Our last day in D.C. we again set out early on a chilly morning. We took the metro and got off at the stop closest to our first planned visit, Ford’s Theater. We had booked a tour of the theater ($5 each) and arrived about 45 minutes early. We asked one of the guides if we could take an earlier tour and he agreed.
Other than reading, one of Lincoln’s favorite forms of recreation was going to the theater. On the evening of April 14, 1865, President and Mrs. Lincoln, sitting in the Presidential Box, attended a performance of the play “Our American Cousin”. At intermission the President’s bodyguard left and went to Star Saloon for a drink and did not return for the beginning of the next act. A stagehand let Booth in through a back door. Booth wedged the door of the Presidential Box open with the leg of a wooden music stand he left there earlier in the day. John Wilkes Booth shot the president in the head. Booth jumped from the stage, got entangled in the balcony decorations, and landed off balance, breaking a bone in his leg. He ran out the back door of the theater, mounted his horse and escaped from the city.
John Wilkes Booth, an actor and native of Maryland, was very familiar to Washington audiences, having performed in area plays. In fact, in November, 1863, President and Mrs. Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater to see the play, “The Marble Heart”, starring John Wilkes Booth. During the play, Booth looked up at the Presidential Box when delivering his most threatening lines. One of the people watching with Lincoln in the presidential box commented that Booth seemed to be saying those lines to the President and Lincoln agreed.
In July, 1864, Booth met with some Confederate agents in Boston and hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage in exchange for the release of southern prisoners. On Inauguration Day, 1865, Booth and five of his co-conspirators stood a few feet from Lincoln as he talked about healing the nation. After Lee’s surrender, Booth had to quickly change his plans and he and his conspirators made plans to assassinate Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.
After breaking his leg from his leap from the balcony, he rode to the house of a doctor who set his leg. Booth had planned on escaping through the Maryland countryside to Virginia and then south where he thought he would be a hero. Along with a co-conspirator, and slowed by his broken leg, they were given food and shelter by Southern sympathizers, though many refused to help. On April 26th while hiding in a barn near Port Royal, VA, Union soldiers surrounded them. His co-conspirator surrendered immediately while Booth was shot and died three hours later. He asked the soldiers to “tell my mother I died for my country”. The other co-conspirators were soon arrested, received the death sentence and were hung. Among them was the first woman executed by the federal government. The stagehand who let Booth in the back door received six years of hard labor. The doctor who set his leg was given a life sentence. Initially the doctor said he had not recognized the injured Booth that night. However it was discovered that the doctor had met Booth on three occasions, twice at his farm and once in D.C. He worked on the Confederate underground, failed to notify authorities that Booth had been at his farm, and lied about the direction Booth traveled when he left the farmhouse. President Andrew Johnson pardoned and released the doctor and stagehand in 1869. They had been sent to Fort Jefferson in Florida. While they were there, the doctor helped many prisoners stricken with yellow fever. He was pardoned for his work at the prison.
President Lincoln, unconscious, was carried to the Peterson house across the street and placed in a back bedroom. The rooms in the Peterson house are 1865 period pieces but none are original to the house. The bed on which Lincoln died is in the Chicago History Museum. The bed was short for the tall president so he was placed diagonally on the bed.
Mrs. Lincoln and their oldest son Robert were with him. Over 90 people would pass through the house to pay their last respects to the dying president. The doctors knew the wound was fatal and Lincoln never gained consciousness. He died the next day, April 15, 1865. Days earlier, General Robert E Lee had surrendered at Appomattox to General Grant. After four + years of struggling to preserve the Union, President Lincoln did not live to see the beginning of the healing process.
Our self guided tour included Ford’s Theater as well as the Petersen House, the house where Lincoln died. Along with us on our assigned tour was a group of high school students. These two historic places really had some interesting displays and facts about the Lincoln assassination. Unfortunately the students were more interested in running around and horseplay. Typical high schoolers. I wish they had taken the chance to learn about this history more seriously.
The museum had Booth’s gun on display. After Lincoln’s death the War Department kept it. In 1931 they received a request to display it at the Ford’s Theater museum. The War Department denied the request saying displaying the gun would “create interest in the criminal aspect of the great tragedy, rather than in the historical features thereof, and would have more of an appeal for the morbid or weak-minded than for the students of history”. The War Department transferred the gun to the National Park Service in 1940 where it has been displayed ever since.
The museum had a replica of the funeral train which took Lincoln’s body on a 14 day, 1,700 mile journey where over seven million Americans viewed the casket as it made its way to Springfield, Illinois for burial. Bill and I visited his tomb in Springfield in September, 2013.
Today Ford’s Theater is a national historical site but also an active theater. In 1866 the federal government bought the theater and in 1932 opened the Lincoln Museum. It was entrusted to the National Park Service in 1933.
It underwent extensive restoration in 1964. While we were there workers were busy preparing for the next performance.
A portrait of the Lincoln family was painted by Samuel B. Waugh. The print showing Abraham Lincoln, sitting in chair at the left end of a table with Thomas sitting next to him, Mary Todd is sitting on the right, and Robert Todd is standing behind the table.
After leaving Ford’s Theater we decided to grab a geocache before our next stop. We found one at the US Navy Memorial Plaza. There have been many times where finding a geocache has taken us places we would not have ordinarily found. This is one of those times, made even more special by the group of Navy veterans visiting that day.
Next up was the National Archives Museum. We did not need a timed pass for this museum.
We came here to see the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. They are located in an area called the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. The three documents are known as the Charters of Freedom. They are located in a cool room with dim light to prolong the life of the documents. No photography is allowed for the same reason. The writing on the Declaration of Independence is very faded and hard to read. The parchment document had once been proudly displayed for 35 years in a window of the Patent Office Building where it had been exposed to sunlight. We waited in a short line to get in since they only allow a limited number of people in the Rotunda at a time.
Today, the documents are sealed in glass “in the most scientifically advanced housing that preservation technology can provide”. There is a guard standing by the four-pages of the Constitution of the United States and he will scold you if you lean on the glass for a closer look. (I know from personal experience.) When Bill visited here many years ago he was told that at night they lower the documents into underground vaults for safekeeping. When Bill mentioned that to one of the guards, she said she could not confirm or deny that. Times have changed!
After a quick lunch at the food court in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, we headed to our last stop of the day, the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian. We also did not need an entry pass for this building. We had really looked forward to visiting this museum but it was later in the day and I think at this point we were really tired after three days of sightseeing. We didn’t spend as much time as originally planned and toured the three floors of exhibits/artifacts rather quickly. The first floor had Inventions, American Enterprise and the Value of Money.
The second floor had American Democracy, Many Voices, One Nation and a very interesting Star-Spangled Banner exhibit.
The third floor had The Price of Freedom, (Bill’s favorite) and the American Presidency and First Ladies exhibits. This was my favorite. Unfortunately all my pictures from the museum are gone from my phone as well as some of Bill’s. We can’t figure out how that happened.
From the Revolution War Exhibit:
General Charles Cornwallis; letter of surrender and sword.
From the Civil War Exhibit:
From the World War II Exhibit:
We were glad to sit down on the metro and get back to the hotel. Another day of walking 5+ miles had caught up with us.
Some closing thoughts on D.C. We were really pleased with our D.C. experience. Everyone was very friendly and helpful, from the workers in the metro to the U.S. park rangers and guides in the museums. Everyone seemed really glad we were there and wanted us to have a great experience. The city itself was clean and felt safe. Even the traffic was tolerable. Unlike other U.S. cities in our recent travels, we did not see homeless encampments, people sleeping on the street or panhandlers.
Next up: a day in Philadelphia