Sun Bursts through Clouds As Lincoln Delivers Second Inaugural
March 4, 1865. Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on the east steps of the capital building. A photo of the event shows John Wilkes Booth standing in the audience not far from the President.
Lincoln gave the speech, historian Harold Holzer writes, “beneath gray skies outside the United States Capitol. . . . But as the president spoke, the sun burst through the clouds. The symbolism was not lost on the new chief justice of the Supreme Court—Salmon P. Chase, his onetime rival— who called it ‘an auspicious omen of the dispersion of the clouds of war.’ Lincoln himself admitted, ‘it made my heart jump.'” (1)
Newspaper reporter Noah Brooks observed, “But chiefly memorable in the mind of those who saw that second inauguration must still remain the tall, pathetic, melancholy figure of the man who, then inducted into office in the midst of the glad acclaim of thousands of people, and illumined by the deceptive brilliance of a March sunburst, was already standing in the shadow of death.
Photo Shows Booth and Five Other Conspirators Nearby at Lincoln’s Inauguration
“In a print made about 1920 from an original photograph by Alexander Gardner, President Lincoln is seen reading his inaugural address before the crowd on the east portico of the Capitol. This is one of three photographs taken March 4, 1865, by Alexander Gardner. Above Lincoln, to the right and behind an iron railing, stands John Wilkes Booth, though he cannot be seen clearly in this photograph. In only one of the photographs, that in the Meserve Collection in the National Portrait Gallery, is Booth visible. He has a mustache and is wearing a top hat. Five of the other conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination stand just below the president. Looking at a detail of the figures behind the railing in the photograph presented here reveals a man with a mustache holding a top hat in his hand who could well be John Wilkes Booth.
For a discussion of the three photographs and the identity of Booth and the conspirators, see Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Twenty Days (San Bernardino, California: Borgo Press, 1985), pp. -37.”
1.) Harold Holzer, Lincoln in the Times pp. 221-2.
Did Booth Attempt Lincoln’s Assassination on Inauguration Day?
In a stunning letter of April 24, 1865, to his son, Francis, the week after Lincoln’s assassination, Benjamin Brown French—a New Hampshire politician, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, and commissioner of public buildings in Washington, D. C. under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson—would recount his confrontation with John Wilkes Booth on Lincoln’s inauguration day, March 4, 1865:
“I have little doubt that the intention was to assassinate the President on the 4th of March, & circumstances have been brought to my mind which almost convince me that, without knowing what I was doing, I was somewhat instrumental in preventing it. As the procession was passing through the Rotunda toward the Eastern portico, a man jumped from the crowd into it behind the President. I saw him, & told Westfall, one of my Policemen, to order him out. He took him by the arm & stopped him, when he began to wrangle & show fight. I went up to him face to face, & told him he must go back. He said he had a right [to be] there, & looked very fierce & angry that we would not let him go on, & asserted his right so strenuously, that I thought he was a new member of the House whom I did not know & I said to Westfall “let him go.” While we were thus engaged endeavouring to get this person back in the crowd, the president passed on, & I presume had reached the stand before we left the man. Neither of us thought any more of the matter until since the assassination, when a gentleman told Westfall that Booth was in the crowd that day, & broke into the line & he saw a police man [take] hold of him keeping him back. W [policeman J. W. Westfall] then came to me and asked me if I remembered the circumstance. I told him I did, & should know the man again were I to see him. A day or two afterward he brought me a photograph of Booth, and I recognized it at once as the face of the man with whom we had the trouble. He gave me such a fiendish stare as I was pushing him back, that I took particular notice of him & fixed his face in my mind, and I think I cannot be mistaken. My theory is that he meant to rush up behind the President & assassinate him, & in the confusion escape into the crowd again & get away. But, by stopping him as we did, the President got out of his reach. All this is mere surmise, but the man was in earnest, & had some errand, or he would not have so energetically sought to go forward. . . .”
– All entries were submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert