Call Me Molly: Lincoln’s Last Happy Day on Earth

Jeff Cunningham
5 min readDec 22, 2023
Abraham Lincoln (photo by Mathew Brady)

“A Singular, Indescribable Vessel”

Her name was Mary, but she had asked him to call her Molly. Perhaps to escape the weight of her depression, she created a new persona. He was a strong and sturdy woodsman, thoughtful and well-read, a creature composed of rough hands and a gentle heart. But despite his best efforts to comfort her, he could never seem to do anything right. Her condition was diagnosed as ‘nervousness’ or what the 19th century called depression. It was incurable.

Sometimes, a common event like moving to the “big house,” as she called it, would be the cause. In other cases, it stemmed from the demands of his career. He reassured her that these things were not her fault, but she continued to suffer. And then there were the moments when she grieved over the loss of their second son, who succumbed to typhoid fever at the tender age of 11, three years earlier. It might as well have been yesterday in Molly’s mind.

But on this particular Good Friday morning in April of 1865, something unexpected happened — he woke up in a buoyant mood. This was surprising, given how unpredictable and unpleasant Molly had become lately. The past five years had been filled with struggles and challenges, but finally, there seemed to be an end in sight.

As he slipped out of bed and quietly went downstairs to avoid disturbing her, a sense of relief washed over him. Stepping outside onto the front porch, the lawn was covered in blooming dogwood trees, and the temperature was a warm 63 degrees. It was hard to remember the last time he felt this good.

Of course, problems always seemed to find their way to his doorstep, which happened to be the White House, where Abraham and Mary Lincoln lived as President and First Lady of the United States. But for now, at this moment, perhaps more than at any time in the previous period, there was a sense of hope and tranquility.

An Omen

The big Georgian colonial was intended to be something other than a grand home in the British style, as Irish architect James Hogan said when he built it in 1793 for its original occupant, George Washington. Just large enough to raise a family and socialize with friends and associates. It was also a place of business — a peculiar kind of business.

The president would start his day every morning by opening the front door and walking the grounds. If he saw soldiers, he applauded them for “fighting not only for their generation but for our children’s children.” The soldiers gave this towering, bearded man a quizzical look, and then they would smile and say, “Thank you, President Lincoln.”

That morning, his son, Robert Lincoln, assigned to General Grant’s staff, joined his father for breakfast. Lincoln told a story about a recurring dream. “It involved some singular, indescribable vessel moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore.” He had this dream preceding every major battle of the war.

It was an omen, said Lincoln. And it was.

Lincoln’s Last Meal

He ate lightly, as always, with a single egg and coffee, piping hot the way he liked. According to special secretary John Hay: “the pleasures of the table had few attractions for him.” It was true. For lunch, he would make do with a biscuit with fruit and a glass of milk; at dinner, he preferred the kind of food farmers ate, like corned beef and cabbage. As food historian Rae Eighmey writes in “Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen,” Mrs. Lincoln would ask the White House cooks to prepare “chicken fricassee with gravy and biscuits when he was feeling particularly beaten.”

When entertaining dignitaries, Mary Lincoln’s table was famed for “the excellence of its Kentucky dishes loaded with venison, wild turkeys, prairie chickens and quail, and other game.” Her social graces did not always impress, however, especially the French. Prince Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon I, attended one of Lincoln’s soirees and remarked, “Mrs. Lincoln has the manner of a petit bourgeois and wears tin jewelry.” He also described the meal as “a bad dinner in the French style.”

Carriage Ride

As they finished breakfast, Robert Lincoln brought up the date of April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in the village of Appomattox, ending the bloodiest conflict in American history. The end came as a relief to Lincoln but posed uncomfortable questions. Could America survive a civil war, and would the new country prevail without slavery?

Lincoln thought the way to end slavery was to end it once and for all time. He doubled down on voting rights for black Americans on April 11. It was fortuitous. It was brave. It was also provocative. Still, despite the risk, it was his dream, and he seemed unduly buoyant as his wife’s seamstress exclaimed, “His face was more cheerful than I had seen it for a long while.”

Mary, his wife, agreed. She had not seen him so “cheerful,” she later recalled; “his manner was even playful.”

At 3 o’clock that afternoon, Mary said she and the president “drove out in an open carriage. I asked if anyone should accompany us, and Lincoln immediately replied, ‘No, I prefer to ride by ourselves today.’”

His excellent mood persisted: “During the drive, he was so gay that I said laughingly, ‘Dear Husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness,’ and he replied, ‘and well, I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war, has come to a close — and then added, ‘We must both be more cheerful in the future — between the war & the loss of our darling Willie — we have both been very miserable.’”

The Theater

They discussed the plans for that evening. Mary said she had tickets to Grover’s Theatre but would prefer to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln sent a messenger and asked him to reserve the State Box for the evening’s performance. The management was delighted when they heard the news of their special guest.

At about 12 minutes after 10, a well-known actor who was also a Confederate spy named John Wilkes Booth was admitted into the president’s box. The theater staff recognized him as one of their own, and he caused no alarm. Once inside, he drew his derringer pistol, pointed it at the back of the president’s head, and fired.

--

--