A Night at the Theater
By Charles R. Testrake
General Ulysses S. Grant could not remember ever being so boredin his entire life. He looked to his left and saw that the President waslaughing, Mrs. Lincoln, also laughing, was clinging to his arm. What did thePresident see in this play, he wondered? As far as he could tell the plot of OurAmerican Cousin concerned an awkward young man, who would not have lastedfive minutes on any of his battlefields, meeting his English relatives.
Grant was seated in the theatre box in with Mrs. Lincoln to hisleft 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 thatnight.
"What do you mean we will be attending the theatre with theLincoln'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 Presidentto visit his army while on campaign in Virginia. The President accepted theinvitation, and was accompanied by his wife.
On the second day of the visit, Grant personally escorted thePresident, by horseback, to an Army review at the encampment of General EdwardOrd. Julia and Mrs. Lincoln followed behind them by wagon, under the care of oneof Grant's officers. The men arrived first, and the President immediatelyordered the review to begin. Grant mildly protested, suggesting that they waitfor the arrival of the ladies. The President would have none of it, saying thatit was unfair to the soldiers who had already been waiting for several hours.
When Julia and Mrs. Lincoln finally did arrive, the review waswell underway. Mrs. Lincoln then noticed the wife of General Ord riding near herhusband.
"What does this woman mean by riding by the side of thePresident and ahead of me?" said Mrs. Lincoln. "Does she suppose thathe wants her by the side of him?"
Upon spotting the newly arrived ladies, Mrs. Ord excused herselfto join them. When she reached the reviewing stand, she was met with violenttongue lashing by the First Lady. Mrs. Ord broke into tears. Julia came to thedefense 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 Houseyourself, don't you?" said Mrs. Lincoln.
"I am quite satisfied with my present position," saidJulia. "It is far greater than I had ever expected to attain."
"Oh! You had better take if you can get it," respondedMrs. Lincoln. "Tis very nice."
For rest of that day, Mrs. Lincoln continued her diatribe to thegreat annoyance of everyone in the presidential entourage. The Presidentresponded to this situation by simply ignoring it. The following morning he toldGrant that Mrs. Lincoln was ill and thus could not join them that day. She didnot rejoin the party for several more days.
"We are not going tonight," said Julia.
"My dear we are going," said Grant. "Now goselect a dress to wear."
"We are not going," retorted Julia angrily. "Youare the general who just won the war. Stand up to him!"
"He is the President of the United States and my commandingofficer," said Grant. "We are going to the theatre with the Lincoln'sand that is the end of this discussion."
Throughout the evening, Mrs. Lincoln had been a model ofcivility, complimenting Julia on numerous occasions. Julia for her part had beenpolite but reserved. She did not seem to be enjoying the play either. TheLincoln's, on the other hand, were having the time of their lives.
"What will Mrs. Grant think of my hanging on to youso?" Grant overheard Mrs. Lincoln whisper to her husband.
"She won't think anything about it," replied thePresident.
"Don't know the manners of good society, eh?" said theactor of stage. "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, oldgal; 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 ofthe corner of his left eye he saw a well dressed man with a mustache. He wasstanding 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 ofMrs. Lincoln's chair as he propelled himself forward. He did even notice thathis actions had pushed Mrs. Lincoln to the floor. He reached the assassin andgripped his right arm; diverting the aim of the pistol. It fired, but the billetdisappeared 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 fromthe 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 beenstabbed. He felt the blood gushing from his body. It was soaking his dressuniform. Grant stumble backwards in a daze, spinning around. He was chocking. Heforced himself to cough and vast amounts of blood protruded from his mouth,entangling in his whiskers. He turned around. The assassin was advancing on thePresident.
President Abraham Lincoln could not remember the last time hehad enjoyed a play so much. It made him laugh. During the last four years therehad not been much to laugh about. Even Mary seemed to be enjoying the play. Shehad laughed just as much as he did.
Lincoln was relieved that Mary was not in one of her black moodsthat evening. He knew they could strike at anytime and without warning. Winterswere always a bad time; especially since the death of their son Willie. Yet itwas now spring. There was a new hope in the air. The war was at last, almostover.
