The Diary of Gideon Welles
THE DEATH OF LINCOLN
Friday, [April] 14, .
LAST night there was a general illumination in Washington, fireworks, etc. To-day is [celebrated] the anniversary of the surrender of Sumter, and the flag is to be raised by General Anderson.
General Grant was present at the meeting of the Cabinet to-day, and remained during the session. The subject was the relations of the rebels, communications, trade, etc. Stanton proposed that intercourse should be opened by his issuing an order, that the Treasury would give permits to all, who wished them, to trade, excluding contraband, and [that] he, Stanton, would order the vessels to be received into any port. I suggested that it would be better that the President should issue a proclamation stating and enjoining the course to be pursued by the several Departments.
McCulloch expressed a willingness to be relieved of the Treasury agents. General Grant expressed himself very decidedly against them, thought them demoralizing, etc. The President said we, i. e., the Secretaries of Treasury, War, and Navy, had given the subject more attention than he had, and he would be satisfied with any conclusion we would unite upon. I proposed to open the whole coast to any one who wished to trade, and who had a regular clearance and manifest, and was entitled to a coast license. Stanton thought it should not extend beyond the military lines, [which] General Grant thought might embrace all this side of the Mississippi.
Secretary Stanton requested the Cabinet to hear some remarks which he desired to make, and to listen to a proposition or ordinance which he [had] prepared with much care and after a great deal of reflection for reconstruction in the rebel states. The plan or ordinance embraced two distinct heads, one for asserting the federal authority in Virginia, — the other for re-establishing a state government. The first struck me favorably with some slight emendations — the second seemed to me objectionable in several essentials, and especially as in conflict with the principles of self-government, which I deem essential. There was little said on the subject, for the understanding was that we should each be furnished with a copy for criticism and suggestion, and in the mean time we were requested by the President to deliberate and carefully consider the proposition. He remarked that this was the great question now before us, and we must soon begin to act. Was glad Congress was not in session.
I objected that Virginia occupied a different position from that of any other state in rebellion; that while regular state governments were to be established in other states, whose secession governments were nullities and would not be recognized, Virginia had a skeleton organization which she had maintained through the war, which government we had recognised and still recognised; that we to-day acknowledged Pierpont as the legitimate Governor of Virginia. He had been elected by only a few border counties it was true, had never been able to enforce his authority over but a small portion of the territory or population; nevertheless we had recognised and sustained him.
The President said the point was well taken. Governor Dennison said he thought we should experience little difficulty from Pierpont. Stanton said none whatever.
I remarked [that] the fact was not to be controverted, that we had treated with the existing government and could not ignore our own acts. The President and a portion of the Cabinet had, in establishing the new state of West Virginia, recognised the validity of the government of Virginia, and of Pierpont’s administration which had given its assent to that division. Without that consent, no division could legally have taken place. I had differed with others in that matter, but consistency and the validity of our own acts required us to continue to acknowledge the existing government. It was proper we should enforce the federal authority, and it was proper we should aid Governor Pierpont, whose government was recognised and established. In North Carolina a legal government was now to be organised and the state reestablished in her proper relations to the Union.
Enquiry had been made as to army news on the first meeting of the Cabinet, and especially if any information had been received from Sherman. None of the members had heard anything, and Stanton, who makes it a point to be late, and who has the telegraph in his department, had not arrived. General Grant, who was present, said he was hourly expecting word. The President remarked it would, he had no doubt, come soon, and come favorably, for he had last night the usual dream which he had preceding nearly every great and important event of the war. Generally the news had been favorable which succeeded this dream, and the dream itself was always the same. I enquired what this remarkable dream could be. He said it related to your (my) element — the water — that he seemed to be in some singular indescribable vessel, and that he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore. That he had this dream preceding Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stone River, Vicksburg, Wilmington, etc. General Grant said Stone River was certainly no victory, and he knew of no great results which followed from it. The President said [that] however that might be, his dream preceded that fight.
“ I had,” the President remarked, “ this strange dream again last night, and we shall, judging from the past, have great news very soon. I think it must be from Sherman. My thoughts are in that direction as are most of yours.”
[Monday, April 17, 1865.]
