A soldier who rarely went to the theater witnessed the drama of the century on April 14, 1865.
Captain Roeliff Brinkerhoff was sitting across from the president’s box during the performance at Ford’s Theatre the night President Lincoln was assassinated. He was one of the few present to notice John Wilkes Booth approach the presidential party.
IT WAS IN THE THIRD ACT, when one of my friends called my attention to the President’s box with the remark, “There’s a reporter going to see Father Abraham.” I looked and saw a man standing at the door of the President’s box, with his hat on and looking down upon the stage. Presently he took out a card case, or something of that kind, from his side pocket and took out a card….He took off his hat and put his hand on the door knob, and went into the little hall or corridor back of the box. I then turned to the play. Presently, I can not say how soon, it may have been two, three or five minutes, I heard a pistol shot. I turned to the President’s box and saw a man flash to the front, with face as white as snow, and hair as black as a raven.
My first impression was that it was part of the play. The man put his left hand upon the front railing and went over, not with a clean sweep but with a kind of scramble, first one leg and then the other. It evidently was his intention to spring over as we swing over a fence, but his spur, as appeared afterward, caught in the flag, and hence the scramble.
As he went over, or possibly after reaching the stage, he shouted very clearly and distinctly: “Sic semper tyrannis,” and then for the first time it flashed upon me that the whole thing meant assassination. The Virginia coat of arms, with its device, had been familiar to me from childhood, and of course, with “Sic semper tyrannis” ringing clearly through the hall, I understood it at once. The man struck the floor and sank down partially, but immediately rose up and brandishing a double-edged dagger which glittered in the gas light, he passed diagonally across the stage, with his face to the audience, and went out. He did not run, it was a swift stage walk, and was evidently studied beforehand, like everything else he did for effect. It is said his leg was broken by the fall, but I saw no evidence of it in his gait.
For a moment there was a stillness of death….I saw Mr. Lincoln seated in a chair with his head dropped upon his breast, but in all other respects he retained the position he had before he was shot.
…There was no uproar, or confusion at any time. After a few moments the door was opened and Mr. Lincoln was carried out along the back side of the dress circle and out at the front. I was close behind, and as we went downstairs I noticed a splash of blood at every step. His face was very pale, and the stamp of death upon it, which once seen rarely deceives us.
From Brinkerhoff’s autobiography, Recollections of a Lifetime, published in 1900.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.