The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth, and the Great American Tragedy

The Darkest Dawn: Lincoln, Booth, and the Great American Tragedy

by Thomas Goodrich


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While waves of laughter echoed through the theater, James Ferguson kept his eyes focused on Abraham Lincoln. Although the president joined the crowd with a ‘hearty laugh,’ his interest seemingly lay more with someone below. With his right elbow resting on the arm of his chair and his chin lying carelessly on his hand, Lincoln parted one of the flags nearby that he might see better.

As the laughter subsided, Harry Hawk stood on the stage alone with his back to the presidential box. Before he could utter another word, a sharp crack sounded. As the noise echoed throughout the otherwise silent theater, many thought that it was part of the play. But just as quickly, most knew it was not." —from Chapter Twelve

Among the hundreds of books published about the assassination of our 16th president, this is an exceptional volume.... [It captures] a you-are-there feeling...." —Frank J. Williams, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum, and member of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

It was one of the most tragic events in American history: The famous president, beloved by many, reviled by some, murdered while viewing a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington. The frantic search for the perpetrators. The nation in mourning. The solemn funeral train. The conspirators brought to justice. Coming just days after the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln has become etched in the national consciousness like few other events. The president who had steered the nation through its bloodiest crisis was cut down before the end, just as it appeared that the bloodshed was over. The story has been told many times, but rarely with the immediacy of The Darkest Dawn. Thomas Goodrich brings to his narrative the care of the historian and the flair of the fiction writer. The result is a gripping account, filled with detail and as fresh as today’s news.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253218896
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2006
Edition description: Annotated
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.07(d)

About the Author

Thomas Goodrich is author of Black Flag (IUP, 1995) and The Day Dixie Died: Southern Occupation, 1865–1866 (with Debra Goodrich). He lives in Topeka, Kansas.

Read an Excerpt

The Darkest Dawn

Lincoln, Booth, and the Great American Tragedy

By Thomas Goodrich

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2005 Thomas Goodrich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-21889-6



* * *

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 into dots and dashes and the dots and dashes into words and sentences. As a volunteer in the department, Kettles held a surprisingly important post for one so young. Battles won and lost, military movements, strategy, supplies, encampments, orders and counter-orders, all came rattling in on his telegraph receiver to be transcribed in pencil by the fourteen-year-old. When the clicking stopped and the scribbling was complete, the boy would then relay the message to his supervisor. If he deemed it important, Willie's boss then passed on the note to the undersecretary of war, who in turn delivered it to the office of the secretary of war if it was judged critical. Really urgent reports went straight to the president himself. Though an important task, like anything else, after weeks and months the job soon became mundane and monotonous. Each message meant more writing, more paper and pencils, more work, more war.

And then, shortly before 11 A.M. on April 3, 1865, Willie Kettles heard strange sounds coming in over the wires, sounds like he had never heard before. To untrained ears, the sounds seemed like just more clicks, but to the startled teenager, these were different. These were the sounds Willie and everyone else in the North had been praying to hear for the past four years. Snatching his note, the breathless young telegrapher raced to tell his boss.

Within seconds, the news was streaking down the corridors of the War Department. From there, the words burst through doors and flashed out windows to those on the streets below.

"The glorious news spread like a panic," wrote an excited newspaper reporter. "In a few minutes the park in front of the department was one dense mass of human beings, each one trying to see who could make the most noise. Old men cried for joy, while others hugged their companions as though they were crazed."

From the War Department, the startling words raced with the speed of wind. Noah Brooks was caught in the rush:

In a moment of time the city was ablaze with excitement the like of which was never seen before.... Almost by magic the streets were crowded with hosts of people, talking, laughing, hurrahing, and shouting in the fullness of their joy. Men embraced one another, "treated" one another, made up old quarrels, renewed old friendships, marched through the streets arm in arm, singing and chatting.... Bands of music, apparently without any special direction or formal call, paraded the streets, and boomed and blared from every public place.

