Looking Back At Abraham Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address

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A scene in front of the East front of the U.S. Capitol is seen during President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, 1865, just six weeks before his assassination. (AP Photo/File)
A scene in front of the East front of the U.S. Capitol is seen during President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, 1865, just six weeks before his assassination. (AP Photo/File)

This segment was rebroadcast on March 4, 2021. For that audio, click here.

On March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln stood at the U.S. Capitol to deliver his second inaugural address.

Lincoln’s second inauguration came within days of the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War — and the eventual end of slavery in the U.S. His words were later etched inside the Lincoln Memorial.

A new book focuses on what Lincoln said, but also on some of the historical figures who were in the crowd that day.

“I think this is his greatest speech, and it's this kind of a spooky, strange speech,” says Edward Achorn, author of “Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.”

Actor John Wilkes Booth, an ardent supporter of the southern cause, listened in the crowd that day. Achorn says Booth thought Lincoln was a tyrant who should be removed. He killed the president a few weeks later at Ford’s Theatre, but some suspect he tried to do it sooner at his second inauguration.

“He got a pass into the Capitol building and he used that pass to slip men behind Lincoln when Lincoln was walking out to the platform and somebody apprehended him,” Achorn says. “God knows what would have happened if they hadn't. There's a lot of people who thought Booth wanted to kill Lincoln right on the platform in the way maybe like Brutus killing [Julius] Caesar at the Senate.”

Poet Walt Whitman covered the inauguration for The New York Times. Achorn says Whitman wrote more about the setting of the speech, which makes him “wonder how well he heard it.”

“He wrote about a cloud over Lincoln's head like a bird of peace. And he wrote about the sun coming out. And he wrote about being able to see Venus up in the sky,” Achorn says. “And he thought all these things were quite poetic statements that this suffering was finally coming to an end.”

Famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass also attended the inauguration despite his past criticism of Lincoln. As Achorn writes, Douglass disparaged Lincoln as devoid of anti-slavery conviction, but on this day, he heard Lincoln condemn slavery as a grave sin that caused the Civil War.

“He came to understand that Lincoln was a statesman who had to time his actions to what the public would accept, and I think that's a very poignant thing to see,” Achorn says.

Later that night at a White House reception, Douglass told Lincoln his speech was “a sacred effort.” Lincoln wasn’t religious, but had clearly spoken in biblical terms during his speech.

He ended it with these 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; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Achorn says Lincoln’s speech was a message of unity at a time when many people wanted the South and Confederate leaders to be punished.

“Lincoln had a different approach to that, and I think he had a sane and more pragmatic approach,” he says. “I think that the level of horror of that war called for charity at the end of it.”

Alex Ashlock and Chris Ballman produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: 'Every Drop Of Blood'

By Edward Achorn
From Chapter 9


Saturday morning, March 4, 1865

Lincoln had received warnings that he was in danger many times. Before his first inauguration on March 4, 1861, alerted to plausible evidence of a plot to kill him, Lincoln had scrapped some of his scheduled public appearances and entered Washington secretly, accompanied by Lamon, who was armed with a brace of pistols and a bowie knife. The diversion had earned Lincoln sneers from the opposition press, which excoriated him for skulking into town like a coward. Sobered by that experience, Lincoln decided to ignore the death warnings. In March 1864, Francis Bicknell Carpenter, while painting Lincoln’s face into his grand work, asked the president about rumors of a plot to kidnap him. “Well, even if true, I do not see what the Rebels would gain by killing or getting possession of me. I am but a single individual, and it would not help their cause or make the least difference in the progress of the war. Everything would go right on just the same,” Lincoln replied. The barrage of menacing letters began when he was propelled into national prominence as the Republicans’ presidential candidate in 1860. “Soon after I was nominated at Chicago, I began to receive letters threatening my life. The first one or two made me a little uncomfortable, but I came at length to look for a regular instalment of this kind of correspondence in every week’s mail, and up to inauguration day I was in constant receipt of such letters. It is no uncommon thing to receive them now; but they have ceased to give me any apprehension.” When Carpenter expressed surprise, Lincoln replied, “Oh, there is nothing like getting used to things!”

"Every Drop Of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln" by Edward Achorn. (Courtesy)
"Every Drop Of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln" by Edward Achorn. (Courtesy)

The presidential secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay confirmed that “his mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, mostly anonymous, the proper expression of vile and cowardly minds.” Some contained crude drawings of Lincoln being hanged. Some were splashed with red ink depicting blood. When John W. Forney—the newspaper editor and Senate secretary who threw the stag party for Andrew Johnson on the eve of his inauguration—was visiting Lincoln in his office in 1865, the president acknowledged that he constantly received death threats. Lincoln simply stuck them into a pigeonhole in his desk. “In that place I have filed eighty just such things as these. I know I am in danger; but I am not going to worry over threats like these,” he said.

Lincoln’s indifference to it all no doubt contributed to his weak security. For much of the war, people could simply walk into the White House, virtually at will, sometimes getting all the way to his personal secretary’s office without being stopped. One tourist from Dubuque, Iowa, pushed her way into a Cabinet meeting, determined to get a look at the president. Lincoln let her in. “Well, in the matter of looking at one another,” the president said, laughing, “I have altogether the advantage.” Oblivious to the notion that he was an open target, Lincoln wandered out of the White House at almost any hour, day or night, and walked “across the lawn to the War Department for a consultation or to seek some news,” journalist William A. Croffut recalled. The president had a particularly unnerving habit of going to the theater unguarded, accompanied only by Mary or one or two friends. “To-night, as you have done on several previous occasions, you went unattended to the theater,” an exasperated Lamon lectured the president in December 1864. “When I say unattended, I mean that you went alone with Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city. And you know, or ought to know, that your life is sought after, and will be taken unless you and your friends are cautious; for you have many enemies within our lines.”

