They Held Lincoln’s Life in Their Hands

Less than 15 minutes had passed since John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger of his derringer and sent a bullet into the back of President Abraham Lincoln’s head. Army Dr. Charles Leale, the supervisor of Lincoln’s health, and the host of other physicians who crowded into the president’s box at Ford’s Theater to save Lincoln’s life knew they had to remove him, but they did not know where to go. The White House was too far. In his fragile state, Lincoln likely would not survive the trip. But he could not die in a theater. The nearest open house would have to do.

Artist Carl Bersch sketched this scene of Lincoln being carried from Ford’s Theater to the Petersen house as it happened. (National Park Service)

One by one, the doctors stepped forward to hoist Lincoln onto a makeshift stretcher. Leale cradled the President’s head while two other doctors supported each of his shoulders. Initially, four Union soldiers (later six) carried the rest of the man’s body who had carried the weight of the nation—their nation—on his shoulders for the last four years.

These four men did not attend Ford’s Theater the night of April 14, 1865, to etch their name into the story of Lincoln’s assassination. John Corey, Jabez Griffiths, William Sample, and Jacob Soles enlisted in Battery C, Pennsylvania Light Artillery—a battery from Pittsburgh—in February 1864. April 1865 found them at Camp Barry in the District of Columbia. They acquired a leave of absence to visit Washington City and attend “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater. Seated in the first balcony of the theater near the president’s box, they rushed to the scene of the crime after hearing Mrs. Lincoln’s cries following Booth’s fateful shot.

Jacob Soles, the last of these four men to die, recalled the experience of carrying the mortally wounded president from Ford’s Theater across 10th Street to the Petersen House. “We four fellows carried him to the stairway in the theatre, then two others fell in and helped carry him. As we carried him out of the theatre, he was carried out flat, with his feet foremost” when two other soldiers joined to help. Soles continued:

We carried Lincoln out of the theatre, and we had him out on the street about five minutes until we found a place to put him, and then they hollered out that [the Petersen house] is where he would be put. A young man directed us to the house, a young man that was not in soldiers’ clothes; he told us to take him to the brick house. We put him in a room on the first floor; we went back through a long hallway to about the middle of the building. There was a bed in that room and we laid him on the bed.

When we took him into the room we had to get out. The guard put them all out. They wouldn’t let anybody in without it was a doctor or something. The street was jammed. You had to push a road through whatever you wanted to get to. We waited around until the doctors came out and said it was fatal and then we pulled for camp.

While Soles’ account was dictated to the New York Tribune and published in 1931, Soles, Corey, Griffiths, and Sample have been accepted in the literature on Lincoln’s assassination as the four original bearers of Lincoln’s body from Ford’s Theater to the Petersen house. Even the Tribune writer dug into their stories and found that “The ‘Record of Events’ of Thompson’s Battery C, Independent Pennsylvania Light Artillery, and the individual records of the four men, found in the files of the Adjutant General’s office, verify those portions of Soles’s story dealing with their military service.” Thus, these four men became forever associated with Lincoln’s assassination. They were some of the last humans to bear the President’s living body.

Corey, Griffiths, Sample, and Soles lived through a defining moment in their lives and in the nation’s history. This one night of their lives was not their whole story, however. With two minor exceptions—the Tribune’s 1931 account and Edward Steers, Jr.’s The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia—no one has researched the rest of these men’s stories. Below are some of the biographical details I was able to glean about each man from surviving records.

John Corey’s age is not known though, like the others, he was probably in his early 20’s on April 14, 1865. He mustered into Thompson’s Battery C, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, on February 25, 1864, and mustered out at the end of the war in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 30, 1865. The details of Corey’s death are disputed. A 1931 newspaper article about Corey’s grandson claims that John Corey “died March 17, 1882, and is buried in the Southside, Pittsburgh.” However, Find a Grave and the New York Tribune claim Corey died on April 17, 1884, by drowning in the Allegheny River. Regardless, he rests in an unmarked grave in the McKeesport and Versailles Cemetery in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh.