"We cheered, yelled, sung, and turned everything upside down," added a delirious government clerk, Newton Ferree.

Among the city's black population, a jubilee soon erupted, with shouting, whooping, and dancing in the streets. At the local hospitals, wounded soldiers pulled themselves from their beds and sent up round upon round of cheers. As joyous as the celebration was throughout the capital, nowhere was it more explosive than where it had begun. There, the streets surrounding the War Department were completely jammed as everyone who was anyone—and many who were not—stepped forth to make a speech. Of all the dignitaries present, none was in greater demand than the secretary of war. Near tears, Edwin Stanton at last spoke:

In this great hour of triumph, my heart, as well as yours, is penetrated with gratitude to Almighty God for his deliverance of this nation. [Tremendous and prolonged cheering.] Our thanks are due to the President, [cheers,] to the Army and Navy, [cheers,] to the great commanders by sea and land, [cheers,] to the gallant officers and men who have periled their lives upon the battle field and drenched the soil with their blood. [Great cheers.]

When Stanton had finished, he presented Willie Kettles to the crowd. A tremendous roar arose, and demands of "Let us hear him!" "Have him speak!" were shouted, as if the adolescent were a great general responsible for the earthshaking news, rather than the mere messenger boy who had relayed it. When the crowd finally quieted, the shy and awkward child blurted out that he "couldn't speak, he felt so." No one seemed to mind, though, and another explosion of applause greeted the stumbling words.

Throughout Washington, the shouts and cheers of the people all but drowned out the din of shrill steam whistles, the blaring of bands, and the booming of cannons. So crazed by the news were the celebrants that the just-arriving report of a terrible sea disaster off Cape Hatteras in which five hundred lives were lost was treated as a "mere incident." Even pickpockets, normally the bane of large capital crowds, were all but ignored in the euphoria.

That evening, far from waning, the grand celebration intensified as tens of thousands of people poured into the streets. From every window and porch, from every building high and low, candles, lamps, and gas jets flooded the night with streams of light. Along the entire length of Pennsylvania Avenue, exploding rockets sent down a blinding array of dazzling colors, and from the roof of Grover's Theater, a "perfect storm" of fireworks was unleashed, turning night into day. As evening deepened and the sky blazed even brighter, the crowds grew even thicker.

"Thousands besieged the drinking-saloons, champagne popped everywhere, and a more liquorish crowd was never seen in Washington than on that night," revealed Noah Brooks.

"All who did not drink were intoxicated, and those who did, were drunk," laughed one reveler.

"The police allowed them to have their own way," reported the Washington Evening Star of the drunken celebrants. "[They] only arrested those who were committing flagrant outrages, or who were so much under the weather that they could not take care of themselves, and these in most cases, were taken to their homes—one party being taken home no less than three times."

There had never been anything like it before, and most imagined there would never be anything like it after. In an instant, all the pent-up emotions of four frustrating years of war were given vent. It was the moment that all in the North had prayed for, the sounds that many had died for:

The thunder of cannon; the ringing of bells; the eruption of flags from every window and housetop; the shouts of enthusiastic gatherings on the streets, all echo the glorious report, RICHMOND IS OURS!! Glory!!! Hail Columbia!!! Hallelujah!!! RICHMOND IS OURS!!!



* * *

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 at its leisure all the men and materiel needed to dash the last hope of the dying Confederacy. Sadly, City Point was also the perfect place to bring back the thousands of federal soldiers who had been maimed and crippled in this final attempt to crush the rebellion. Thus, in addition to the docks and warehouses that received the soldiers before they marched off to war, a great network of hospitals had sprung up to shelter the broken wrecks that came limping back again. For hundreds of men, this vast "white city" would be their last stop on earth. Except for a few fine words from their officers, and except for the satisfaction of seeing their names misspelled in hometown newspapers, there was little recognition for the sacrifice these soldiers had made for their country.

