In 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant could not remember ever being so bored in his entire life. He looked to his left and saw that the President was laughing, Mrs. Lincoln, also laughing, was clinging to his arm. What did the President see in this play, he wondered? As far as he could tell the plot of Our American Cousin concerned an awkward young man, who would not have lasted five minutes on any of his battlefields, meeting his English relatives.
A Night at the TheaterGrant was seated in the theatre box in with Mrs. Lincoln to his left and his own wife, Julia, to his right. Julia had barely spoken to him since he had told her they would be attending the theatre with the Lincoln's that night.
A new story by Charles R. Testrake"What do you mean we will be attending the theatre with the Lincoln's tonight?" Julia said.
"My dear, the President insisted," said Grant.
"I will not socialize with that woman," said Julia. "Not after what happened at City Point. Don't you remember?"
Grant did remember. A month earlier he had invited the President to visit his army while on campaign in Virginia. The President accepted the invitation, and was accompanied by his wife.
On the second day of the visit, Grant personally escorted the President, by horseback, to an Army review at the encampment of General Edward Ord. Julia and Mrs. Lincoln followed behind them by wagon, under the care of one of Grant's officers. The men arrived first, and the President immediately ordered the review to begin. Grant mildly protested, suggesting that they wait for the arrival of the ladies. The President would have none of it, saying that it was unfair to the soldiers who had already been waiting for several hours.
When Julia and Mrs. Lincoln finally did arrive, the review was well underway. Mrs. Lincoln then noticed the wife of General Ord riding near her husband.
"What does this woman mean by riding by the side of the President and ahead of me?" said Mrs. Lincoln. "Does she suppose that he wants her by the side of him?"
Upon spotting the newly arrived ladies, Mrs. Ord excused herself to join them. When she reached the reviewing stand, she was met with violent tongue lashing by the First Lady. Mrs. Ord broke into tears. Julia came to the defense of her friend, suggesting that this was merely a misunderstanding. Mrs. Lincoln then shifted her venom onto Julia.
"I suppose you think you'll get to the White House yourself, don't you?" said Mrs. Lincoln.
"I am quite satisfied with my present position," said Julia. "It is far greater than I had ever expected to attain".
"Oh! You had better take if you can get it," responded Mrs. Lincoln. "Tis very nice".
For rest of that day, Mrs. Lincoln continued her diatribe to the great annoyance of everyone in the presidential entourage. The President responded to this situation by simply ignoring it. The following morning he told Grant that Mrs. Lincoln was ill and thus could not join them that day. She did not rejoin the party for several more days.
"We are not going tonight," said Julia.
"My dear we are going," said Grant. "Now go select a dress to wear".
"We are not going," retorted Julia angrily. "You are the general who just won the war. Stand up to him!"
"He is the President of the United States and my commanding officer," said Grant. "We are going to the theatre with the Lincoln's and that is the end of this discussion".
Throughout the evening, Mrs. Lincoln had been a model of civility, complimenting Julia on numerous occasions. Julia for her part had been polite but reserved. She did not seem to be enjoying the play either. The Lincoln's, on the other hand, were having the time of their lives.
"What will Mrs. Grant think of my hanging on to you so?" Grant overheard Mrs. Lincoln whisper to her husband.
"She won't think anything about it," replied the President.
"Don't know the manners of good society, eh?" said the actor of stage. "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!" The audience erupted into laughter. Grant turned his head to see that the Lincoln's were in hysterics. Then out of the corner of his left eye he saw a well dressed man with a mustache. He was standing behind the President. The man raised his right arm. He had a pistol.
Grant sprung to his feet, his left arm braced to the back of Mrs. Lincoln's chair as he propelled himself forward. He did even notice that his actions had pushed Mrs. Lincoln to the floor. He reached the assassin and gripped his right arm; diverting the aim of the pistol. It fired, but the billet disappeared over the heads of the crowd below.
Grant attempted to take the pistol from the man's hand. Suddenly he felt the air being sucked from his body. He released his grip from the assassin, and tried to take in a breath, but no air would enter his lungs. He looked down and saw a knife being pulled from his stomach. He had been stabbed. He felt the blood gushing from his body. It was soaking his dress uniform. Grant stumble backwards in a daze, spinning around. He was chocking. He forced himself to cough and vast amounts of blood protruded from his mouth, entangling in his whiskers. He turned around. The assassin was advancing on the President.
President Abraham Lincoln could not remember the last time he had enjoyed a play so much. It made him laugh. During the last four years there had not been much to laugh about. Even Mary seemed to be enjoying the play. She had laughed just as much as he did.
