Oh Captain! My Captain! With those words, grieving poet Walt Whitman eulogized Abraham Lincoln as the slain commander of a ship of state. Whitman, who lived here during and after the Civil War, never met the president. But he often exchanged nods with the solemn man whose carriage passed along Washington’s streets.
Like Whitman, visitors to this city envision Lincoln in grand terms—the historic figure who has come to represent America itself. But the 16th U.S. president led a real life here, sustaining personal heartaches and public triumphs, and he makes his presence felt across a landscape that pilgrims retrace today on the 150th anniversary of his death.
Who Was Lincoln?
The president had many identities that contribute to his appealing story: in youth, a rail splitter and a wrestler; then an inventor (he patented a lifting device for steamboats trapped on shoals, its model now at the Smithsonian); a Midwest frontier lawyer who practiced, as many did, by “reading” the law, and lost a case before the Supreme Court; and even an unsuccessful politician (his VP candidacy ignored at the 1856 Republican convention, his Senate bid denied).
As a resident of the capital, the twice-elected Lincoln kept to his personal disciplines, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco and reading his Bible daily. Though never a church member, he regularly attended services with his wife and sons on the site of the Presbyterian church at 1313 New York Avenue, where his original pew remains, marked by a silver plate.
Although known for his dark moods and self-isolation, Lincoln sought pleasure in storytelling and literature (especially Shakespeare), the company of cats (his Tabby ate at the White House table) and especially nights at the theater. In fact, the last words he heard came from an actor on stage, delivering a joke in the play “Our American Cousin.”
In His Footsteps
Lincoln looked to George Washington as a heroic model and, in 1848 while a Congressman from Illinois, he visited the first president’s Mount Vernon estate by boat. In 1862, although the Union considered the Virginia site neutral territory, the president stayed onboard for security sake as his wife and others landed for a visit.
The president and his family often retreated north of the city to a charming Gothic Revival manse, now known as President Lincoln’s Cottage. Here Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, mulled strategies of war and grieved for his dead son Willie. What many consider Lincoln’s foolish risk taking, if not naiveté, resulted in close calls—a shot that pierced his stovepipe hat while he rode the grounds on horseback and, a mile or so away, his arrival July 1864 at Fort Stevens for the only Civil War battle fought within Washington’s borders. There Confederate gunfire forced him to take cover and, against his wishes (“I thought I was the commander-in-chief”), leave the field.
Ford’s Theatre, the site of the assassination, offers many ways this month to honor the history made here. But a visit any day includes the poignant sight of the presidential box hovering beside the stage. Lincoln sat with his wife and two guests as John Wilkes Booth entered from the rear and fired a single shot. An American flag hangs on the face of the box, a pristine banner in place of the one ripped by Booth’s spur as he leapt to the stage and escaped.
Also in Penn Quarter, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery share an impressive complex that was once the U.S. Patent Office and, during the Civil War, a hospital for the wounded. By March 6, 1865, Union victory appeared imminent, as Lincoln’s inaugural ball claimed three vast halls—for a promenade, dancing and a 250-foot long buffet. Newspapers reported that the president and Mrs. Lincoln danced past midnight.
Poet Whitman, who worked as a clerk in the building, peered into the rooms before the festivities began. He thought, “To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz.” Yet bitter memories intruded. He had served as a nurse in these rooms, tending to “the worst wounded of the war, brought in from second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburgh.” Like Whitman, visitors now enter these Lincoln-era spaces, and like Whitman, they sense the tragic past.
The Sites and the Tributes
On April 14 and 15, its city block becomes 1865 Washington with historians in period costume and round-the-clock observances. A candlelight vigil April 14 features a performance of “Now He Belongs to the Ages: A Lincoln Commemoration.” On April 15, from 7:22 a.m. to 8:22 a.m., a wreath-laying ceremony takes place at the Petersen House (516 10th Street NW), where Lincoln died. Through May 20, Ford’s stages a new musical “Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.” From March 23 through May 25, the lower-level museum displays objects related to that fateful night: Booth’s Deringer pistol, Mrs. Lincoln’s black velvet cape plus Lincoln’s top hat, Brooks Brothers overcoat and the contents of his pockets: two pairs of spectacles, a knife, a watch fob and a brown leather wallet containing a five-dollar Confederate note.
511 10th St. NW, 202.347.4833
Civil War veterans and Lincoln’s son Robert attended the 1922 dedication of this Greek-style temple by architect Henry Bacon. A brooding, seated Lincoln, Daniel Chester French’s marble statue, gazes toward the U.S. Capitol.
South of Constitution Ave. NW at 23rd St., 202.426.6841
Where all U.S. presidents appear in touchable wax, visitors can enter a replica of the Ford’s Theatre box and sit beside Lincoln’s likeness.
1001 F St. NW, 202.942.7300
From March 23 through May 25, see the carriage that transported the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on the night of the assassination.
14th St. and Constitution Ave. NW, 202.633.1000
On the south side of this Smithsonian museum hangs a large Lincoln portrait. Nearby a display case holds plaster casts of his hands and two life masks, the 1860 face beardless and smooth, the 1865 face aged by the toll of war. Lincoln’s desire to be known, a sure political instinct, explains his willingness to sit often for cameras and to endure the onerous plaster process. Also here: an image taken by Alexander Gardner only days before Lincoln’s death, printed from a photo plate that cracked across his skull, anticipating the bullet’s path.
8th and F sts. NW, 202.633.8300
Together for the first time are fabled issues of the April 15, 1865 New York Herald—by 2 a.m. an AP bulletin that President Lincoln has been shot, by 8:45 a.m. an “extra” announces that he is dead. As the day ends, the last of seven special editions provides more horrific details of the assassination, the hunt for a killer and the swearing-in of a new president. (Exhibition runs through January 10, 2016.)
555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202.292.6100
On April 13, horses and riders re-enact Lincoln’s final commute here, the day before his death. The ride begins at the White House at noon and arrives in about three hours. From April 18 to 30, staffers drape the house in black cambric bunting as it was in 1865.
140 Rock Creek Church Rd. NW, 202.829.0436
Through April 14, an 1866 etching (Alexander Hay Ritchie’s “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet”) inspires the recreation of Lincoln’s office with actual objects from his White House, including his personal portfolio and a family photo album. Each Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m., “President Lincoln” speaks with visitors.
748 Jackson Pl. NW, 202.737.8292