Lincoln’s last happy day
“No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”
— Henry Whitney, Abraham Lincoln’s friend
On the night of April 13, 1865, Washington, D.C., is ablaze with candlelight. It is Holy Thursday, and bonfires and skyrockets that have punctuated every night since the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House on April 9 have given way to a gentler illumination. Merchants have sold out of candles, now burning in the windows of nearly every residence and storefront in the city.
Isabella Wunderly, 19, who seven years later will become first lady of Wyoming, lives with her aunt and uncle in the district. She has recovered from an unhappy childhood—after her father died when she was 4, her mother couldn’t support her, so she was sent to live with relatives who treated her as a servant.
Those days, she wrote in her diary, were “marked by narrowness, repression, hard work, interrupted education, little pleasure or love.”
After the war arrived, she moved in with her mother’s brother Joseph Carey, chief justice of the Court of Claims in Washington. She finds it ironic that as the nation descended into internecine warfare, she was lifted into the capital’s society. What she saw of war was pageantry, fresh soldiers marching off. She would meet her future husband, then a Union officer, at a ball during the war.
Which is now over.
This night, Isabella takes a walk to look at the illumination.
“I can only say the whole thing has been a grand success,” she writes in her diary, “the most splendid ever known in this country or even in the world. Even the”—here, her usually crisp handwriting collapses into an illegible scrawl, as if meant to politely redact the name of a family of Grinches—“made a little light in their houses. Glory enough.”
If history records what Abraham Lincoln does that evening, I haven’t found it.
But that night, he tells his Cabinet the next day, he dreams the usual dream he “experienced preceding nearly every great and important event of the war.” Lincoln is on the water at night, in some kind of vessel, moving rapidly toward some fog-choked indefinite shore. He takes this as a good omen.
T he next day, Good Friday, may be one of the happiest of depressive Lincoln’s entire life. It starts with breakfast with his son Robert, who had joined the Union Army as part of Gen. Ulysses Grant’s staff in the closing weeks of the war.
According to Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who serves as dressmaker (she insists on calling herself a “modiste”) and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln in her 1868 memoir “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” (an early example of the proximity-to-greatness cash-in book), President Lincoln tells son Bob, who had entered holding a portrait of Robert E. Lee, that the rebel general has “a good face …. the face of a noble, noble brave man.”
Lincoln then turns to his son and tells him the “war is now closed, and we soon will live in peace with the brave men that have been fighting against us. I trust that the era of good feeling has returned . . . that henceforth we will live in peace.”
“His face was more cheerful than I had seen it for a long while, and he seemed to be in a generous, forgiving mood,” Keckley writes.
Lincoln meets with his Cabinet and General Grant at 11 a.m. and spends time assuring Grant all is well even though some of the Confederate forces under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina have yet to surrender. Lincoln reiterates his hope there would “be no persecution, no bloody work, after the war.”
Rebel leaders, he says, should not “expect he would take any part in hanging or killing” them. “Enough lives have been sacrificed,” he says. “We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union.”
Lincoln is clean-shaven on this occasion, his usual rumpled appearance replaced by a briskly groomed aspect. As they leave the meeting, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Attorney General James Speed talk about how well he looks. Stanton later writes that Lincoln seemed “more cheerful and happy” than ever before.
He recalls how the president “spoke very kindly of General Lee and others of the Confederacy,” expressing “in marked degree the kindness and humanity of his disposition, and the tender and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him.”
M ary Lincoln would remember they took their customary carriage ride through the streets of Washington that afternoon. She writes:
“During the drive he was so gay, that I said to him, laughingly, ‘Dear husband, you almost startled me by your great cheerfulness.’ He replied, ‘and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war, has come to a close’—and then added, ‘We must both be more cheerful in the future— between the war and the loss of our darling Willie [who recently died at the age of 11 after a battle with typhoid fever]—we have both been very miserable.’”
Returning to the White House, Lincoln encounters a group including his friend Illinois Gov. Richard Oglesby. Lincoln has them come into the White House, where he reads to them from a book called “Phoenixiana; or, sketches and burlesques,” written by California humorist George Derby under the pseudonym John Phoenix.
Lincoln is much taken by the silly book, and Oglesby remembers that the president ignores several summons to early dinner in order to read one more story. Finally, Oglesby said, “he got a sort of peremptory order that he must come to dinner at once” if the Lincolns were to make it to the theater for the curtain raising of “Our American Cousin.” (In fact, the presidential party will arrive after the play has started. The actors will pause while the band plays “Hail to the Chief.”)
After dinner, Lincoln meets briefly with Massachusetts U.S. Rep. George Ashmun, House Speaker Schuyler Colfax and journalist Noah Brooks. Brooks remembers Lincoln is “hopeful and buoyant concerning the condition of the country . . . full of fun and anecdotes, feeling especially jubilant at the prospect before us.”
Lincoln’s spirits were so high he didn’t really want to go to the theater that night but, he told bodyguard William Crook, who had been given the night off, “It has been advertised that we will be there, and I cannot disappoint the people.”
The carriage with the president and Mrs. Lincoln left the White House for the theater around 8 p.m. They make a stop to pick up guests Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris.
Meanwhile, around the corner from Ford’s Theatre at the Herndon House, four men sit around a table, plotting and muttering and dreaming of martrydom.