Lincoln looked to his right, and saw that General Grant had aglazed look in his eyes, and that Mrs. Grant was yawning. They had not laughedonce this entire evening. They had made a most unsatisfactory theater party.Lincoln now regretted having forced Grant into accepting his invitation those somany hours before.
The cabinet meeting started promptly at eleven in the morning.Everyone was present except for Secretary of State William Seward, who wasrecovering from a near fatal riding accident; and Secretary of War EdwardStanton, who was late. Stanton's tardiness mildly annoyed Lincoln, but he keptit to himself.
"Has there been any news from General Sherman?" askedLincoln.
"No, Mr. President," said Grant. "At least nonewhen I left the War Department."
Lincoln had been hoping for a wire from General William Shermanthat would announce the surrender of General Joseph Johnston, the commandingofficer of the last major Confederate Army still in the field.
"Well, perhaps Stanton will have some news when hearrives," said Lincoln. In a mood generosity, he decided to stall for a fewmore minutes and give his Secretary of War a little more time. "I had adream last night."
"What kind of dream was it?" asked Gideon Wells, theSecretary 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 movingwith great rapidity toward an indefinite shore. I have had this dreambefore."
"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. "Itcould 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 hadthis strange dream again last night, and we shall, judging from the past, havegreat news very soon. I think it must be from Sherman. My thoughts are in thatdirection."
A mood of melancholy had descended across the cabinet room.Lincoln felt embarrassed. Why had he told them of his dream? He was relievedwhen the door opened and Stanton walked in.
"My apologies, Mr. President," said Stanton. "Iwas 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 variousproposals for the reconstruction of the South. Sitting in his father's placewas Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward, who proposed a detailed planaimed at restoring the commerce of the South. Seward concluded his presentationby stating that; "The United States Government should resume the businessof the South and that at the same time, it should take care that theconstitutional rights of private citizens are not molested or impeded."
Lincoln was quite enthusiastic about this plan. "We mustreanimate the southern states," he said. "I am immensely relievedthough that Congress is not currently in session."
"Will you bring them back?" asked Seward.
"Of course not!" said Lincoln. The cabinet memberserupted into laughter. Lincoln then turned to Stanton, and asked him to give hispresentation.
Unlike the younger Seward, Stanton was completely reliant uponhis notes. Only twice did he even lift his head from the stack of papers beforehim. The majority of his presentation dealt with the reestablishment of southernstate governments and the re-exertion of federal authority.
Wells protested Stanton's plan stating that it was "inconflict with the principles of self-government."
Stanton countered, "I realize that this matter needs morestudy, but I was asked by the President to draw these plans for this meeting. Ihave done my best."
"And we thank you," said Lincoln. He thought Stanton'splan was too harsh, but he did not want to criticize it at this time. There wereelements 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 NorthCarolina was ridiculous.
"I suggest that each member of the cabinet take copies ofthe various proposals for further study," said Lincoln. He felt it was timeto end the meeting. "If there is nothing else then, we will meet again onMonday." Lincoln rose to his feet, following immediately by every member ofhis cabinet, whom stood in unison. Lincoln was touched by the gesture. Theynever 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 noticedGrant was lingering behind talking to Stanton. Grant was not a member of Lincoln'scabinet, but the President felt it prudent to invite him to the meeting.Although the next election was over three years away, Lincoln considered itextremely likely that Grant was going to be his successor. Lincoln had nointentions of running for a third term.
Lincoln waited for Stanton to depart and then he approachedGrant.
"Thank you for coming General," said Lincoln.
"Well thank you for inviting me, Mr. President, it was mostinteresting."
"How do you think we should deal with reconstruction?"asked Lincoln.
"That is a political matter Sir," said Grant. "Itwould not be appropriate for me to comment."
"Yes," said Lincoln. "But whatever we decide, youwill be the one responsible for carrying it out. So what do you think?"
"Mr. President," said Grant. "The harsher yourpolicies, the more difficult my task will be."
Lincoln nodded. Grant was already the politician. He lookedforward to grooming him further.
"Thank you General," said Lincoln. "Mrs. Lincolnand I look forward to yourself and Mrs. Grant attending the theater with us thisevening."
