The Dark Night of The Soul: Lincoln’s Last Day

Jeff Cunningham
4 min readSep 12, 2022
Abraham Lincoln (photo by Mathew Brady)

“A Singular, Indescribable Vessel”

Her real name was Mary, but she liked it when he called her Molly. In addition to their other problems, she agonized over the effects of severe depression. It was incurable, and he would do anything to comfort her. One day, it was brought on by the relocation to a big house as she called it. His career demanded the move he tried to console her, and it was not her doing. Nonetheless, she suffered. At other times, she would grieve over the passing of her second son, who died at the age of 11 from typhoid fever three years prior. It was why his buoyant mood on Good Friday morning, April 14, 1865, was so astonishing.

The front lawn was covered in dogwood trees in bloom, and the temperature was a sunny 63 degrees. He struggled to recall the last time he had felt this good in the previous four years. The peaceful setting perfectly matched his emotions as he dragged his slender 6'4" frame out of bed and made a hasty retreat downstairs to avoid waking his wife. He worried for her health because of how unpredictable and unpleasant she had become lately. Still, despite the fact that every problem known to man found its way to his doorstep, there was a surprising sense of optimism in the air. The doorstep, of course, was the White House.

The big Georgian colonial wasn’t intended to be 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.

Before he started his day, President Lincoln opened the front door and walked around the grounds. If he saw soldiers marching, 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, Robert Lincoln, assigned to General Grant’s staff, joined his father. President Lincoln began by telling a story about a recurring dream he had been having. “It involved some singular, indescribable vessel and that he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore; that he had this dream preceding every major battle of the war.”

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

He ate lightly as always, a single egg and coffee piping hot. 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, cornpone. As 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 rare 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.”

As they finished breakfast, Robert Lincoln brought up April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army earlier that day in the village of Appomattox, ceasing 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 country exist without slavery and be reborn in freedom?

He doubled down on the idea by promoting voting rights for black Americans on April 11. It was fortuitous. It was brave. It was also provocative. Still, despite the risk, he rejoiced. It was his dream and why 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.’”

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.

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