Jabez Griffiths was born in 1845. On February 29, 1864, he mustered into Thompson’s battery and, like the others, mustered out on June 30, 1865. After the war, he worked as a boatman on the local rivers and was known as far away as Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Griffiths did not live to see the 20th century. He suffered from cancer for the last six months of 1897 until he died on January 18, 1898. Griffith’s remains rest in Richland Cemetery in Dravosburg, Pennsylvania.

William Sample was a year older than Griffiths, having been born in 1844. After his service in Thompson’s battery, Sample worked in the Monongahela Steel Works. In February 1898, he and four other men were burned there by hot metal. Sample suffered severe injuries to his face and body, though his condition was not deemed hopeless. However, he died shortly thereafter on February 26, 1898, and was buried in the McKeesport and Versailles Cemetery in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

Postwar image of Jacob Soles in his GAR uniform. (Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum Trust, Inc.)

Jacob Soles lived the longest of the four men. He was born on July 7, 1845. After his service in the Civil War, Soles mined coal. An accident in the mines cost him an eye, though he remained active. He was a member of the A.M. Harper Grand Army of the Republic Post in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Soles likely died as the last surviving member of Thompson’s battery when he passed away on January 9, 1936 at the age of 90. He was buried in Monongahela Cemetery in Braddock Hills, Pennsylvania.

The identity of the other two soldiers who later joined these four men to help carry Lincoln across 10th Street has been debated, and never established with as much certainty in the Lincoln assassination literature as Corey, Griffiths, Sample, and Soles are. However, during my research, I stumbled on a fifth member of Thompson’s battery who was not mentioned in Soles’s 1931 account. It is at least possible that due to his association with the same unit, he may have been one of the six.

This man was John Weaver, born on September 12, 1833. Weaver spent the first three months of the war serving in a Pennsylvania infantry regiment partially composed of the state’s “First Defenders,” five infantry companies who responded first to Lincoln’s call for troops to protect Washington, DC, in the wake of the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861. He enlisted in Thompson’s battery on February 29, 1864 and also mustered out in Pittsburgh on June 30, 1865. Originally from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, he lived in Philadelphia for decades after the war. Weaver actively participated in Grand Army of the Republic Post 63, the David B. Birney Post. When he died on November 12, 1920, he left behind four daughters and two sons. Weaver was buried in Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia.

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5 Responses to They Held Lincoln’s Life in Their Hands

  1. Larry De Maar says:

    Very interesting, thanks for highlighting these men that carried President Lincoln to the Petersen house.

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    Much in the same way the Kennedy Assassination is fraught with unanswered questions, the Lincoln Conspiracy remains an enigma. Many researchers dedicate their entire study of the Civil War to this one aspect (killing of the Commander in Chief before the end of the war) and no one study has yet produced an error-free complete description. Two observations:
    “Had to remove him…” From witness statements, Lincoln was removed in order “to prevent him dying in a theatre.” Optics necessitated removal.
    “We waited around until the doctors came out…” The soldiers of Battery C waited over eight hours after carrying the dying President across the street.
    Thanks for tackling this topic, and reminding us that “Every person has an interesting story.”

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  4. mark harnitchek says:

    thanks Kevin — what a great post … i am reminded of what Drew Gilpin Faust wrote about Lincoln’s death in her book — This Republic of Suffering, Death and the American Civil War … she noted that in his second inaugural address, the President remarked that the dead were God’s atonement for the national sin of slavery … and in the end, Lincoln himself represented the nation’s “ultimate death … emblematic of all losses of the war” … how appropriate that he be carried from Ford’s Theater by four of his soldiers … well done and thanks again.

  5. Jim says:

    Enjoyable read. My grandfather’s grandfather was in the theater with his cousin that night. He was 18 years old. It was good Friday and there weren’t many people there that night. I think that the two (young) men whom Jacob was referring to could have been Thomas Blair and his cousin. In the obituary of Thomas Blair, he was listed as having been involved in carrying the body of Lincoln. And he said this to my grandfather numerous times. Since Jacob said that “2 young” men helped, I think it could have been them.

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