"Yes Sir!" said Grant. He looked distressed. "Iam afraid we have to decline Mr. President. I promised my wife that we wouldleave on the evening train for Burlington." Grant paused. "To see ourchildren!"
Lincoln knew that Grant was lying. While he was sure that theGrant's would go to Burlington that was not the reason they were declining hisinvitation. He knew the reason was Mary. They simple did not want to socializewith her, especially after what had happened at City Point. He could not blamethem. Social decorum dictated that he should feign regret, and suggest that theygo another time. Then Lincoln thought about the scene that would play out whenhe told Mother that Grant's had declined their invitation. He just did nothave the energy to deal with one of Mother's tantrums that day. He decided toforce Grant's hand.
"I am so sorry, General," said Lincoln. "It hasalready been announced to the newspapers."
"Sir?" said Grant.
"Yes, you see," said Lincoln. "My secretary is avery enthusiastic young man, and he sent out the press release this morning. Soas you can see it would disappoint so many people if you and Mrs. Grant did notattend."
"Sir, we have not seen our children in months,"protested Grant.
"Fortunately General," responded Lincoln. "Thereis another train leaving for Burlington tomorrow morning, and my secretary willmake 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 toattend the theater with you and Mrs. Lincoln.
"What will Mrs. Grant think of my hanging on to youso?" asked Mary.
"She won't think anything about it," repliedLincoln.
"Don't know the manners of good society, eh?" said theactor of stage. "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, oldgal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!"
Lincoln laughed. He laughed harder than he had ever laughed inhis entire life. Tears began to form in his eyes from the laughter. He had neverbeen so happy.
Mary was laughing too, as she tugged ever harder onto his leftarm. Lincoln turned his head to look at her, and at that moment, he thought shewas the most beautiful woman in the world. Then her chair tipped over and shefell to the floor.
"Mother!" he yelled. Then he was startled by the soundof a gunshot from behind him. He instinctively lowered his head. Lincoln coweredin fear for several seconds as he heard sounds of a struggle. Taking a deepbreath, he raised his head. He saw Grant stumbling backwards. Lincoln rose tohis feet and noticed a well dressed man with a mustache, who looked oddlyfamiliar. The man was holding a knife in his left hand, which was dripping inblood. There was also a pistol on the floor near his right ankle. The mantransferred 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 theindefinite 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 grabbedhis right wrist, trying to free the knife. The assassin's left arm elbowedGrant's stomach wound. Grant cried out in immense pain and let go out theassassin. The assassin turned around stabbed him in the heart. Grant could feelthe 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 notproduce the necessary air. Blood soaked his dress uniform.
"The South shall rise again," said the assassin. Hiseyes were wide and bloodshot. Grant had never seen so much hatred in a man'sface. He had to kill this man.
Summoning all the strength that was left in his body, Grantgrabbed hold of the assassin with both arms and pushed him back. Both men hitthe railing. Grant's tight hold on the assassin loosened. The assassin triedto throw a right hook to Grant's head, but Grant dodged the punch. Theassassin lost his balance, his chest hitting the railing. Grant clutched theassassin's waist and he flipped him over the side. The assassin screamed as hefell to the stage. He landed on his head and was then quite.
Grant collapsed onto the railing. He looked down upon hisdefeated foe. The knife was still in his chest. He pulled it out. There was nopain.
"General!" he heard President say.
Shortly before his death in 1901, a reporter asked Lincoln torecount the events of John Wilkes Booth's 1865 assassination attempt. Lincolnstared at the young man and said, "I don't know!"
Indeed Lincoln was never entirely sure about exactly whathappened that night. One minute he was waiting to die and the next was standingover a blooded General Grant, the assassin nowhere in sight. It was as if timehad bended around that moment.
"General!" said Lincoln. Grant raised his head andlooked at him. Lincoln took the General in his arms.
"Mr. President," said Grant. He slumped over inLincoln'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.
General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife did not attend the theatrethat night with the Lincoln's. The President never forced Grant into acceptinghis invitation. Instead the Lincoln's attended the Ford's Theatre productionof Our American Cousin with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée ClaraHarris. Unfortunately, Major Rathbone enjoyed the play.