I write this conversation three days after it occurred, in consequence of what took place Friday night, and but for which the mention of this dream would probably have never been noted. Great events did indeed follow, for within a few hours the good and gentle, as well as truly great man who narrated his dream, closed forever his earthly career.
I had retired to bed about half-past ten on the evening of the 14th of April, and was just getting asleep, when Mrs. Welles, my wife, said some one was at our door. Sitting up in bed, I heard a voice twice call to John, my son, whose sleeping room was on the second floor directly over the front entrance. I arose at once and raised a window, when my messenger, James Smith, called to me that Mr. Lincoln, the President, had been shot, and said Secretary Seward and his son, Assistant Secretary Frederick Seward, were assassinated. James was much alarmed and excited. I told him his story was very incoherent and improbable, that he was associating men who were not together and liable to attack at the same time. Where, I enquired, was the President when shot. James said he was at Ford’s Theatre on Tenth Street. “Well,” said I, “ Secretary Seward is an invalid in bed in his house yonder on Fifteenth Street.” James said he had been there — stopped in at the house to make enquiry before alarming me.
I immediately dressed myself, and against the earnest remonstrance and appeals of my wife went directly to Mr. Seward’s, whose residence was on the east side of the square, mine being on the north. James accompanied me. As we were crossing Fifteenth Street, I saw four or five men in earnest consultation, standing under the lamp on the corner by St. John’s Church. Before I had got half across the street, the lamp was suddenly extinguished and the knot of persons rapidly dispersed. For a moment, and but [for] a moment, I was disconcerted to find myself in darkness; but recollecting that it was late and about time for the moon to rise, I proceeded on, not having lost five steps — merely making a pause without stopping. Hurrying forward into Fifteenth Street, I found it pretty full of people, — especially so, near the residence of Secretary Seward, where there were very many soldiers as well as citizens already gathered.
Entering the house, I found the lower hall and office full of persons, and among them most of the foreign legations, all anxiously enquiring what truth there was in the horrible rumors afloat. I replied that my object was to ascertain the facts. Proceeding through the hall to the stairs, I found one, and I think two, of the servants there holding the crowd in check. The servants were frightened and appeared relieved to see me. I hastily asked what truth there was in the story that an assassin or assassins had entered the house and assaulted the Secretary. They said it was true, and that Mr. Frederick was also badly injured. They wished me to go up, but no others. At the head of the first stairs I met the elder Mrs. Seward, who was scarcely able to speak but desired me to proceed up to Mr. Seward’s room. I met Mrs. Frederick Seward on the third story who, although in extreme distress, was, under the circumstances, exceedingly composed. I asked for the Secretary’s room, which she pointed out—the south-west room. As I entered, I met Miss Fanny Seward, with whom I exchanged a single word, and proceeded to the foot of the bed. Dr. Verdi and, I think, two others were there.
The bed was saturated with blood. The Secretary was lying on his back, the upper part of his head covered by a cloth which extended down over his eyes. His mouth was open — the lower jaw dropping down. I exchanged a few whispered words with Dr. V[erdi]. Secretary Stanton, who came after but almost simultaneously with me, made enquiries in a louder tone till admonished by a word from one of the physicians. We almost immediately withdrew, and went into the adjoining front room where lay Frederick Seward. His eyes were open but he did not move them, nor a limb, nor did he speak. Doctor White, who was in attendance, told me he was unconscious and more dangerously injured than his father.
As we descended the stairs, I asked Stanton what he had heard in regard to the President, that was reliable. He said the President was shot at Ford’s Theatre, — that he had seen a man who was present and witnessed the occurrence. I said I would go immediately to the White House. Stanton told me the President was not there. He said it was his intention [to go], and asked me if I had not a carriage to go with him. In the lower hall we met General Meigs,2 whom he requested to take charge of the house, and to clear out all who did not belong there. General Meigs begged Stanton not to go down to Tenth Street, others also remonstrated against our going. Stanton, I thought, hesitated. Hurrying forward, I remarked that I should go immediately and I thought it his duty also. He said he should certainly go, but the remonstrants increased and gathered round him. I said we were wasting time, and pressing through the crowd, entered the carriage and urged Stanton, who was detained by others after he had placed his foot on the step. I was impatient. Stanton, as soon as he had seated himself, turned round, rose partly and said the carriage was not his. I said that was no objection. He invited Meigs to go with us, and Judge Carter of the Superior Court mounted with the driver. At this moment Major Eckert3 rode up on horseback beside the carriage and protested vehemently against Stanton’s going to Tenth Street; said he had just come from there, that there were thousands of people of all sorts there, and he considered it very unsafe for the Secretary of War to expose himself. I replied that I knew not where he would be more safe, and that the duty of both of us was to attend the President immediately. Stanton concurred. Meigs called to some soldiers to go with us, and there was one on each side of the carriage. The streets were full of people. Not only the sidewalk but the carriage-way was to some extent occupied, all or nearly all hurrying toward Tenth Street. When we entered that street, we found it pretty closely packed.
