War’s End: Abraham Lincoln, April 1865

Drawing of Lincoln vwalking through Richmond holding sons hands, with soldiers and slaves in the crowd
Lincoln in Richmond / Abraham Lincoln / By Lambert Hollis, Ink and wash drawing on paper, 1865 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Alan and Lois Fern Acquisition Fund

When Abraham Lincoln posed for photographer Alexander Gardner on February 5, 1865, he was a month before his second inauguration as president and two months before Appomattox. Gardner’s portraits from that session reveal the president as careworn and tired, his face lined and grooved with the strain of war and four years in the White House. Yet he also has a nearly imperceptible smile: he knows the war is nearly won, and his thoughts are turning to Reconstruction and to “bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds,” as he would put it in the conclusion of his second inaugural address.

He was also, as we know and he could not, two months from his death. Lincoln thought he might not survive his second term, anticipating that he might die of fatigue, disease, or just the morbidity that plagued his personality. But it is doubtful that he feared assassination. No president had ever been assassinated (there had been an attempt on Andrew Jackson), and if there had always been general fears for the president’s safety during wartime, no specific threat could be pinpointed. (The president-elect’s dawn arrival in Washington in 1861 to avoid a purported assault on the way from Baltimore had led to widespread ridicule.)

Anyway, Lincoln was always cheerfully fatalistic about himself even as he absorbed the pain of others. After the Confederacy had evacuated Richmond on April 2, Lincoln made a surprise visit to the city two days later, against the advice of everyone who feared his appearance might spark a reaction from vengeful residents; the city was in chaos, having suffered a massive fire on the night on April 2 and 3.

Lincoln, in a spectacular example of bad parenting, took his son Tad, whose twelfth birthday it was, along for the trip. The two of them, accompanied by a troop of very nervous soldiers, toured the city, walking from the wharf where they had landed to the Virginia statehouse and Confederate “White House.”

The highlight of the trip was the reception Lincoln received from the African Americans who spotted his arrival and flocked to the president, cheering loudly and celebrating not just the end of the war and the preservation of the Union but also their freedom. The moment was documented by artist Lambert Hollis, who had accompanied the presidential party and captured the jubilation of the moment.

The reception by the now-freed African Americans may have been on Lincoln’s mind as he turned his attention from the end of the war to the beginnings of Reconstruction. With the fall of Richmond, the president had been serenaded at the White House, but he disappointed the crowd that had gathered by speaking flatly and saying little.

On April 11, a large crowd gathered again at the White House to celebrate Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Lincoln had prepared an address, but again it was not triumphant but contained an earnest appeal for a “righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained.”

He closed by broaching the issue of civil rights for the freedmen, declaring his support for at least a qualified suffrage for freedmen. John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd, and at these words he seethed in anger that this meant citizenship for blacks: “now, by God, I’ll put him through.” In the last year of the war, Booth had been hatching vague plots about kidnapping the president, although the purpose and impact of that act was never really clear. Now, having gathered a motley crew of misfits and disaffected Confederates, he decided to kill the president.

On April 14, Lincoln had a round of political meetings; General Ulysses S. Grant attended one meeting but afterward declined the president’s invitation to the theater, saying that he was leaving for Philadelphia to be reunited with his family. It was Good Friday, and after the assassination, it would be remarked upon that the president had attended the theater on such a sacred day.  

Although deeply religious, Lincoln, was not a member of any church, and probably did not give the religious calendar any thought: as always, he would use the theater—he enjoyed all manner of productions from knock-about farces to Shakespearean tragedy—as an escape from himself and his daily life.

As he and Mary prepared to go to Ford’s Theatre, he spoke to her affectionately, “We must both, be more cheerful in the future. . . . Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have both, been very miserable.” On the bill that night was Our American Cousin, a comedy starring English actress Laura Keane. The Lincolns left for the theater at about 8:30, arriving after the play had begun. The production was halted when Lincoln was spotted entering the presidential box, the band played Hail to the Chief, and the crowd delivered a long and prolonged ovation. The drama then resumed.

—David C. Ward, Senior Historian, National Portrait Gallery