Northerners across the country had reason to celebrate in mid-April 1865. The war had ended in a Union victory, with the Union restored and the emancipation of millions of African Americans from bondage. As celebrations in the forms of speeches, parades, fireworks and other displays played out in numerous cities, others sought different forms of entertainment to finally take their mind from a long, bloody conflict that was nearly at its end following the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. William Child, in an earlier letter written to his wife Carrie on April 14, noted that citizens and service members in Washington, D.C. celebrated the surrender with a “grand drunk[en]” spectacle. Many in the District, including Child, were looking forward to attending one of two theaters that had performances scheduled for later that evening. For those that had selected taking in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, it was a performance and evening that they and the nation would never forget.
Washington D.C., Apr. 14th, 1865
My Dear Wife:
Wild dreams and real facts are but brothers. This night I have seen the murder of the President of the United States.
Early in the evening I went to Fords Theater. After a little time the President entered—was greeted with cheers. The play went on for about an hour. Just at the close of an interesting scene a sharp quick report of a pistol was heard and instantly a man jumped from the box in which was the President, to the stage—and rushing across the stage made his escape. This I saw and heard. I was in the theatre—and sat opposite the President’s box. The murderer assassin exclaimed as he leaped “Sic Semper Tyrannis” – “Thus always to tyrants.”
I never saw such a wild scene as followed! I have no words to describe it.
Sect. Seward was also wounded by a knife about the same minute. The city is now wild with excitement. The affair occurred only an hour since.
Are we living in the days of the French Revolution? Will peace ever come again to our dear land? Are we to rush on to wild ruin?
It seems all a dream—a wild dream. I cannot realize it though I know I saw it only an hour since.
If we take a closer look at the letter that Child wrote his wife following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago this night, we can glean much about that the tragic and historic event as it relates to the written historiography. First, Child noted the time of the assassination. Numerous eyewitness accounts and later historians placed the arrival of Lincoln at the theater around 8:30 p.m. Based on the length of each scene in the play, when Lincoln was shot during the play, and eyewitness accounts, most settle on approximately 10:15 p.m. as the time the fatal bullet was fired. Child placed the fatal shot “about an hour” after the President’s arrival. Child’s time of the assassination as per his letter aligns closely with the narrative of events.
Child also noted what was happening in the play at the moment the “quick report of a pistol was heard.” The letter to Carrie stated that a pistol shot was heard “Just at the close on an interesting scene.” These words support not only the historical record, but also the reasoning that the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, selected this moment in the play in which to carry out the assassination. It was a scene which not only had the least number of actors on stage in which to deal with after exiting the presidential box, but also contained a line that always elicited the loudest response from the audience; noise that would lessen the “quick report” of a gunshot.
The surgeon’s letter also contained two significant details that eyewitnesses and historians have debated for the last 150 years. First, the stage landing. Many historians of the Lincoln assassination contest that when Booth landed on the stage after his tussle out of the box, the way in which he landed had broken his leg. Yet, many eyewitness accounts, including Child’s, noted that he rushed or ran off stage; an almost impossible feat for a man with a broken leg. Child wrote, “[Booth]…rushing across the stage made his escape.” Others contend that it happened during his escape when Booth was thrown from his mount. Second, what Booth said after landing on the stage. Numerous historians, including the recent bestselling retelling in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals agree that Booth cried out the Virginia state motto in its entirety. So too did many of the eyewitness that evening, such as Child. “The murderer assassin exclaimed as he leaped “Sic Semper Tyrannis” – “Thus always to tyrants,” Child wrote Carrie. Although the historiography of the assassination places Child in the majority as to Booth’s words, other theories include Booth only saying “Sic Semper,” something else altogether or nothing at all.
Child’s letter, per his own words, was written only an hour after he witnessed these events. His immediate recall of that evening in such clarity and detail and so soon after the event is undeniable. Despite being an officer and surgeon in uniform, Child was never interviewed at the time or following that evening. The letter, written during the waning hours of April 14, 1865 and Lincoln’s life deserves a place in the assassination historiography.
For Further Reading
Child, William. A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers, in the American Civil War, 1861- 1865. 1893. Reprint, Gaithersburg, Maryland: Ron R. Van Sickle Military Books, 1988.
Child, William. Letters From a Civil War Surgeon. Maine: Polar Bear & Company, 2001.
Good, Timothy S. We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts. University Press of Mississippi, 1996.