Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My Last Sesquicentennial Event

Last week marked the Sesquicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination and death. On April 14 I commemorated the anniversary by attending a lecture at Ford's Theatre, visiting the Petersen House where Lincoln died, and touring a special assassination exhibit at the Center for Education and Leadership. Given the immediacy of other forms of social media, I mainly covered the day's events on Twitter and Facebook. I won't repost all of my photographs and comments here, but I'd advise readers to check out my Facebook and Twitter feeds to see what I published in real time.

Life changes a lot in four years, and I had hoped to make it to Appomattox for the 150th. Intervening events, including the recent birth of my daughter, made the trip to Appomattox a near impossibility. However, because I work in downtown DC, I knew that I could at least mark the 150th anniversary of another important milestone of the end of the Civil War years, and I ultimately decided to take a half day of leave on the 14th and spend some time at Ford's Theatre. The 150th of Lincoln's assassination is the last of the Sesquicentennial events that I will personally attend, and it was a fitting, albeit sad, end to four years of commemoration.

The incessant rain on April 14 did not deter visitors, and the line for each timed entry to Ford's Theatre stretched down the block. The number of people in the street only continued to grow as the hour of the assassination approached. Living historians entertained the crowds with their first-person accounts from the day of the assassination. I chatted with a few reenactors from Pennsylvania who represented Independent Battery C, First Pennsylvania Artillery. On the night of the 14th, four artillerymen from the battery helped to carry Lincoln to the Petersen House. Check out this post on Harry's blog for more info.

Waiting outside Ford's Theatre in the rain.

Once we were seated inside the theatre, a costumed interpreter told the story of Lincoln's assassination and death. The speaker really helped to take us back in time and imagine the horror, sadness, and confusion of that night. Her passion for the subject made for a captivating presentation. I've been to Ford's on numerous occasions, but I was moved beyond words to sit below the presidential box on the very day that Lincoln was shot 150 years ago and hear about his life, assassination, and death.

Looking up at the presidential box -- this felt like truly hallowed ground.

Following the tour, we made our way across 10th Street to the Petersen House. I felt a sense of extreme loss while reflecting on all that happened there. Just shy of 150 years before my visit, Lincoln slipped from life lying on a bed in a back room, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton pronounced, "Now he belongs to the ages."

Upon leaving the Petersen House, I entered the Center for Education and Leadership, where I toured various permanent exhibits on Lincoln's death and the hunt for the assassins. Much to my surprise, I learned that my ticket included admission to the temporary exhibition of Silent Witness: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination. This exhibit, running through May 29, 2015, brings together an incredible collection of objects, including John Wilkes Booth's derringer; Lincoln's top hat, coat, and the contents of his pocket from the night of the assassination; and the blood-stained bunting from the presidential box. Given Lincoln's god-like status in U.S. history, many of these artifacts seemed like holy relics.

What I witnessed on Tuesday afternoon was nothing compared to what came later, as hundreds gathered outside the theatre to mark the exact time of Lincoln's assassination. Some people remained throughout the night to keep a mournful vigil, and by early the next morning, hundreds of onlookers once again crowded 10th Street, this time to mark the exact moment of Lincoln's death on April 15, 1865. (See here for a Washington Post report.) Although I couldn't attend, I kept watch myself by tuning to C-SPAN and reading Facebook and Twitter feeds by a host of organizations and individuals, including friend Craig Swain.

Overall, I was extremely encouraged by the public interest in Lincoln, his assassination, and death, even in jaded and cynical "Washington City"! And I was also happy to see so many friends and family who were interested in observing this 150th anniversary. I suppose that every once in a while, a historic event speaks to so many, including those who normally take only a passing interest in history. I and others like me are sometimes in our own Civil War bubble and tend to forget the wider appeal that America's history can hold. Last week's commemoration proved that some events mean so much to so many that they cannot easily be forgotten or overlooked, no matter how many years have passed.

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