In early June, websites and newspapers around the world reported an exciting “new find” in Lincoln studies. In May, a researcher working for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project had been sifting through boxes of 19th century records at the National Archives in Washington. Suddenly she found herself holding a manuscript marked (in black ink), “Chas A Leale, Report on death of President Lincoln.” Just above that title, a cataloguer had written (in red ink) the date “1865.”
Historians had been trying to find this document for nearly a century and a half. It was Dr. Leale’s original account of what he’d done and witnessed on the evening of April 14, and morning of April 15, in 1865.
The 23-year-old Leale had been the first physician to come to Lincoln’s aid as he sat unconscious and mortally wounded in his box at Ford’s Theatre. Leale’s quick decision to lay Lincoln down on the floor of the box — relieving the pressure on his brain — may have been responsible for extending Lincoln’s life until early Saturday morning.
That stretch of nine hours from Booth’s gunshot at about 10:30 p.m. to the president’s death at 7:22 a.m. gave high government officials the chance to gather around the deathbed and absorb the calamity together. Northerners as a group took comfort from the familiar deathbed ritual, described for them in great detail in their Sunday and Monday newspapers and soon reproduced visually in countless commercial lithographs.
Two years later, in 1867, Dr. Leale wrote an account of Lincoln’s death for a congressional committee, and in that document (today located in the Benjamin Butler Papers at the Library of Congress) he said he was drawing on an unpublished manuscript that he’d written “a few hours after leaving [Lincoln’s] death bed.”
The “new find” of June 2012 gives us our first look at what Leale wrote on April 15, 1865 — not the actual pages, but the undated copy of them marked “1865” by the National Archives cataloguer. You can read this copy at http://www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/New_Documents.htm
It turns out the “new find” doesn’t disclose anything new, but that’s an important bit of knowledge in its own right. We now know there’s no bombshell waiting to be divulged in Leale’s long-misplaced report. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to compare Leale’s 1865 and 1867 documents. It shows us how his memory of the assassination was evolving, and it points us to moments during the last hours of Lincoln’s life that aren’t usually highlighted in treatments of the assassination.
Here I can mention three such moments: Lincoln’s entry into the dress circle at Ford’s Theatre; John Wilkes Booth’s brandishing of his dagger; and the prayer (or was it prayers?) intoned by the Reverend Phineas Gurley at the time of Lincoln’s death.
In 1865, Dr. Leale wrote that he watched from his seat in the dress circle as the president’s party walked by on their way to the box. The audience was cheering heartily, and the president and Mrs. Lincoln “reciprocated” the warm welcome with “a smile and bow” (p. 2).
But this happy Lincoln was replaced in Leale’s 1867 report by a despondent one: “the President as he proceeded to the box looked expressively mournful and sad.” Leale had either suppressed the news of Lincoln’s sorrowful mien in his 1865 account, or remembered the dejected look on his face only after writing that report.
In 1865, Dr. Leale was intently focused on the long knife wielded by the “man of low stature and black hair and eyes” who had leaped to the stage from the president’s box. He noticed the “drawn dagger” Booth was “flourishing in his hand” before he jumped (p. 3) and again as he ran across the stage (p. 4). By 1867, Leale had embellished his memory of the menacing knife. Now Booth had “raised his shining dagger in the air, which reflected the light as though it had been a diamond.”
The dagger was so impressive to Leale that when he rushed to Lincoln’s box about 10:30 p.m. — after “distinctly” hearing “the report of a pistol” crack through the theatre (p. 3) — he first checked the president for a stab wound, not a gunshot wound.
Perhaps the actual stab wound that was staring him in the face — the one inflicted by Booth on Maj. Henry Rathbone, a member of Lincoln’s party — influenced his judgment. But maybe Leale was initially unwilling to countenance the idea that Lincoln had been shot, hoping against hope that he’d only been slashed.
In 1865, Dr. Leale described the scene beside the bed after Lincoln died. The grieving officials and family friends “bowed down” for a prayer delivered by the Lincoln family’s minister Phineas Gurley (p. 20). In 1867, Leale remembered, they all knelt down together for two prayers, one before the president died and the other after his last breath.
With his avid interest in Gurley’s words, we might expect Leale to have heard, and recorded, Edwin Stanton’s phrase “now he belongs to the ages” — if Stanton had in fact said it. Leale made no mention of it in 1865 or 1867. It’s one of the nice ironies of Lincoln’s deathbed vigil that the main thing many Americans remember about it today — Stanton intoning his moving phrase over Lincoln’s body — was quite likely a much later addition to Lincoln lore. There’s no record of it in 19th-century sources before 1890. If only Dr. Leale had mentioned it in his 1865 report. That would have been a bombshell.
To only a handful of individuals interested in the Lincoln assassination, the name of Nathan Simms evokes quizzical looks. Simms is one of several individuals who claimed to have held the reins of John Wilkes Booth’s horse on the night of April 14, 1865. Dr. Edward Steers ably demonstrates the problems with Simms’s claims and credits John “Peanut” Burroughs as the rightful holder of Booth’s horse on that fateful night. But if Simms was mistaken about his role on April 14, 1865, it might be premature to dismiss his connection to the assassination.
A letter by architect Walter F. Price to President Herbert Hoover suggests that Simms — misspelled as “Sims” throughout the letter — worked for Mary Surratt. Beyond the new information on Simms, Mr. Price also enclosed three photographs to provide additional visual reference of this obscure individual. The text of the February 3, 1931, letter follows:
“Some weeks ago I went to Marshalton, Chester County, Pa., to visit an old Meeting House; the aged care-taker as I was leaving pointed to a frame House in the edge of the village. He said ‘in that house lived a colored man named Nathan Sims; when he was about seventeen he held a horse for J. Wilkes Booth while he went into the theatre to assassinate President Lincoln.’