The President had been carried across the street from the theatre, to the house of a Mr. Peterson. We entered by ascending a flight of steps above the basement, and passing through a long hall to the rear, where the President lay extended on a bed, breathing heavily. Several surgeons were present; at least six, I should think more; among them I was glad to observe Doctor Hale, who, however, soon left. I enquired of Doctor H[ale] as I entered the true condition of the President. He replied the President was dead to all intents, although he might live three hours or perhaps longer.
The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell, and that part of his face became discolored.
Senator Sumner was there, I think, when I entered. If not, he came in soon after, as did Speaker Colfax, Mr. Secretary McCulloch, and the other members of the Cabinet, with the exception of Mr. Seward. A double guard was stationed at the door and on the sidewalk, to repress the crowd, which was of course highly excited and anxious. The room was small and overcrowded. The surgeons and members of the Cabinet were as many as should have been in the room, but there were many more, and the hall and other rooms in the front or main house were full. One of these rooms was occupied by Mrs. Lincoln, and her attendants, with Mrs. Harris. Mrs. Dixon and Mrs. Kinney came to her about twelve o’clock. About once an hour Mrs. Lincoln would repair to the bedside of her dying husband, and with lamentation and tears remain until overcome by emotion.
A door which opened upon a porch or gallery, and also the windows, were kept open for fresh air. The night was dark, cloudy and damp, and about six it began to rain. I remained in the room without sitting or leaving it — when, there being a vacant chair which some one left at the foot of the bed, I occupied it for nearly two hours, listening to the heavy groans, and witnessing the wasting life of the good and great man who was expiring before me.
About six A. M. I experienced a feeling of faintness, and for the first time after entering the room, a little past eleven, I left it and the house, and took a short walk in the open air. It was a dark and gloomy morning, and rain set in before I returned to the house, some fifteen minutes [later]. Large groups of people were gathered every few rods, all anxious and solicitous. Some one or more from each group stepped forward as I passed, to enquire into the condition of the President, and to ask if there was no hope. Intense grief was on every countenance when I replied that the President could survive but a short time. The colored people especially, and there were at this time more of these persons than of whites, were overwhelmed with grief.
Returning to the house, I seated myself in the back parlor where the Attorney-General and others had been engaged in taking evidence concerning the assassination. Stanton, and Speed, and Usher were there — the latter asleep on the bed. There were three or four others also in the room. While I did not feel inclined to sleep, as many did, I was somewhat indisposed — I had been so for several days. The excitement and bad atmosphere from the crowded rooms oppressed me physically.
A little before seven I went into the room where the dying President was rapidly drawing near the closing moments. His wife soon after made her last visit to him. The death struggle had begun. Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of the bed. He bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals, and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven.
A prayer followed from Doctor Gurley; and the Cabinet, with the exception of Mr. Seward and Mr. McCulloch, immediately thereafter assembled in the back parlor, from which all other persons were excluded, and there signed a letter which was prepared by Attorney-General Speed to the Vice-President, informing him of the event, and that the government devolved upon him.
Mr. Stanton proposed that Mr. Speed, as the law officer, should communicate the letter to Mr. Johnson with some other member of the Cabinet. Mr. Dennison named me. I saw that, though all assented, it disconcerted Stanton, who had expected and intended to be the man, and to have Speed associated with him. I was disinclined personally to disturb an obvious arrangement, and therefore named Mr. McCulloch, as the first in order after the Secretary of State.
