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From Our Archives: I Saw Lincoln Slain

 

She found herself in Washington like millions before and since, a young woman from somewhere else—in this case Connecticut—quickly taken with her newfound closeness to the pomp of the Federal seat of government.

Back in 1865, Washington was also capital of a nation split by a brutal civil war entering its last months. Sarah Russell, a minister’s daughter, would twice see President Lincoln with her own eyes—at the White House on the evening of his second inauguration, March 4, and a few weeks later on Good Friday, April 14, Ford’s Theatre.

Currier & Ives

Jump ahead four decades to a roomy two-story home with picket fence on Lee Highway in the East Fall Church neighborhood.  Sarah Norton Russell Eastman (1847-1939), mother of two impressive young men and wife of a Union veteran, is placing her memories onto the modest lines of a composition book. Points of popular history supplement her recall and at times a fact or two come out wrong. But it’s Mrs. Eastman’s brief glimpses of Lincoln, both in celebration and mortally wounded, that shine like well-kept heirlooms.

“His shirt was open showing blood on his chest.”

Arlington Public Library’s Virginia Room is home to the Eastman-Fenwick Collection, a large mix of personal papers, Civil War and World War I front-line correspondence, photographs, maps and other materials that include Sarah Eastman’s, and those of several generations including her granddaughter’s husband, Virginia delegate, state senator and gubernatorial candidate Charles R. Fenwick. The Arlington Democrat was a key proponent of regional mass transit and his name is attached to Metro’s Yellow Line span of the 14th Street Bridge.  Fenwick was also a political intimate of John and Robert Kennedy.

The Eastman-Fenwick House, 6733 Lee Highway, is still a family home.

 

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A transcription of Sarah Eastman’s account of seeing Abraham Lincoln during March and April 1865:

 

My Recollection of the Assassination of

President Abraham Lincoln.

 

In January 1865, before the close of the

Civil War, I came to Washington to live, and

witnessed many of the exciting scenes of

that period.

 

I saw President Lincolns second

Inauguration and helped dress my Sister to

ride in a float in the parade, which was

an impromptu affair. Thirteen girls dressed

in white with red white and blue, carrying

flags rode on the float.

 

That evening I attended the reception to

President Lincoln’ second inaugural reception

The President at the White House. At the

front door a certain number of persons were

admitted at a time, and when the door was

closed the crowd surging back actually

lifted me off the my feet. After entering, persons

passed through the hall into the Blue

Room, and after shaking hands with the

President and Mrs. Lincoln passed into

the East Room, making their exit through

 

[page 2]

one of the windows onto a platform extending

from the windowsill to the front fence, then

down a few steps to the pavement.

 

My father had been a minister in

Connecticut, and was opposed to the Theatre, so it

was after long urging and the argument that

Ford's Theatre, April 1865

General Grant was to be at the Theater with the

President that evening, that he gave his consent

to my going. I sat in the dress circle nearly

opposite the box in which the President was seated.

The play was Our American Cousin. When the

Presidential Party came in, Lord Dundreary was

just asking the conundrum [“]Why does a dog

wag his tail[?”], and after the applause given the

President he repeated it. The play went

on, then at a moment when the stage was

clear there was a pistol flash and John Wilkes

Booth jumped from the box in which the

President was sitting onto the stage. In jumping

his foot caught in the flag decorating the box

and he apparently sat for an instant on the stage.

Rushing across the stage, about in the middle,

he turned, brandishing a dagger that glistened

[page 3]

in the gas light, and calling out “Sic Semper Tyranus [sic]”

was gone into the alley where a boy was holding

his horse. Being familiar with the Theater he

knew how to arrange the passages so that nothing

would obstruct his course.

 

For a moment every one was dazed, there was

quiet, but almost immediately word spread

around The President has been shot. Then the

confusion was awful. Women fainted, some tried

to climb over the backs of chairs, men rushed on to

the stage, some climbed to the box with water,

Laura Keene came on the stage and with arms

outstretched implored the audience to be calm.

Twice she came out in that manner. After that

she was in the box with Mrs. Lincoln.

 

In going out I reached the top of the stairs just

as the President was being carried down on a

stretcher. Laura Keene was following calling

[“]Make way for Mrs. Lincoln,[“] who was crying

[“]Let me get the assassin, Oh take me to him.[“]

His shirt was open showing blood on his chest.

He was taken to a house opposite where he

died the next morning.

 

[page 4]

There was a plot to assassinate some of

the Cabinet that night. Secretary of State Seward

was attacked, on his sick bed, and seriously

injured, his Son having a tussle with the assassin.

 

Secretary of War Stanton was an intended

victim but was not found where the plotters

supposed him to be. General Grant who was

advertised to be at the Theater was suddenly

called out of the city.

 

Accompanying the President and Mrs. Lincoln

was Major Rathburn [sic] and Miss Harris – afterward

married.

 

There were six persons in the plot

Mrs. Surratt, at whose house on H St near 5th NW

their meetings were held, her Son John H. Surratt,

Payne, who attacked Secretary Seward, Harrold [sic],

Atzerolt [sic] and Mudd. After trial three were

executed  – hung – on the grounds of Old Capitol Prison.

(The ground now occupied by the New Senate Office  Bldg.)

Mrs. Surratt, Payne, Atzerolt. The others were

banished to Dry Tortugus [sic].

 

A few words about Miss Keene

 

[page 5]

The performance that evening was

advertised as a Benefit, also her last night.

The President, with a full house must have

been an incentive to do her best. She was

gowned in white satin brocaded with pink

roses and green leaves, cut with tight bodice,

low neck, short sleeves and full shirt, in

which she made a pleasing picture.

 

I quote from a program which I have preserved.

 

Playbill. Smithsonian Institution

Benefit and Last Night of Miss Laura Keene

the distinguished managerist [sic], authorist [sic] and

actress. Supported by John Doytt and

Henry [sic] Hawk, in Tom Taylors celebrated eccentric

comedy. As originally produced by Miss Keene

and performed by her upwards of 1000 nights

Entitled, Our American Cousin.

 

Copied into this book February 1905.

Sarah N. Eastman.

Comments (2)

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  1. [...] Library Archive Contains Lincoln Letter — Today is Emancipation Day: President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves exactly 150 years ago, on April 16, 1862. Meanwhile, Lincoln was assassinated 147 years ago Saturday, on April 14, 1865. A letter from Arlington Public Library’s Virginia Room archives provides a personal, handwritten account of the assassination. [Arlington Public Library] [...]

  2. Barbara says:

    I didn’t know the Virginia Room contained such treasures. Fabulous

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