George Huron was one of the men in the hospital still able to move under his own power. On April 8, 1865, he, like everyone else in his ward, was doing nothing special. The cheers and shouts of joy over the fall of Richmond were sweet but fading memories now. Glorious as the news had been, as far as Huron or anyone else around him could see, little had changed. The war continued. For George Huron and others less seriously wounded, as soon as they had healed properly they knew that they would be sent back into that war once again, to be shot and blasted to pieces, to be soaked, starved, and wracked with malaria and diarrhea, then brought back to this very same hospital to be healed yet again—if they were lucky. Until the war was finally ended, this is the most that Huron and the others could hope for.

And then, Huron turned his head toward the nearby landing at City Point. Above the normal hum of activity at the hospital, he heard something strange. "[M]y attention was attracted by cheering at the landing a mile away," the soldier remembered. "The cheering grew in volume—and like waves of the sea seemed to be rolling our way. Leaving the hospital I walked toward the landing and met an immense crowd of negroes."

Among the thousands of former slaves who had congregated at City Point for work and protection, it was as if Moses or Jesus had suddenly this day stepped onto their shore, so great was their surprise and awe. Indeed, for many of these ragged, pathetic people, Abraham Lincoln was more than the above—he was the Great Deliverer, a being of mythological goodness and power.

"His progress ... seemed almost impossible," said Huron as he watched the noisy spectacle approach:

Another old matron dropped upon her knees and clasped her hands in adoration. The President stopped, laid his hands upon her head and said: "Don't do that, I am only a man." Then Mr. Lincoln essayed to speak. An instant hush fell upon the multitude, while he briefly told them that he had come to City Point to personally visit the hospitals, and do what he could for the brave wounded soldiers who, by their valor, had made freedom possible to the slaves. Waving his hand towards the White City he said: "There brave men are suffering,—some of them are dying,—and while I am glad to meet you, duty calls me yonder." The tumult had ceased,—and those who a moment since had been wild in expressing their joy, bowed their heads and silently returned to their camps.

When word spread that the president was coming, excitement raced through the entire hospital. All those who were able stepped outside and quietly formed weak and feeble lines along the walkway.

"Mr. Lincoln passed along in front, paying personal respect to each man," wrote one admiring soldier. "'Are you well, sir?' 'How do you do to-day?' 'How are you, sir?' looking each man in the face, and giving him a word and a shake of the hand as he passed."

When several proud medical directors tried to steer the president toward an inspection of their facilities, they were cut short. "Gentlemen," smiled Lincoln, "you know better than I how to conduct the hospitals, but I have come here to take by the hand the men who have achieved our glorious victories."

After meeting with the men outside, Lincoln and those in his group moved indoors. There, the horrors of war were visible at every turn. "We passed before all the wounded and amputated," said one aghast visitor in the presidential party. "Some had a leg cut off, some an arm. Amid this terrible mass of agony, not a cry nor a complaint."

"Is this Father Abraham?" asked one patient in critical condition. With a gentle grin and a good-natured reply, Lincoln assured the young man that it was.

It was not only the words that endeared Lincoln to his men; it also was his looks. The president, a friend noted, was a "plain, homely, sad, weary-looking man to whom one's heart warmed involuntarily because he seemed at once miserable and kind."

"But," added another observer, "the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up." And on this day Lincoln's face had reason to glow, for the end was now in sight.

When a soldier asked him when the war would end, the president thought for a moment, then assured the man it would all be over in six weeks. Scanning the acres of misery all about him, Abraham Lincoln would have liked nothing more than to tell these suffering men that the war was now over, and they all would be heading home soon. But he knew better. Richmond had fallen, and the end was near. But Richmond was not the Confederacy. Gen. Robert E. Lee was. And Lee had not surrendered. As Lincoln well knew, so long as the man who had baffled and bewildered the best the North could give remained at large, all Union victories would ring hollow. And of necessity, the visits to such places as City Point and its white city full of crippled and broken soldiers would continue indefinitely. When the exhausted president had finally finished his visit, he turned back to the landing whence he had come, where a vessel awaited his return to Washington. Among the patients in the hospital, however, the memory of this unexpected visit was something never to be forgotten.

