Touring President Lincoln’s Washington, D.C.
This Presidents’ Weekend and through spring, take part in special events and exhibits throughout Washington, D.C., including an historic all-night vigil, to mark the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, who died in the District, April 15, 1865.
The commemoration, put together by Ford’s Theatre Society, the Smithsonian, the National Park Service and the Newseum, began with January’s debut of the play The Widow Lincoln and continues through May 25. Use this guide to visit Lincoln’s Washington, participating in unique events, seeing one-of-a kind exhibits, and walking in Lincoln’s D.C. footsteps.
1) Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership
For the first time since the Lincolns watched Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, items belonging to the Lincolns, their guests and theater-goers that fateful night will be brought together. At Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership’s exhibit “Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination,” view the .44 caliber Deringer John Wilkes Booth used to shoot Lincoln; actress Laura Keene’s sleeve cuff, bloodied when she cradled Lincoln’s head; Mary Todd Lincoln’s cape; Lincoln’s silk top hat, (size 7-1/8); his overcoat with “One Country, One Destiny” stitched in the lining; and the contents of his pockets—two pairs of spectacles, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, a sleeve button and a leather wallet containing a five dollar Confederate note.
The Center’s permanent Aftermath Gallery, portrays events following Lincoln’s assignation. You can listen to telegraph messages, read newspaper headlines and trace Booth’s escape route to a Virginia tobacco farm where he was found and shot.
“Silent Witness” runs March 23 through May 25.
2) Ford’s Theatre
President Abraham Lincoln loved the theater. On April 14, 1865, while Lincoln attended an evening performance at Ford’s Theatre, actor and staunch Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth entered the president’s box and shot Lincoln. As part of the commemoration, Ford’s Theatre stages The Widow Lincoln, a play focusing on the First Lady’s grief in the 40 days after her husband’s assassination. Starting in March, Ford’s hosts Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, a musical combining Lincoln’s speeches with vignettes of ordinary citizens.
Be sure to arrive early to tour Ford’s Theatre Museum in the building’s basement. Exhibits detail Lincoln’s position on slavery, recall his Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural speech, and describe the capital during Lincoln’s presidency. A group of statues represent the long line of office seekers and lobbyists who constantly besieged Lincoln. In the theater, the president’s box, draped in bunting, appears much as it did on that tragic night.
The Widow Lincoln runs through February 22; Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, March 13 through May 20.
3) Petersen House and the Lincoln Vigil
Too severely wounded to withstand the bumpy ride to the White House, Lincoln was carried across the street to Petersen House, a boardinghouse. With just three small rooms to view, a visit here is quick; the line to get in may take you longer than the actual tour. Restored to its 1865 appearance, the rooms, furnished with Victorian couches, tables and a double bed, are simple. It’s easy to imagine Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife, pacing in the front parlor between checking on her husband in the bedroom.
Join in a vigil for Lincoln, April 14 and into April 15, at the Ford’s Theatre Campus. Listen to actors relate first-person accounts of being in the theater during the assassination, hearing medical updates on Lincoln’s condition and of experiencing the Civil War. At 7:22 a.m. April 15, the time Lincoln died, the National Park Service will lay a wreath outside Petersen House and the city’s church bells will toll.
Learn how the public received news of the tragedy in the Newseum‘s “President Lincoln is Dead: The New York Herald Reports the Assassination.” Seven editions of the New York Herald, all published on April 15, 1865, detail the unfolding events.
5) The Willard
Lincoln and his family lodged at the Willard prior to his 1861 inauguration. The night before the event, Lincoln hosted a dinner there for his cabinet. The Lincolns’ bill, including meals, totaled $773.75, which Lincoln paid from his first paycheck as president. A hotel has been located at this address on Pennsylvania Avenue, one block from the White House, since the 19th century. Around 1850 Henry Willard purchased the hotel and renamed it. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and P.T. Barnum are among the Willard’s famous guests. Now an Intercontinental property, the hotel celebrates its storied past in its History Gallery.
6) Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery
Lincoln held his second inaugural ball on the top floor of the Patent Office Building on March 4, 1865, now referred to as the Lincoln Gallery. During the Civil War when the building served as a hospital, Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and Walt Whitman helped nurse wounded soldiers there. Whitman, who attended the inaugural, described the contrast between the room formerly filled with “the worst of the wounded of the war” and the inaugural’s “beautiful women, perfumes, the violin’s sweetness.” The renovated Patent Office now houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, which has several paintings of Lincoln as well as a photograph of the president looking careworn taken a few months before his death.
7) Oak Hill Cemetery
William “Willie” Lincoln, the president’s youngest son died at age 11 on February 20, 1862 from typhoid fever. After a service in the East room of the White House, Willie’s remains were taken to Oak Hill Cemetery‘s chapel for a small service. Afterwards, Willie’s body was placed in the William Carroll family vault until the Lincolns left Washington. Lincoln would often sit at the gravesite of his son. After Lincoln’s assassination, both bodies were moved to Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery. Stanton, in the room when Lincoln died, is credited with saying “now he belongs to the ages.”
8) President Lincoln’s Cottage
Lincoln and his family summered at what became known as President Lincoln’s Cottage. Located on the grounds of what was then called the Soldiers’ Home, now the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the 34-room Gothic cottage located three miles north of the White House gave the Lincolns cooler breezes, fewer interruptions by political office seekers and more privacy than their official residence. The Lincolns lodged at the cottage from June to November 1862, 1863 and 1864.
Using an award-winning app to combine audio recordings of Lincoln’s comments with period illustrations and photographs flashed on computer screens, the guides emphasize the history that happened in the house. Lincoln wrote much of the Emancipation Proclamation at the cottage and from its windows he watched soldiers’ burials (each week 30 plus were interred at the site’s cemetery). When you walk up the stairs, you are encouraged to run your hand along the same banister that Lincoln did. On the lawn outside, stand next to the life-sized statue of Lincoln and in the visitor center, peruse exhibits about Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War.
9) Lincoln Memorial
Dedicated on May 30, 1922, the Lincoln Memorial, presents a seated president, deeply burdened by the Civil War. Carved on the memorial’s walls are Lincoln’s stirring Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural speech. At night when lit (and with fewer crowds), the memorial is especially impressive. As a symbol of freedom, the Lincoln Memorial has served as a gathering place for peaceful protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Joan Baez and many others.
10) If Lincoln were alive today
In today’s Washington, D.C., Lincoln would undoubtedly visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument, paying tribute to the great leader who continued the fight for equality for African Americans. A theater lover with a fondness for Shakespeare, Lincoln could watch the Bard’s plays staged at both the Shakespeare Theatre Company and at the Folger Theatre. Before or after the show, Lincoln might indulge his fondness for simple southern cuisine by ordering the fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits at Boss Shepherd’s or perhaps the pork chops with yams at Georgia Brown’s.