By Brad Dison
Two guys walked into a bar… actually it was a tavern called the “House of Lords” in New York City. The date was Friday, April 7, 1865. Sam and his friend had been close since they were children. In the tavern, Sam and his friend “drank considerably” and discussed Abraham Lincoln’s second presidential inauguration, which Sam’s friend had attended.
The morning of March 4, 1865, in Washington, D.C. was dark and gloomy. The rain came down in torrents. The dirt streets were “a sluice of mud.” One newspaper reported, “The Heavens wept profusely and the streets of Washington deluged in mud!” A short distance from the Capitol, a large procession gathered despite the hard rain. The group consisted of a military escort, firemen, and members of several different civic societies.
Despite the rain and muddy streets, streams of people of all “sexes, ages, colors and conditions” made their way to the Capitol to witness the historic ceremony. People also gathered on the sidewalks along Pennsylvania Avenue all the way to the White House, then known as “the Presidential mansion.” Carriages which would have been in great demand due to the inauguration were in even higher demand because of the weather. It would have been in bad form to arrive for the inauguration wearing dirty, soggy clothing. People who wanted to join the celebrations unsoiled by the rain and mud paid top dollar to ride in one of the city’s hundreds of carriages for hire. In order to make the most profit possible, carriage drivers kept the horses moving at a faster pace than would have been normal for the muddy conditions. Even though the carriages had fenders, the mud still sloshed onto passersby. The thin, wooden carriage wheels sliced deep into the mud and launched the sludge a great distance. Sitting in the tavern, Sam’s friend explained that he had taken such a carriage ride to the Capitol.
President Lincoln had arrived at the Capitol early that morning. He was not trying to beat the rain; it had rained on him the whole way. The President was busy “signing bills as fast as they were enrolled.” Shortly before the inauguration ceremony was to begin at the Capitol, the Presidential “equipage” left the Presidential mansion for the Capitol.
In the front of the procession was a strong force of police on horseback. Next came the military portion which consisted of a regiment of infantry (Veteran Reserves), a battalion of cavalry, and a battery of artillery. The Fire Brigade, which was comprised of government and city Fire Departments, and the visiting firemen from Philadelphia, followed. One newspaper reported, “This display was remarkably fine, and was one of the most attractive features in the procession.” The Presidential carriage, which carried Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln and other members of the Presidential household, was escorted by a United States Marshal and the guard of black horse cavalry who were usually on duty at the Presidential mansion. As the carriage drove along Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd struggled to see who was inside. The Presidential carriage was followed by several civic societies, State delegations and political associations, and a large number of citizens on horseback who had joined the parade of their own volition. The procession was much larger and imposing than had been anticipated considering the weather. While the procession was en route to the Capitol, the “clouds broke away, and the sun shone out with great splendor, giving the scene a bright and cheerful aspect.”
Inside the Capital building, last minute details pertaining to the inaugural ceremonies were finalized. Guards stood at the entrance on the eastern front. All other entrances to the Capital were closed. At ten o’clock, the doors to the eastern entrance were opened. Some people were crushed as the crowd rushed through the doors and scrambled to find seats. Within minutes, every available space in the chamber was occupied. Keeping order was nearly impossible.
Just before noon, the official procession, which consisted of members of the Supreme Court, President Lincoln and Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, members of the cabinet, and other government officials, filed into the chamber. Vice President Hamlin presented a heartfelt farewell speech. Vice President elect Andrew Johnson made a speech which was “remarkable only for its incoherence, which brought a blush to the cheek of every Senator and official of the government who was present.” Following his speech, Mr. Johnson took the oath of office as Vice President. Then came the moment that the crowd had come to see. The official procession moved to the platform in from of the portico of the eastern front of the Capitol. An estimated thirty to forty thousand people, most of which had to stand in the deep mud, broke out into enthusiastic cheers upon President Lincoln’s appearance before them.
At the table in the “House of Lords” tavern, Sam’s friend told him that he had a good view of President Lincoln. Unlike the majority of onlookers, his status was such that he was able to watch the inauguration from a clean, dry, raised balcony overlooking President Lincoln. Sam’s friend bragged that he had been as close to the President as he was to his friend sitting at the table. Sam’s friend was there when Lincoln spoke the words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds…”
With the conclusion of President Lincoln’s speech, a battery of artillery stationed near the Capitol fired a national salute, and the jubilant onlookers cheered again. Sam’s friend watched as the procession returned to the interior of the Capitol and escorted Mr. Lincoln to the Presidential mansion. Sitting in the bar in New York, Sam listened intently as his friend shared the details of the day and was taken aback by what his friend said next. Sam’s friend struck the table and said, “What an excellent chance I had to killed the President, if I had wished, on inauguration day!” Exactly one week after Sam and his friend discussed the second inauguration at a tavern in New York City, April 14, 1865, Sam’s friend shot President Abraham Lincoln. Sam Chester’s friend was John Wilkes Booth.
- New York Daily Herald, March 5, 1865, p.2.
- The Daily Milwaukee News, March 5, 1865, p.1.
- Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia), April 15, 1865, p.1.
- Edward Jr. Steers, The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 45.
- “History Detectives Episode 8, Lincoln Assassination,” PBS, accessed March 10, 2022, -tc.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/static/media/transcripts/2011-04-01/108_lincoln.pdf.
- Dave Taylor, “Booth at Lincoln’s Second Inauguration,” LincolnConspirators.com, May 31, 2012, //lincolnconspirators.com/2012/05/31/booth-at-lincolns-second-inauguration/#:~:text=Then%20in%20the%20February%2013,his%20pictures%20of%20the%20inauguration.
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