Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on the Death of Abraham Lincoln

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

Gideon Welles kept an extensive diary during his time in office as Secretary of the Navy under Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson. At that time, the Secretary of the Navy was a cabinet level position, and Welles was present for, and witnessed, most of the historical events that occurred in the Lincoln Administration. That included the death of Lincoln on April 15th, 1865, a few hours after the President had been shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre the night of the 14th.

Welles had turned in for the night on April 14th when he was awakened by a messenger with word of the assassination attempt on Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. Welles walked over to Seward’s house, which was nearby, to check on the Secretary (who suffered knife wounds but would recover) before departing for Ford’s Theater in a carriage, accompanied by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

The wounded and unconscious Lincoln had been carried to the Peterson House, a boarding house across the street from the theater. Welles and Stanton arrived, and Welles recorded the events that followed:

The President had been carried across the street from the theatre, to the house of a Mr. Peterson. We entered by ascending a flight of steps above the

Abraham Lincoln in February 1865

basement and passing through a long hall to the rear, where the President lay extended on a bed, breathing heavily. Several surgeons were present, at least six, I should think more. Among them I was glad to observe Dr. Hall, who, however, soon left. I inquired of Dr. H., as I entered, the true condition of the President. He replied the President was dead to all intents, although he might live three hours or perhaps longer.

The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton

Senator Sumner was there, I think, when I entered. If not, he came in soon after, as did Speaker Colfax, Mr. Secretary McCulloch, and other members of the Cabinet, with the exception of Mr. Seward. A double guard was stationed at the door and on the sidewalk, to repress the crowd, which was of course highly excited and anxious. The room was small and overcrowded. The surgeons and members of the Cabinet were as many as should have been in the room, but there were many more, and the hall and other rooms in the front or main house were full. One of these rooms was occupied by Mrs. Lincoln and her attendants, with Miss Harris. Mrs. Dixon and Mrs. Kinney came to her about twelve o’clock. About once an hour Mrs. Lincoln would repair to the bedside of her dying husband and with lamentation and tears remain until overcome by emotion.

[April 15.] A door which opened upon a porch or gallery, and also the windows, were kept open for fresh air. The night was dark, cloudy, damp, and about six it began to rain. I remained in the room until then without sitting or leaving it, when there being a vacant chair which someone left at the foot of the bed, I occupied it for nearly two hours, listening to the heavy groans, and witnessing the wasting life of the good and great man who was expiring before me.

Scene at the Death Bed of Abraham Lincoln, Harper’s Weekly, May 6, 1865. Welles is seated at left.

At about 6 A.M. I experienced a feeling of faintness and for the first time after entering the room, a little past eleven, I left it and the house, and took a short walk in the open air…

Returning to the house, I seated myself in the back parlor, where the Attorney-General and others had been engaged in taking evidence concerning the assassination. Stanton, and Speed, and Usher were there, the latter asleep on the bed. There were three or four others also in the room. While I did not feel inclined to sleep, as many did, I was somewhat indisposed. I had been so for several days. The excitement and bad atmosphere from the crowded rooms oppressed me physically.

A little before seven, I went into the room where the dying President was rapidly drawing near the closing moments. His wife soon made her last visit to him. The death-struggle had begun, Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of the bed. He bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals, and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven.

The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln by Alonzo Chappel

A prayer followed from Dr. Gurley; and the Cabinet, with the exception of Mr. Seward and Mr. McCulloch, immediately thereafter assembled in the back parlor, from which all other persons were excluded, and there signed a letter which was prepared by Attorney-General Speed to the Vice-President, informing him of the event, and that the government devolved upon him…

Attorney General James Speed

I arranged with Speed, with whom I rode home, for a Cabinet-meeting at twelve meridian at the room of the Secretary of the Treasury, in order that the government should experience no detriment, and that prompt and necessary action might be taken to assist the new Chief Magistrate in preserving and promoting the public tranquility. We met accordingly at noon. Mr. Speed reported that the President had taken the oath, which was administered by the Chief Justice, and had expressed a desire that the affairs of the government should proceed without interruption…

I went after breakfast to the Executive Mansion. There was a cheerless cold rain and everything seemed gloomy. On the Avenue in front of

Abraham Lincoln’s Death Bed

the White House were several hundred colored 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.

At the White House all was silent and sad. Mrs. W. was with Mrs. L., and came to meet me in the library. Speed came in, and we soon left together. 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.

Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson, Volume II April 1, 1864-December 31, 1866.

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