Lincoln was relieved that Mary was not in one of her black moods that evening. He knew they could strike at anytime and without warning. Winters were always a bad time; especially since the death of their son Willie. Yet it was now spring. There was a new hope in the air. The war was at last, almost over.
Lincoln looked to his right, and saw that General Grant had a glazed look in his eyes, and that Mrs. Grant was yawning. They had not laughed once this entire evening. They had made a most unsatisfactory theater party. Lincoln now regretted having forced Grant into accepting his invitation those so many hours before.
The cabinet meeting started promptly at eleven in the morning. Everyone was present except for Secretary of State William Seward, who was recovering from a near fatal riding accident; and Secretary of War Edward Stanton, who was late. Stanton's tardiness mildly annoyed Lincoln, but he kept it to himself.
"Has there been any news from General Sherman?" asked Lincoln.
"No, Mr. President," said Grant. "At least none when I left the War Department".
Lincoln had been hoping for a wire from General William Sherman that would announce the surrender of General Joseph Johnston, the commanding officer of the last major Confederate Army still in the field.
"Well, perhaps Stanton will have some news when he arrives," said Lincoln. In a mood generosity, he decided to stall for a few more minutes and give his Secretary of War a little more time. "I had a dream last night".
"What kind of dream was it?" asked Gideon Wells, the Secretary of the Navy.
"It relates to your element, Mr. Wells, the water," said Lincoln. "I seem to be in some indescribable vessel, and I was moving with great rapidity toward an indefinite shore. I have had this dream before".
"What do you think it means?" asked Wells.
"I had this dream preceding Sumter, and Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stone River, Vicksburg, and Wilmington," said Lincoln. "It could mean victory is upon on us".
"Stone River was certainly no victory," said Grant. "Nor can I think of any great results following it".
"Quite true, General," said Lincoln. "But I had this strange dream again last night, and we shall, judging from the past, have great news very soon. I think it must be from Sherman. My thoughts are in that direction".
A mood of melancholy had descended across the cabinet room. Lincoln felt embarrassed. Why had he told them of his dream? He was relieved when the door opened and Stanton walked in.
"My apologies, Mr. President," said Stanton. "I was hoping to bring news from General Sherman, but there was none".
"It is quite all right Stanton," said Lincoln. "Sit down".
Over the next three hours, the cabinet discussed various proposals for the reconstruction of the South. Sitting in his father's place was Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward, who proposed a detailed plan aimed at restoring the commerce of the South. Seward concluded his presentation by stating that; "The United States Government should resume the business of the South and that at the same time, it should take care that the constitutional rights of private citizens are not molested or impeded".
Lincoln was quite enthusiastic about this plan. "We must reanimate the southern states," he said. "I am immensely relieved though that Congress is not currently in session".
"Will you bring them back?" asked Seward.
"Of course not!" said Lincoln. The cabinet members erupted into laughter. Lincoln then turned to Stanton, and asked him to give his presentation.
Unlike the younger Seward, Stanton was completely reliant upon his notes. Only twice did he even lift his head from the stack of papers before him. The majority of his presentation dealt with the reestablishment of southern state governments and the re-exertion of federal authority.
Wells protested Stanton's plan stating that it was "in conflict with the principles of self-government".
Stanton countered, "I realize that this matter needs more study, but I was asked by the President to draw these plans for this meeting. I have done my best".
"And we thank you," said Lincoln. He thought Stanton's plan was too harsh, but he did not want to criticize it at this time. There were elements of the plan which would be useful in conjunction with Seward's plan; although Stanton's idea of merging the state governments of Virginia and North Carolina was ridiculous.
"I suggest that each member of the cabinet take copies of the various proposals for further study," said Lincoln. He felt it was time to end the meeting. "If there is nothing else then, we will meet again on Monday". Lincoln rose to his feet, following immediately by every member of his cabinet, whom stood in unison. Lincoln was touched by the gesture. They never used to do that he thought. He had finally earned their respect. "Thank you, gentlemen," Lincoln said.
As the cabinet members slowly departed the room, Lincoln noticed Grant was lingering behind talking to Stanton. Grant was not a member of Lincoln's cabinet, but the President felt it prudent to invite him to the meeting. Although the next election was over three years away, Lincoln considered it extremely likely that Grant was going to be his successor. Lincoln had no intentions of running for a third term.
Lincoln waited for Stanton to depart and then he approached Grant.
"Thank you for coming General," said Lincoln.
"Well thank you for inviting me, Mr. President, it was most interesting".
"How do you think we should deal with reconstruction?" asked Lincoln.
"That is a political matter Sir," said Grant. "It would not be appropriate for me to comment".
"Yes," said Lincoln. "But whatever we decide, you will be the one responsible for carrying it out. So what do you think?"
"Mr. President," said Grant. "The harsher your policies, the more difficult my task will be".
