The Last Words of Abraham Lincoln

Author Stephen Mansfield breaks down the final moments of the life of Abraham Lincoln in this provocative excerpt from his new book Lincoln's Battle with God.

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Still, it had been a good day. After breakfast and the usual early visitors, there had been a cabinet meeting, this one attended by the victorious General Grant. As always when Lincoln’s cabinet assembled, there was fierce debate. Today, the topic was the way Confederate leaders should be treated after the war and what economic aid ought to be offered to the Southern states. Lincoln listened, commented almost absentmindedly from time to time, and then turned with eagerness to General Grant. The president was desperate to know: What had it been like at Appomattox five days before? What kind of man was General Lee, and how had he handled himself in surrendering? With each word Grant spoke, Lincoln grew increasingly peaceful, ever more satisfied. There had been so much horror, so many years. He could be forgiven for reveling in the details of the end.

After a lunch with Mary, he had endured a series of still more meetings—with Vice President Johnson, with the assistant secretary of war, and with Nancy Bushrod, a former slave. Before the day’s paperwork was done, he had pardoned a deserter who had been sentenced to death. “I think the boy can do us more good above ground than underground,” he quipped.

Then came a promised carriage ride with Mary. It was a magical day. The sun’s warmth seemed to penetrate the soul while the perfume of flowers filled the nostrils and dogwood trees displayed their beauty like strutting peacocks. The Lincolns rode alone. Only their carriage driver attended them, and this rare privacy encouraged a welcome intimacy. Mrs. Lincoln commented that her husband almost startled her with his cheerfulness. He replied that it was because the war was at a close. “We must both be cheerful in the future. Between the war, and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable.” It was true, though the mention of the son lost to typhoid a few years before stung the still-grieving Mary. Fortunately, the pain did not linger. The two continued happily toward the Navy Yard, lost in imagining the future and how they would travel and learn to love life again in the years to come.

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This was the mood that pervaded as the Lincolns left the White House for Ford’s Theatre at 8:05 that evening. From their carriage, they waved to well-wishers along the road in the black, wet night. They were joined by their guests at Senator Harris’s home and arrived finally at the theater sometime shortly after 8:30. The play had already begun.

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Stephen Mansfield
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