I arranged with Speed, with whom I rode home, for a Cabinet meeting at twelve meridian at the room of the Secretary of the Treasury, in order that the government should experience no detriment, and that prompt and necessary action might be taken to assist the new Chief Magistrate in preserving and promoting the public tranquillity. We accordingly met at noon. Mr. Speed reported that the President had taken the oath which was administered by the Chief Justice, and had expressed a desire that the affairs of the government should proceed without interruption. Some discussion took place as to the propriety of an inaugural address, but the general impression was that it would be imprudent. I was most decidedly of that opinion.
President Johnson, who was invited to be present, deported himself admirably, and on the subject of an inaugural said his acts would best disclose his policy. In all essentials it would, he said, be the same as that of the late President. He desired the members of the Cabinet to go forward with their duties without any change. Mr. Hunter, Chief Clerk of the State Department, was designated to act ad interim as Secretary of State. I suggested Mr. Speed, but I saw it was not acceptable in certain quarters. Stanton especially expressed a hope that Hunter should be assigned to the duty.
A room for the President as an office was proper, and Mr. McCulloch offered a room adjoining his own in the Treasury Building. I named the State Department as appropriate and proper, at least until the Secretary of State recovered or so long as the President wished — but objections arose at once. The papers of Mr. Seward would, Stanton said, be disturbed — it would be better that he should be here, etc., etc. Stanton, I saw, had a purpose — among other things he feared papers would fall under Mr. Johnson’s eye which he did not wish to be seen.
On returning to my house this [same] morning, Saturday, I found [that] Mrs. Welles, who had been ill and confined to the house from indisposition for a week, had been twice sent for by Mrs. Lincoln to come to her at once. The housekeeper, knowing the state of Mrs. W’s health, had without consultation turned away the messenger, Major French; but Mrs. Welles, on learning the facts when he came the second time, had yielded, and imprudently gone, although the weather was inclement. She remained at the Executive Mansion through the day. For myself, [I was] wearied, shocked, exhausted, but not inclined to sleep. The day, when not actually and officially engaged, passed off strangely.
I went after breakfast to the Executive Mansion. There was a cheerless cold rain, and every thing seemed gloomy. On the Avenue in front of the White House were several hundred colored people — mostly women and children — weeping and wailing their loss. This crowd did not appear to diminish through the whole of that cold, wet day —they seemed not to know what was to be their fate since their great benefactor was dead, and their hopeless grief affected me more than almost anything else, though strong and brave men wept when I met them.
At the White House all was silent and sad. Mrs. W[elles] was with Mrs. L[incoln] and came to meet me in the library. Speed came in and we soon left together. As we were descending the stairs, “ Tad,” who was looking from the window at the foot, turned, and seeing us cried aloud in his tears, “ Oh, Mr. Welles, who killed my father? ” Neither Speed nor myself could restrain our tears, nor give the poor boy any satisfactory answer.
Sunday the l6th, the President and Cabinet met by agreement at 10 A. M. at the Treasury. The President was half an hour behind time. Stanton was more than an hour late. He brought with him papers, and had many suggestions relative to the measure before the Cabinet at our last meeting with President Lincoln. The general policy of the treatment of the rebels and the rebel states was discussed. President Johnson is not disposed to treat treason lightly, and the chief rebels he would punish with exemplary severity.
Stanton has divided his original plan and made the re-establishing of state government applicable to North Carolina, leaving Virginia, which lias a loyal government and governor, to arrange that matter of election to which I had excepted.
Being at the War Department Sunday evening, I was detained conversing with Stanton. Finally Senator Sumner came in. He was soon followed by Gooch and Dawes of Massachusetts, and some two or three others — one or more general officers also came in. Stanton took from his table, in answer to an enquiry from Sumner, his documents which had been submitted to the Cabinet and which were still a Cabinet measure.
It was evident the gentlemen were there by appointment, and I considered myself an intruder or out of place. If so, Stanton did not know how to get rid of me and it seemed awkward for me to leave. The others doubtless supposed I was there by arrangement; perhaps I was, but I felt embarrassed and was very glad, after he had read to them his first programme for Virginia, and had got about half through with the other, [and] when Sumner [had] demanded to know what provision was made for the colored man to vote, [that] a line was brought me by the messenger which gave me an opportunity to leave.