Lincoln nodded. Grant was already the politician. He looked forward to grooming him further.
"Thank you General," said Lincoln. "Mrs. Lincoln and I look forward to yourself and Mrs. Grant attending the theater with us this evening".
"Yes Sir!" said Grant. He looked distressed. "I am afraid we have to decline Mr. President. I promised my wife that we would leave on the evening train for Burlington". Grant paused. "To see our children!"
Lincoln knew that Grant was lying. While he was sure that the Grant's would go to Burlington that was not the reason they were declining his invitation. He knew the reason was Mary. They simple did not want to socialize with her, especially after what had happened at City Point. He could not blame them. Social decorum dictated that he should feign regret, and suggest that they go another time. Then Lincoln thought about the scene that would play out when he told Mother that Grant's had declined their invitation. He just did not have the energy to deal with one of Mother's tantrums that day. He decided to force Grant's hand.
"I am so sorry, General," said Lincoln. "It has already been announced to the newspapers".
"Sir?" said Grant.
"Yes, you see," said Lincoln. "My secretary is a very enthusiastic young man, and he sent out the press release this morning. So as you can see it would disappoint so many people if you and Mrs. Grant did not attend".
"Sir, we have not seen our children in months," protested Grant.
"Fortunately General," responded Lincoln. "There is another train leaving for Burlington tomorrow morning, and my secretary will make sure he reserves you and Mrs. Grant a first class compartment on it".
Grant said nothing for several seconds and then replied; "Well in that case Mr. President, my wife and I would be delighted to attend the theater with you and Mrs. Lincoln.
"What will Mrs. Grant think of my hanging on to you so?" asked Mary.
"She won't think anything about it," replied Lincoln.
"Don't know the manners of good society, eh?" said the actor of stage. "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!"
Lincoln laughed. He laughed harder than he had ever laughed in his entire life. Tears began to form in his eyes from the laughter. He had never been so happy.
Mary was laughing too, as she tugged ever harder onto his left arm. Lincoln turned his head to look at her, and at that moment, he thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Then her chair tipped over and she fell to the floor.
"Mother!" he yelled. Then he was startled by the sound of a gunshot from behind him. He instinctively lowered his head. Lincoln cowered in fear for several seconds as he heard sounds of a struggle. Taking a deep breath, he raised his head. He saw Grant stumbling backwards. Lincoln rose to his feet and noticed a well dressed man with a mustache, who looked oddly familiar. The man was holding a knife in his left hand, which was dripping in blood. There was also a pistol on the floor near his right ankle. The man transferred the bloody knife to his right hand and advanced on Lincoln.
At that instant, Lincoln understood the meaning of his dream. This knife yielding man was his indescribable vessel. His imminent death was the indefinite shore. He closed his eyes. This was the will of God he told himself. He felt no fear.
Grant stealthily came up from behind the assassin. He grabbed his right wrist, trying to free the knife. The assassin's left arm elbowed Grant's stomach wound. Grant cried out in immense pain and let go out the assassin. The assassin turned around stabbed him in the heart. Grant could feel the knife slashing though his rib cage. The pain was intense and all consuming. Every fiber of his being wanted to scream out in agony, but his lungs could not produce the necessary air. Blood soaked his dress uniform.
"The South shall rise again," said the assassin. His eyes were wide and bloodshot. Grant had never seen so much hatred in a man's face. He had to kill this man.
Summoning all the strength that was left in his body, Grant grabbed hold of the assassin with both arms and pu ed him back. Both men hit the railing. Grant's tight hold on the assassin loosened. The assassin tried to throw a right hook to Grant's head, but Grant dodged the punch. The assassin lost his balance, his chest hitting the railing. Grant clutched the assassin's waist and he flipped him over the side. The assassin screamed as he fell to the stage. He landed on his head and was then quiet.
Grant collapsed onto the railing. He looked down upon his defeated foe. The knife was still in his chest. He pulled it out. There was no pain.
"General!" he heard President say.
Shortly before his death in 1901, a reporter asked Lincoln to recount the events of John Wilkes Booth's 1865 assassination attempt. Lincoln stared at the young man and said, "I don't know!"
Indeed Lincoln was never entirely sure about exactly what happened that night. One minute he was waiting to die and the next was standing over a blooded General Grant, the assassin nowhere in sight. It was as if time had bended around that moment.
"General!" said Lincoln. Grant raised his head and looked at him. Lincoln took the General in his arms.
"Mr. President," said Grant. He slumped over in Lincoln's arms and closed his eyes.
"General!" Lincoln screamed. He shook him violently. "General!" Grant did not response. "No!" whimpered Lincoln. "No!" Lincoln began to cry.