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By the time Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, James R. Tanner had seen enough of bloodshed. Just 17 years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, he had enlisted in Company C of the 87th New York Infantry, with which he participated in some of the heaviest fighting in Virginia in 1862—notably the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days’ Battles. The 87th had been decimated by combat, disease and desertions that summer, and by the Second Battle of Bull Run in August what remained of the unit was temporarily attached to the 105th Pennsylvania.

On the afternoon of August 30, the second day of the battle, the 105th came under intense Confederate artillery fire. Tanner and his comrades were lying in wait on their stomachs when a shell fragment struck Tanner, all but severing his left foot and pulverizing his right leg. As Tanner later put it, “my feet were hanging by shreds of flesh.” A surgeon at a nearby field hospital amputated each of his legs 4 inches below the knees.

Tanner moved back to his home state of New York, where he learned to walk with prosthetic limbs. Recognizing that he was still young and needed a useful profession, he studied stenography at Ames’ Business College in Syracuse. During the Civil War, the prevailing method of taking notes via shorthand was the Pitman method, a phonetic or soundbased system wherein the symbols represent sounds rather than letters. As a result, stenography was then often known as “phonography.”

By 1864, prepared for a new career, Tanner returned to Washington, D.C., and began work as a clerk for the Ordnance Bureau of the War Department. He rented an upstairs apartment on 10th Street, directly across from the theater that John T. Ford had opened just a couple of years earlier in an old church meeting house. Tanner had no idea that the last act of the Civil War would land on his doorstep.

On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the mood in Washing- ton was jubilant. The war was effectively over, and residents were filling theaters, bars and restaurants to celebrate. Like so many others that night, Tanner and a friend had opted to see a show. Rather than attend the performance of Our American Cousin playing across the street at Ford’s Theatre, they chose instead to see Aladdin, Or the Wonderful Lamp at Grover’s New National Theater, located three blocks away. Aladdin was a light fantasy, perfect for sweeping away war’s pall. In fact, according to historian James Marten, author of America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace, Grover’s had gone all out that night: hanging a very large painting of Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter, and commissioning a special performance of a song titled “When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea.” The owner had invited the Lincolns to watch Aladdin from a private box, but they instead opted to see the show at Ford’s. Almost as a consolation prize, they had sent their son Tad over to the show at Grover’s.

At just after 10 p.m., according to a letter Tanner wrote to a friend three days later, the doors to Grover’s theater burst open and a man yelled that Lincoln had been shot. The crowd gasped and stood up, preparing to leave the theater—but most audience members were quickly convinced that it was merely a trick pulled by pranksters or pickpockets. People sat back down and the show briefly continued, before another man burst in and confirmed the shocking report. The crowd immediately dispersed.

Tanner and his friend first went to Willard’s Hotel, where they learned nothing new. They then decided to head back to Tanner’s flat. When they approached 10th Street, Tanner recalled, “There was an immense throng there, very quiet yet very much excited; the street was crowded and I only got across on account of my boarding there.” The president had already been carried across the street to William Petersen’s house, adjacent to Tanner’s building. Tanner climbed to his second-floor balcony, where he witnessed the comings and goings of such luminaries as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Generals Henry Halleck and Montgomery Meigs, the latter of whom placed himself in the doorway of the house and acted as a gatekeeper. When it was evident no more could be done for the president other than keep him comfortable, Stanton asked for someone fluent in phonography to take down eyewitness testimony. A clerk on the scene called Tanner over.

The atmosphere in the house was oppressively solemn, Tanner recalled, with Mrs. Lincoln weeping in the front parlor as the dying president gasped and groaned in the back room, where he had been laid across the bed. In the midst of the unfolding drama, Tanner was nervous and his first attempts at shorthand were shaky. “I was so excited when I commenced that I am afraid that it did not much resemble Standard Phonography or any other kind,” he wrote later. “But I could read it readily afterward, so what was the difference?”

It was after midnight when he began with the first witness, Alfred Cloughly, a clerk in the Auditor’s Office who had witnessed the escape of the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William Seward a few blocks away (later determined to be conspirator Lewis Powell, then known as Lewis Payne). In a series of squiggles, slashes and x marks that comprised Pitman’s shorthand, Tanner took down Cloughly’s astonishing recollections: “I was walking with a lady in Lafayette Square. I heard someone cry out that the gates should be shut & immediately after the cry of murder and stop thief.”

