On March 4, 1865, a gray day in Washington, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in front of the recently constructed Capitol dome. Photographers captured both the president and honored government leaders, but also the crowd, where John Wilkes Booth stood among many other citizens listening to the president’s address. At the moment Abraham Lincoln gave his Inaugural Address, the sun came out. The speech addressed a nation that he hoped would soon be fully reunited by the end of the war, delivering a message of healing and forgiveness. On April 3, 1865, the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, surrendered to Union forces. Across the North and throughout the capital, people rejoiced at the news that the Civil War would soon end.
The climate in America at the start of the book is weary but hopeful. The situation throughout the country has yet to be resolved, but everyone is looking for signs of what the future may hold. When the cloudy sky cleared at the moment that Lincoln began his inaugural speech, even the weather was seen as potentially a positive sign of what was to come. Although many in the crowd watched Lincoln’s speech and found his message a hopeful one, others in the crowd considered him an enemy and his message an unwelcome one.
On April 7, 1865, John Wilkes Booth drank in a saloon in New York City and complained to a friend that he ought to have killed the president on Inauguration Day, when he had such a good opportunity to do so.
It is beginning to occur to Booth that, if he wants to impact history, he will not be able to rely on plans, but must also take opportunities as they present themselves.
Booth returned to Washington on April 8, and learned that Robert E. Lee had surrendered with his Army of Northern Virginia. Booth observed the giddy mood in the capital. Abraham Lincoln gave a speech on April 10, in which he asked the band to play the Confederacy’s anthem, “Dixie,” saying that they would take the song back along with the states that had seceded.
Referencing the song that had become the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, Lincoln was trying to show how he would reintegrate the states that had sought to secede, reunify the country and end the uncertainty about the war’s outcome.
The following night, Lincoln gave a more serious speech to a torchlit parade about the coming challenges the country would face in rebuilding the South, and expressed his desire that black people be given the right to vote. When someone shouted that he could not see the president, Lincoln’s young son Tad lifted a light that shone on the president. A free black woman who made dresses for the president’s wife remarked how clearly the president was outlined in the darkness, and how easily he could have been shot. John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd. He threatened to kill Lincoln to his companion David Herold and swore that that was the last speech Lincoln would ever give. On April 13, the candles glowed in windows throughout D.C., and fireworks were set off in a “grand illumination.” The spectacle of people rejoicing at the Confederacy’s fall sickened Booth.
Lincoln continued to try to show that he could lead the country out of a time of war and uncertainty, while also giving voice to the principles of equality for which the war had been fought. While a free black person noticed how vulnerable Lincoln was to being shot, he seemed to give no thought to his personal safety. For Booth, who disagreed with and hated Lincoln’s principles, the new idea of voting rights for blacks was so enraging that it prompted him to begin thinking of a new line of attack on the president. Instead of coming up with a detailed plan for an attack, Booth was learning he would need to act when the chance presented itself.