“There was a cheerless cold and everything seemed gloomy”
“The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals, and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven”. This sentence was written 151 years ago today by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of Navy, Gideon Welles. Lincoln often referred to him as his “Neptune”. He is writing, of course, of the passing of President Abraham Lincoln, who died at Peterson House in Washington DC on April 15th, 1865. The diary entry of Gideon Welles from this day is really resonating with me today and I felt I should write a post about it.
As he lay dying, Lincoln was surrounded by doctors, politicians, members of his cabinet and his son, Robert. Of Robert, Welles writes that “he bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner”. This passage captures some of what everyone in that room must have been feeling as they watched Abraham Lincoln’s life slip away. The sadness and grief that was present in the room must have been profound from the moment he was brought to Peterson House to the minutes following his death.
Upon his death, the room is said to have fallen silent for a few minutes.
Welles tells us that eventually “a prayer followed from Dr. Gurley”. The words of this prayer are not known. All of us who study and read about Lincoln know that Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War spoke next. There is some debate as to what he said and it was either “Now he belongs to the angels” or “Now he belongs to the ages”. Either way, those words have become immortalized and will forever be associated with the passing of Abraham Lincoln.
Eventually, Welles made his way home. His wife, Mary Jane, was very good friends with Mary Lincoln. While Mary Jane had not been well “and confined to the house from indisposition for a week”, after a second messenger arrived at the house and she learned the details of what happened, she went to the White House (which Welles also refers to as the Executive Mansion) to be with Mary Lincoln.
Welles, by the time he arrived home, had been up all night. He described himself as being “wearied, shocked, exhausted, but not inclined to sleep, the day, when not actually and officially engaged, passed strangely”. I felt upon reading this passage that everything must have felt very surreal to him at that time.
He makes his way over to the Executive Mansion. The weather that day captured the mood and grief of the entire city, a grief that would eventually flow through the country:
“There was a cheerless cold rain and everything seemed gloomy”.
The gloomy, inclement weather had not stopped a crowd from gathering:
“On the Avenue in front of the White House were several hundred coloured people, mostly women and children, weeping and wailing their loss. This crowd did not appear to diminish through the whole of that cold, wet day; they seemed not to know what was to be their fate since their great benefactor was dead, and their hopeless grief affected me more than almost anything else, though strong and brave men wept when I met them”.
He describes the White House as being silent. When he went to leave with Attorney General James Speed (brother of Lincoln’s very good friend, Joshua Speed), Welles writes about Tad and captures not only Tad’s grief but his own:
“As we were descending the stairs, “Tad”, who was looking from the window at the foot, turned and seeing us, cried aloud in his tears, “Oh, Mr. Welles, who killed my father?”. Neither Speed nor myself could restrain our tears, nor give the poor boy any satisfactory answer”.
It was quite profound to read about the day of April 15th, 1865 as Gideon Welles experienced it. While the entry is short, I believe it captures some of the grief that was being felt and how surreal all the events must have been for those involved. All of this happened 151 years ago today. 151 years. And here I am writing about it. Here I am feeling sadness. A friend and fellow Lincoln fan and I were talking earlier today about how amazing it is that 151 years later, the assassination and death of Abraham Lincoln still resonates with people and moves them. We still feel grief 151 years later. It truly is remarkable and a testament to what an amazing person Lincoln truly was and that he still means so very much to us.
Source: Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson