April 14, 1865, proved to be a busy day in American history. At Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Major General Robert Anderson raised the national colors over the fort four years after he had ordered them to be lowered. Henry Ward Beecher gave the main address. It was quite a celebration, and as night came fireworks lit up the sky.
There was more good news from North Carolina. Joseph Johnston contacted William T. Sherman to seek a temporary suspension of operations so the two men could meet. Sherman assented, suggesting the Appomattox terms as a basis for discussion. He would reassure Grant the next morning that he would “be careful not to complicate any points of civil policy.”
Abraham Lincoln would have been glad to have heard that news. That morning, at breakfast, he had listened as his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, shared details of his experiences as one of Grant’s aides, including Lee’s surrender. Later he listened to Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax’s concerns about the premature restoration of former Confederates to political power. Colfax later said that the president invited him to join the presidential couple at Ford’s Theater that evening (if Colfax was correct, the presidential box would have been rather crowded, so one wonders whether Colfax enhanced his story). The president also replied to a letter expressing concerns that he would become the target of an assassin’s bullet, reassuring his correspondent that he planned to use “due precaution.”
At 11 AM the president met with his cabinet, with General Grant as a visitor. No one had heard any news from North Carolina, much to Lincoln’s disappointment. After all, he had something of a premonition that something big was about to happen: during the night he had experienced a recurring dream featuring a vessel approaching a dark, indefinite shoe. Lincoln remarked that the dream was the same one he had experienced before other good news (although Grant remarked that Stones River was no great victory, a surprisingly sharp remark designed to denigrate William S. Rosecrans, whom he detested).
The conversation turned to Reconstruction. Lincoln reviewed a draft of a proposal penned by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton providing for the appointment of a military governor to manage Virginia and North Carolina. After some discussion, the president instructed his war minister to revise the proposal in time for the next cabinet meeting on April 18. As the meeting broke up, Grant informed Lincoln that he would not be able to accompany the president and the first lady to Ford’s Theater that evening: he needed to hurry home to New Jersey with Mrs. Grant to visit his children. Apparently Lincoln could not give away box seats to see a play in Washington.
Next came a visit from Vice President Andrew Johnson. Lincoln had not seen Johnson since inauguration day, where the vice president had stumbled through a tirade under the influence of alcohol, which he had consumed for medical reasons. Lincoln may have ducked Johnson when the vice president had come down to Richmond while Lincoln was in the area; now he wanted to set aside Johnson’s complaints that the Appomattox term left traitors to go free.
That afternoon, between efforts to address other matters, Lincoln stole enough time to go out on a carriage ride with his wife. Mary Lincoln later remembered the conversation as affectionate and touching. Lincoln looked to the future, away from the pain of the past four years, including the passing of their son Willie; he was eager to travel and looked forward to returning to Springfield. Upon returning to the White House, he squeezed in a family dinner between other minor matters of state, with his signal achievement being the securing of a couple to accompany him to the theater: Major Henry R. Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. The Lincolns would pick up the couple on the way to the theater, and at eight o’clock the presidential carriage departed the White House.
It promised to be a relaxing and entertaining evening.