"The men not only reverence and admire Mr. Lincoln, but they love him," wrote one lonely, lowly private describing the day. "May God bless him, and spare his life to us for many years."



* * *

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 federal army at Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, and Fredericksburg, nor was it the capital of the Confederacy that had routed the Union army at Chancellorsville, Second Manassas, and the Seven Days; it was Robert E. Lee and his magnificent Army of Northern Virginia that had done all these things. Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta, and every other city in the South might be stormed, but as long as the legendary "Gray Fox" marched and fought, the issue would always be in doubt.

Thus, one week after Richmond's fall, when news from Appomattox Court House reached the North, those who thought they had no more energy to celebrate quickly found out they were wrong. Unlike the earlier news, which arrived at midday on Monday, the latter came in the dead of night on Sunday, April 9, 1865, when most Americans were asleep.

At tiny Ottawa, Illinois, J. D. Caton was one of the few citizens still awake at 10 P.M. The wealthy judge was also one of the few men in America to have his very own telegraph office in his home. When he heard the startling news clattering over his receiver, Caton, oblivious to all dignity and decorum, ran pell-mell to a neighbor's house. In turn, the two excited men dashed away like schoolboys to the home of another friend. Together the three decided that the swiftest way to rouse the town was to illuminate their residences, which all stood on the north bank, high above the Illinois River. In twenty minutes the three homes on the bluff were ablaze with hundreds of sparkling candles. The owner of a house on the opposite shore soon understood, then responded in kind. From that point on, revealed a local correspondent, "the news spread like wild-fire."

Eighty miles to the east, the word raced through Chicago with even greater speed. Within minutes of hearing the news, an estimated one hundred thousand men, women, and children ignored the late hour and the Sabbath and jammed the public square to "shout, sing, laugh, dance, huzza, and cry for very gladness."

"As we write (1 a. m.)," a newsman milling in the crowd reported, "a band is promenading the streets playing national music, and all along our thoroughfares resound the shouts and cheers of an enthusiastic and excited multitude. Cannons are roaring, rockets are blazing, bonfires are burning."

At midnight, those locked in deep sleep in New York City were suddenly jarred awake. "Surrender of Lee's army, ten cents and no mistake," shouted newsboys "in their shrillest tones." Despite a cold drizzle, those in the metropolis were "electrified" by the news and rushed into the streets. With the dawn, far from diminishing, the demonstrations increased in frenzy as those who had slept soundly throughout the night joined the celebration.

"The news ... is from Heaven.... I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry," admitted poet James Russell Lowell.

In Detroit, the outburst of emotion was, said a viewer, "the most enthusiastic and joyous ever known here."


Excerpted from The Darkest Dawn by Thomas Goodrich. Copyright © 2005 Thomas Goodrich. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Omen
1. Three Electric Words
2. The White City
3. The Last Man
4. Star of Glory
5. The President and the Player
6. Sic Semper Tyrannis
7. Towards an Indefinite Shore
8. The Clown and the Sphinx
9. One Bold Man
10. A Night to Remember
11. Terror on Lafayette Park
12. The Last Bullet
13. Murder in the Streets
14. A Spirit So Horrible
15. The Darkest Dawn
16. Hemp and Hell
17. This Sobbing Day
18. Black Easter
19. A Double Disaster
20. In Dungeons Dreadful
21. The Wrath of God and Man
22. The Curse of Cain
23. The Mid-week Sabbath
24. Oh! Abraham Lincoln!
25. The Fox and the Hounds
26. Blade of Fate
27. The Bad Hand
28. The Hate of Hate
29. The Heart of Israel
30. Dust to Dust
31. Old Scores
32. The Living Dead
33. The Most Dreadful Fate
34. Beads on a String
Epilogue: The Haunted Stage

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