Growing more fearful for Lincoln’s life as the war went on, Lamon asked that four or five men from the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department be assigned to guard the White House. William Crook, who took up the guard position in January 1865, noted that Lincoln accepted the threats stoically. “He believed that if anybody was bad enough to kill him there was nothing on earth to prevent it,” Crook said. Secretary of State William Seward, perhaps Lincoln’s closest adviser, scoffed at reports of assassination plans. In a letter to John Bigelow, the American consul in Paris, he argued that they “furnish no ground for anxiety. Assassination is not an American practice or habit, and one so vicious and desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system.” While a would-be assassin had fired twice at Andrew Jackson three decades earlier—the irascible sixty-seven-year-old Jackson beat him with his cane after both guns misfired, while Congressman Davy Crockett wrestled the man to the ground—no one had ever killed a president.

Lincoln loved to escape the intense pressures of the White House when he could. In hot weather, he regularly departed the stifling mansion late in the afternoon to stay overnight at a cottage on the breezy, sloping green grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a retirement home for veterans just outside the city. For Seward, that mere fact confirmed there was no cause for alarm. “He goes to and fro from that place on horseback, night and morning, unguarded. I go there unattended at all hours, by daylight and moonlight, by starlight and without any light,” the secretary of state wrote. All the same, Mary Lincoln fretted about her husband’s safety, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton assigned a cavalry guard to accompany him to and from the cottage, while a permanent detachment of armed guards oversaw the house. Lincoln complained that “he and Mrs. Lincoln couldn’t hear themselves talk for the clatter of their sabres and spurs”—and, given that so many of the guards were new soldiers, “he was more afraid of being shot by the accidental discharge of one of their carbines or revolvers, than of any attempt on his life.” A drummer boy named Harry M. Kieffer, serving with the guards at the Soldiers’ Home, noted that Lincoln liked to take off on his own, just as he had this Inauguration Day. “Often did I see him enter his carriage before the hour appointed for his morning departure for the White House, and drive away in haste, as if to escape from the irksome escort of a dozen cavalry-men, whose duty it was to guard his carriage between our camp and the city.” When the escort arrived, ten or fifteen minutes later, and it “found that the carriage had already gone, wasn’t there a clattering of hoofs and a rattling of scabbards as they dashed out past the gate and down the road to overtake the great and good President,” Kieffer wrote with amusement.

Lincoln’s trips back and forth were so regular that Whitman often paused to watch him go by. “I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town,” the poet wrote.

Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easygoing gray horse, is dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man. A lieutenant, with yellow straps, rides at his left, and following behind, two by two, come the cavalry men, in their yellow-striped jackets. They are generally going at a slow trot, as that is the pace set them by the one they wait upon. The sabres and accoutrements clank, and the entirely unornamental cortège as it trots towards Lafayette square arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes.

Like others, Whitman worried that the president was taking needless risks. “The reb cavalry come quite near us, dash in & steal wagon trains, &c—It would be funny if they should come some night to the President’s country house, (soldier’s home,) where he goes out to sleep every night—it is in the same direction as their saucy raid last Sunday,” Walt wrote, on July 30, 1863, to his mother. “I really think it would be safer for him just now to stop at the White House, but I expect he is too proud to abandon the former custom.” For all of Seward’s absence of concern, the possibility of Lincoln’s abduction or killing seemed plain enough to journalist Noah Brooks, who noted: “To my unsophisticated judgment nothing seems easier than a sudden cavalry raid from the Maryland side of the fortifications, past the few small forts, to seize the President of the United States, lug him from his ‘chased couch,’ and carry him off as a hostage worth having.” That, indeed, was one of John Wilkes Booth’s plans.

One night in August 1864, around eleven o’clock, Lincoln, deep in thought, was traveling to the cottage alone on his horse, “jogging along at a slow gait,” when a gun went off, and a bullet whizzed near the president’s ear. The horse, panicked, bolted. “At a break-neck speed we soon arrived in a haven of safety,” Lincoln recounted to Lamon, noting he lost his hat. “I was left in doubt whether death was more desirable from being thrown from a runaway federal horse, or as the tragic result of a rifle-ball fired by a disloyal bushwacker in the middle of the night,” Lincoln laughed. A private on duty named John W. Nichols confirmed the incident, recalling that he heard a shot at eleven p.m. and saw Lincoln, bareheaded, dash up to the gate on horseback soon thereafter. Nichols and a corporal investigated. At the intersection of the driveway and the main road, they found the president’s silk hat—with a bullet hole through the crown. “The shot had been fired upward, and it was evident that the person who fired the shot had secreted himself close by the roadside,” Nichols said.

The next day Nichols handed President Lincoln his hat and pointed out the hole. “He remarked rather unconcernedly, that it was put there by some foolish gunner and was not intended for him.” Nonetheless, Lincoln admonished the soldiers to keep the matter secret. “We felt confident that it was an attempt to kill him, and a well nigh successful one, too. The affair was, of course, kept quiet in compliance with the President’s request,” Nichols recalled. “After that the President never rode alone.”

But even surrounded by others, the president would never be perfectly safe from a determined assassin. As the presidential carriage passed Booth, the Philadelphia Inquirer later reported, the actor turned from his friend without a farewell and hurried away. He intended to get inside the Capitol.

Excerpted from EVERY DROP OF BLOOD © 2020 by Edward Achorn. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

This segment aired on March 5, 2020.


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Alex Ashlock Producer, Here & Now
Alex Ashlock was a producer for Here & Now since 2005. He started his WBUR career as senior producer of Morning Edition in 1998.



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