Friday, November 30, 2012

The Lincoln assassination: a favorite find

A good turnout and a fun discussion of Our War last night at Gibson's Bookstore. Concord is lucky to have Gibson's to serve readers and promote conversation about books. Of the many engaging questions from the audience, my old friend Byron Champlin asked a no-brainer. In fumbling and mumbling around to answer it, it was I who suddenly became a no-brainer.

The question was this: What was the best discovery in your research for Our War?

Later, in the comfort of my living room, I thought of a dozen good answers, but one stood out. Here it is:

My chapter on the Lincoln assassination tells the story through the experience of Benjamin Brown French. French, who was from Chester, N.H., was Lincoln's commissioner of public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. He was at Lincoln's bedside shortly before the president died. His duties in the aftermath of the death included taking charge of Lincoln's body until if left Washington, helping with details of the funeral and tending to Mary Lincoln.

In poring through the vast record Brown left -- a fascinating journal published years ago as Witness to the Young Republic, his correspondence, articles he wrote for various publications -- I came across a letter he wrote to his son Frank a few days after Lincoln was shot. Therein, I learned something new to me about the assassination.

French had been in charge of security for Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1865. In his April 24 letter to Frank French, Benjamin wrote that John Westfall, a D.C. cop he had hired as part of the security detail, reminded him just after the assassination of an incident during the inauguration. On the way through the Capitol rotunda to the east portico, where Lincoln was to deliver his address, French saw a man jump into the procession right behind the president. He sent Westfall to confront the man.

When Westfall grabbed the man’s arm, he “began to wrangle & show fight.” French stepped in to help. The man grew “very fierce & angry” and said he had a right to be there. In the end, the two let the man go. By then Lincoln had moved on.

After Lincoln was shot six weeks later, Westfall showed French a photograph of John Wilkes Booth. French recognized him  at once as the man who had broken into the procession. “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,” French wrote.

French and Westfall both believed they had stopped Booth from killing Lincoln at the inauguration.

Other historians have seen this letter, but none of the assassination books I checked mention the incident or further investigate French's claim.

So, to me, French's letter was an exciting find, and I hope I used it well in Our War.

1 comment:

  1. A few interesting letters, such as this one, would be a great addition to the web site.