The second witness was Lieutenant A.M.S. Crawford of the Volunteer Reserve Corps, who had been sitting close to the president’s box at Ford’s when the assassin appeared. “He attracted my attention,” Crawford recalled. “I thought first that he was intoxicated. There was a glare in his eye and he was a little over middling height.” Then the shot rang out and the assassin jumped to the stage, which is when Crawford noted that “he very strongly resembled the Booths.” In his transcription, Tanner would later underline “Booths” three times.

The third witness was actor Harry Hawk, who had been standing on the stage when the assassin jumped. Hawk’s recollection was unambiguous: “I believe to the best of my knowledge that it was John Wilkes Booth….He made some expression when he came on the stage but I did not understand what.” That expression, of course, was “Sic semper tyrannis”—thus always to tyrants—the Virginia state motto.

Tanner went on to record accounts by James C. Ferguson, a neighboring saloonkeeper who knew Booth, and Henry B. Phillips, an actor from Philadelphia who recalled a conversation with Booth a few days earlier in which he had lamented the Union victory and said it had given him “the blues.” Very brief remarks from Colonel George V. Rutherford of the Quartermaster Corps rounded out the testimony. (Some accounts say that Laura Keene, the star of Our American Cousin, also gave testimony. Keene is known to have knelt at Lincoln’s bedside and gotten his blood on her dress, but her observations were not recorded by Tanner or anyone else.)

“In fifteen minutes,” Tanner later wrote, “I had testimony enough down to hang Wilkes Booth, the assassin, higher than ever Haman hung,” a reference to the villain in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible.

Tanner immediately began transcribing his notes, finishing by 6:45 a.m. By then it was clear that Lincoln’s last breath was imminent. The president’s minister, the Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, said a final prayer that Tanner attempted to record, but he found that his pencil point had broken in his pocket. The clerk’s later recollection of the scene, however, calls into question one of the most vivid and oft-quoted parts of the Lincoln deathbed story: “As ‘Thy will be done, Amen’ in subdued and tremulous tones floated through the little chamber,” Tanner later wrote, “Mr. Stanton raised his head, the tears streaming down his face. A more agonized expression I never saw on a human countenance as he sobbed out the words: ‘He belongs to the angels now.’ ”

Of course, the statement far more commonly attributed to Stanton in that moment is “Now, he belongs to the ages.” Ages, not angels. In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin acknowledges that witnesses recalled slightly different comments that morning, though all the ones she quotes end in “ages.” But other historians, most notably Jay Winik, author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America, and James L. Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, settled on “angels.” As Swanson writes, “the most persuasive interpretation supports ‘angels’ and is also more consistent with Stanton’s character and faith.”

Tanner quickly faded into obscurity—though he wouldn’t stay there for long. In September 1865, he returned to New York, where he obtained various clerkships and studied law. In 1866 he married Mero White, with whom he would have four children—two girls and two boys—before her tragic death in 1906 during a vacation in Montana.

Tanner soon began to gain prominence through a variety of platforms. He became a vocal advocate for veterans, eventually serving as commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. He enjoyed touring the lecture circuit and became a regular spokesperson for the Republican Party. He served for five months as the Commissioner of Pensions, during which time his desire to “treat the boys liberally” and make it easier for veterans to qualify for pensions rubbed some people the wrong way, leading to his dismissal. And in the early 1900s, he was named the Register of Wills for the District of Columbia, as well as a leader in the reorganization of the Red Cross.

As the Civil War generation began to pass into memory, the early 20th century found renewed interest in sharing stories about the war. During this time Tanner gave several public accounts of his role that night at the Petersen House. His son had also mounted his father’s original notes—both the shorthand and the transcriptions—on linen, and the newly bound manuscript became an object of fascination. Tanner died on October 2, 1927, in Washington, D.C., with three of his four children at his bedside. Along with Mero, he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, which recently bestowed upon him a new honor.

“I tell you,” Tanner wrote to a friend back in 1865, “I would not regret the time and money I have spent on Phonography if it never brought me more than it did that night, for that brought me the privilege of standing by the deathbed of the most remarkable man of modern times and one who will live in the annals of his country as long as she continues to have a history.”

A century and a half later, Tanner’s assessment of Lincoln still holds true. Yet the corporal himself played an important role in the annals of his country, although he remains lesser known. Perhaps the most salient point is that he did what all good people should do when faced with a challenging situation. As he had done before, and as he would do again, James R. Tanner rose to the occasion.


Kim O’Connell has seen productions at both Ford’s Theatre and Grover’s New National Theater (now known as the National Theatre) many times.

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.