“On the 9th of January last I went again to Marshalton about four miles west of West Chester and called at his house. A mulatto woman came to the door and said she was Mrs. Nathan Sims, then added that her husband was in the village getting slop. On my inquiry as to how I should know him, she said he will be carrying two buckets. Within five minutes I met him with his buckets; he admitted he was the Nathan Sims who held the horse for Booth. I turned to walk back with him to his house. He seemed shy and taciturn. To my question as to whether he was the slave of Mrs. Surratt, he said he had been, but later in our short talk, he referred as to having been her bond servant. Of Mrs. Surratt he said only, the soldiers came and bundled her up and took her away. I don’t know what became of her. Near his house I had him stand for his picture by his pump. I took a second picture, trying to secure a little better light on his face.
“I went again on the 25th of January and took a promised picture. In the town I asked for an old and reliable citizen, and was referred to a Mr. Peterson, who said relative to N. Sims’ veracity, that from his knowledge of the man, he felt sure we could depend on anything he might say. Just as I reached the house he came around the corner and I gave him the picture and asked more questions. For example; who are his parents? He replied they were slaves of Dr. Gunton of Maryland. There were several boys in the family and as he was not needed, he was bound over by his master to Mrs. Surratt, and that he worked for her on her ‘big’ farm at Surrattville, where she had much property. He finished by saying that he had lived in Marshalton thirty-six years.”
Nathan Simms may not have held Booth’s horse but he clearly seems to be connected to Mary Surratt. To this extent, he is worth knowing more about as an historical actor.
Many subsequent presidents have taken Abraham Lincoln as an exemplar of great leadership and character. The most historically minded among them, from Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, have dwelt on his keen grasp of America’s role in the advance of democracy.
Lincoln, for his part, took the famously unsuccessful Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay as his main model of political virtue. Starting out with little education or material resources — just like Lincoln — Clay had become a galvanizing legislator, charismatic speaker, and zealous booster of America’s destiny as the beacon of liberty.
His failure to reach the presidency, said Lincoln, did nothing to lessen his impact on his times. He combined three character traits that in Lincoln’s estimation were common enough singly, but rarely found in one man: eloquence, judgment, and implacable will.
Henry Clay is scarcely more than a name today. He is perhaps less well-known by Americans than the other two members of the mid-19th century “great triumvirate,” Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun.
Webster can still get plaudits for memorable speechifying: his rousing “liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” etched beneath his massive bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park, is familiar to many. Calhoun is often touted for original political theorizing, especially his concept of the “concurrent majority.”
Clay suffers by comparison. His major achievement — helping to rein in sectional divisiveness for a third of a century — gradually faded from view after the Civil War undid it. And his curious status as an anti-slavery slave-owner strikes many people nowadays as thinly masked hypocrisy. Men like Clay and Thomas Jefferson are often said to have salved their consciences with airy proclamations about equality, while luxuriating from the labor of their chattels.
Yet in his lengthy 1852 eulogy for the departed Clay — a speech delivered in the same Springfield Hall of Representatives where his own body would lie in state in 1865 — Lincoln declared that Clay’s viewpoint on slavery was one of the primary reasons to admire him. It qualified as paradoxical, Lincoln conceded, but it was emblematic of Clay’s good judgment.
Clay understood, said Lincoln, that the abomination of slavery must be tolerated indefinitely: abolishing it right away would wreak havoc, creating problems for blacks and whites alike. There was no way “it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself.”
In Lincoln’s assessment, Clay’s entire career sprang from an intense commitment to liberty. “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country… He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.” Most people loved their country chiefly because it was their home; Clay loved it chiefly because it was edging the entire world toward freedom for all.
Ironically, Clay’s enthusiasm for the spread of liberty made it easy for him to embrace the “colonization” movement — the campaign to mobilize freed American slaves to resettle in Africa. All he had to do was perceive black Americans as a maliciously abused people who had still managed to pick up the ideal of liberty from their Euro-American environment. They could voyage to their “native soil” across the sea as ambassadors of freedom.
At the end of his 1852 eulogy, Lincoln enthusiastically embraced Clay’s colonization program. Liberty for slaves would not come anytime soon, he knew, but when it did come, true liberty would have to occur in two stages. Individual manumission had to be followed by the release of the entire group from their captivity in theUnited States.
Somehow, Lincoln imagined, the relocation of three million black Americans “to their long-lost fatherland” in Africa might be accomplished “so gradually, that neither races nor individuals shall have suffered by the change.” They could then embark on a new chapter in the history of liberty: “the possible ultimate redemption of the African race and African continent.”
Like his model Clay, Lincoln was so blinded by the bright glow of liberty, and the role former slaves could play in extending it, that he couldn’t perceive a very plain truth: by 1852 Africa was no longer their “fatherland” or “native soil.”
In the last years of his life, Lincoln came to his senses on colonization. He may still have believed in it in the abstract, but he knew that African-Americans, while sometimes supportive of the idea, had largely repudiated it. Most black Americans took theUnited States as their homeland, and loved their country — and its ideal of liberty — in spite of the severe restrictions still placed upon their freedom.
On the evening of April 11, 1865, Lincoln delivered the last speech of his life to a large outdoor crowd at the White House. He endorsed the idea of giving the vote to some black men, signaling his awareness that African-Americans as a group would make their future — and help to spread the principle of liberty — in the United States, not in a foreign land.
John Wilkes Booth was standing in the crowd that night, aghast to hear the president put black men on the path to republican citizenship. Booth decided then and there to stop Lincoln in his tracks.