Abraham Lincoln

The Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial Dedication Birds Eye

To the average visitor, the Lincoln Memorial appears to be a timeless part of the National Mall. However, this classical commemoration to the sixteenth president was dedicated less than one hundred years ago, in the presence of Civil War veterans, Robert Todd Lincoln, two Presidents and a crowd of thousands. 

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth's Abduction Plot Gone Wrong

The story is well known: on April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln died the next morning in a boarding house across from the theater. Booth escaped – temporarily -- but was shot 12 days later in Virginia. 

What is lesser known is that Booth did not always plan on killing Lincoln. In fact, the actor’s original plan was not to strike a fatal blow. He wanted to abduct Lincoln, take him to Richmond and exchange him for Confederate soldiers then held in Union prisons.

Ford's Theatre sign. (Credit: Flick user @mr_t_in_dc Licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic)

The Curtain Rises Again at Ford's Theatre

As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, President Lincoln wasn’t the only victim when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. There were several others who were victimized that night – some hauntingly so. What sometimes gets lost, though, is the impact of the assassination on the theater itself.

Cipriano Ferrandini addresses other members of the Baltimore plot. Image orginally printed in From The Spy of the Rebellion, by Allan Pinkerton, 1883. (Source: Maryland State Archives)

The Thwarted Plot to Kill Lincoln on the Streets of Baltimore

Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency on November 6, 1860, was the catalyst for vehement anger in the South, where the wave of secession had already begun to stir. The anger at the president-elect became so great that several conspirators vowed he would never reach the capitol to be inaugurated.

By many accounts, Lincoln was aware but unmoved by the threats that rose around him in early 1861 as he prepared to relocate from his home in Springfield, Illinois to the White House. He planned a grand 2000-mile whistle stop tour that would take his train through seventy cities and towns on the way to his inauguration. He was sure to be greeted by thousands of well-wishers, but a more sinister element was also gathering.

Bread Kneaded on Capitol Hill

Union soldiers billeted at the Capitol practice drills in 1861. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

As congressmen convened for a special session in July of 1861, they were welcomed into the Capitol by the smell of baking bread. Just months into the Civil War, the building had already seen thousands of troops pass through its doors, and now it was the site of one of the largest bakeries the world had ever known. Twenty ovens, each with the capacity of holding hundreds of loaves of bread, were housed in the basement, and multitudes of men spent hours tending yeast and kneading dough. Having been in recess for less than four months, the congressmen were astounded, and some even annoyed, with this new mammoth bakery occupying their space. But a lot had changed for the country – and for the Capitol – in that short period of time.

Lincoln's Codebreakers

In a previous post, we looked at how Abraham Lincoln utilized the telegraph during the Civil War to supervise his generals in the field and gather intelligence--sometimes by scanning telegrams intended for other Washington recipients. But in addition to working closely with Lincoln, the War Department's team of telegraph operators--who were based at the present-day location of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House--also were pressed into service to perform another critical function in the war effort. They also worked as cryptographers, encoding sensitive communications for the Union side, and as codebreakers, deciphering intercepted letters sent by Confederate officials and spies.

In an age when the federal government and the national security establishment was vastly smaller than it is today, David Homer Bates and three other operators--Thomas T. Eckert, Charles A. Tinker, and Albert B. Chandler--basically functioned as the 19th Century equivalent of the Fort Meade, Md.-based National Security Agency, which has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 employees and an arsenal of supercomputers and other gadgetry at its disposal.

Lincoln's Secret Weapon: The Telegraph

Today, we Washingtonians rely upon Twitter, smart phones, and 24-hour cable news channels to continually fill our craving for information. But a century and a half ago, during the Civil War, the only source of instantaneous news from far away was the telegraph, and in Washington, there was only one place to get it: The Department of War's headquarters building, which stood at the present site of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. 

Before the war, amazingly, the government hadn't even possessed its own telegraph operation, instead relying upon the same commercial telegraph offices that civilians used.

Assassin's Cranium

Lewis Powell, the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William H. Seward, was prone to goof-ups. You might even say he had the tendency to lose his head.

As you know from our previous post, Powell was one of the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot. After his bloody rampage in the Seward home, Powell was tried and hanged along with three other conspirators on July 7, 1865. That should have been the end of the story, but it took over one hundred years for Powell's tale to come to an end.

Colorized photo of Lewis Powell.

Even More Little Known Victims of the Lincoln Assassination Plot

April 14th, 1865 was a pretty bad day for a lot of people. Lincoln was assassinated, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone had their lives torn apart, and Secretary of State William H. Seward was brutally stabbed along with most of his family and a few bystanders.

Oh, you hadn’t heard about that last one?

Booth and his co-conspirators’ plan was larger than just the assassination of Lincoln. Their plot included a number of top officials in the U.S. government whose death they hoped would bring the country to its knees. Lewis Powell, a twenty year old Confederate soldier, was chosen to assassinate the Secretary of State.

Luckily for the Sewards, Powell was probably the worst assassin in American history.

Little Known Victims of the Lincoln Assassination

Currier and Ives, The Assassination of Lincoln at Ford's Theater, April 14, 1865. (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

The events of April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre in Washington are well know. Actor John Wilkes Booth went into President Lincoln's box and shot him. The President was mortally wounded and died the next morning. Meanwhile, Booth led authorities on a 12 day chase that ended with his own death in Virginia. What you may not know, however, is that there were others were victimized that April night. This is their haunting story.