notwithstanding, what Booth did that night was what James Swanson called a new art form, performance assassination. Booth wasn't on a suicide mission. He had an actual escape plan. What he really wanted, Swanson noted, was to be seen and celebrated. Again, here's James Swanson. When he crept to the president's box and shot Lincoln and jumped to the stage of Ford's Theatre, Booth wasn't wearing a disguise.
He hadn't shaved his mustache. He did nothing to conceal himself when he turned to the audience and faced them and cried out the state motto of Virginia. That motto, sic semper tyrannis, is a Latin phrase meaning thus always to tyrants. Those words were followed by the last words Booth ever uttered on an American stage. The South is avenged. As he left the stage, he exulted to himself and only few people heard it.
I have done it. Booth then escaped to the back of the theater, jumped on his waiting horse and rode off into the night. The largest manhunt in American history ensued. Booth was found 12 days later outside of Port Royal, Virginia, trapped in a tobacco barn. The cavalry set the building on fire to force him out.
When he reached for his rifle and headed for the door, Sergeant Boston Corbett pulled his pistol and fired only once, striking Booth in the neck and severing his spine. He would die within hours, a slow, miserable death. Back at Ford's Theatre on Good Friday, America's beloved president lay dying in his box. He was attended by three doctors who had concluded quickly that the wound was mortal and that the theater was simply not an appropriate place for a man like him to die. So those men carried him from his box down the stairs and into the street, looking for a place to make the President of the United States as comfortable as he possibly could be in the few hours of life he had left to live.
A person staying at the Peterson House just across the street from Ford's Theatre was quick to help. The doctors rushed Lincoln in and took him directly to the back of the bedroom where he died the next morning on April 15th. As he died that night, a light cold rain began to fall over Washington. It was as if the very heavens wept at the loss of our beloved president. Thus ended the short happy life of the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. The opening stanza of Walt Whitman's epic poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, captured the nation's grief in ways mere prose could not. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed And the great star early drooped In the western sky in the night I mourned and yet shall mourn With ever returning spring Ever returning spring Trinity sure to me you bring Lilac blooming perennial And drooping star in the west And thought of him I love. The short happy life of President Abraham Lincoln.
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