On Monday the 17th I was actively engaged in bringing forward business which had been interrupted and suspended, issuing orders, and arranging for the funeral solemnities of President Lincoln. Secretary Seward and his son continue in a low condition, and Mr. Fred. Seward’s life is precarious.
Tuesday, April 18, 1865.
Details in regard to the funeral, which takes place on the 19th, occupied general attention, and little else than preliminary arrangements and conversation was done at the Cabinet meeting. From every part of the country comes lamentation. Every house, almost, has some drapery, especially the homes of the poor. Profuse exhibition is displayed on the public buildings and the dwellings of the wealthy, but the little black ribbon, or strip of black cloth from the hovel of the poor negro, or the impoverished white, is more touching.
I have tried to write something consecutively since the horrid transactions of Friday night, but I have no heart for it, and the jottings down are mere mementoes of a period, which I will try to fill up when more composed, and I have leisure, or time for the task. Sad and painful — wearied and irksome, the few preceding incoherent pages have been written for future use, for the incidents are fresh in my mind and may pass away with me, but cannot ever be by me forgotten.
[Saturday, April 22.]
The funeral on Wednesday the 19th was imposing, sad, and sorrowful. All felt the solemnity, and sorrowed as if they had lost one of their own household. By voluntary action business was everywhere suspended, and the people crowded the streets. The Cabinet met by arrangement in the room occupied by the President at the Treasury. We left a few minutes before meridian so as to be in the east room at precisely twelve o’clock, being the last to enter. Others will give the details.
I rode with Stanton in the procession to the Capitol. The attendance was immense. The front reached the Capitol, it was said, before we started, and there were as many, or more who followed us. A brief prayer was made by Mr. Gurley in the rotunda where we left the remains of the good and great man we loved so well. Returning, I left Stanton, who was nervous and full of orders, and took in my carriage President Johnson and Preston King — their carriage having been crowded out of place. Coming down Pennsylvania Avenue after this long detention, we met the marching procession in broad platoons all the way to the Kirkwmod House on Twelfth Street.
There were no truer mourners when all were sad, than the poor colored people who crowded the streets, joined the procession, and exhibited their woe, bewailing the loss of him whom they regarded as a benefactor and father. Women as well as men, with their little children, thronged the streets; sorrow, trouble and distress depicted on their countenances and in their bearing. The vacant holiday expression had given way to real grief. Seward, I am told, sat up in bed and viewed the procession and hearse of the President, and I know his emotion. Stanton, who rode with me, was uneasy and left the carriage four or five times.
On the morning of Friday the 21st I went by appointment or agreement to the Capitol at six A. M. Stanton had agreed to call for me before six and take me in his carriage, the object being to have but few present when the remains were taken from the rotunda where they had lain in state through Thursday, and were visited and seen by many thousands. As I knew Stanton to be uncertain and in some respects unreliable, I ordered my own carriage to be ready at an early hour. I wished also to take my sons with me to the obsequies — the last opportunity they or I would have to see the remains and to manifest our respect and regard for the man who had been the steady and abiding friend of their father. Stanton, as I expected, was late, and then informed me he had not, as he agreed he would, informed Governor Dennison of our purpose. He said he had to go for another friend, and wished me to take up Governor D[ennison]. Not until I had got to Dennison’s house, was I aware of Stanton’s neglect. It was then about six. Governor D[ennison] who had not yet risen sent me word he would be ready in three minutes. I think he was not five. Stanton, I perceived, did not tell me the truth about another visitor. He moved in great haste himself, being escorted by the cavalry corps which had usually attended the President.
We hurried on, reached the Capitol and entered the rotunda just as Mr. Gurley was commencing an earnest and impressive prayer. When it was concluded, the remains were removed and taken to the depot where in waiting were a car and train prepared for the commencement of the long and circuitous journey of the illustrious dead to his last earthly resting-place in Springfield, in the great prairies of the West. We were, as we had intended, an hour in advance of the time, and thus avoided the crowd which before the train departed thronged the roads and depot.
(Secretary Welles remained in the Cabinet during the entire period of President Johnson’s administration. His account of the personal and political factors in the reconstruction of the Union, and his story of the impeachment of the President by Congress, will appear in the ATLANTIC during 1910, beginning in February.)