Mr. Lincoln's Office: Final Cabinet Meeting
On April 14, 1865, the day President Lincoln was assassinated, the cabinet gathered for the last time. Sergeant Smith Stimmel recalled: “The fourteenth day of April was warm, calm, and beautiful, an ideal spring day. All Nature seemed to bask in the warm sunlight of assured peace, and the general public had settled down to dream of a glorious future for our reunited country!”1
The cabinet agenda combined serious discussion of reconstruction issues with a more light-hearted recounting of Mr. Lincoln's dreams. In attendance were Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch, Attorney General Joshua Speed, Postmaster General William Dennison, and Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward. Arriving late were Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant, put in a very unusual appearance in order to report on the status of the Union victory. Grant normally led the Army from the Richmond front and seldom visited Washington. The meeting was memorable - even without the events which followed later in the day. The April 14 diary entry made by Gideon Welles reports the important discussion about cabinet members:
Last night there was a general illumination in Washington, fireworks, etc. To-day is the anniversary of the surrender of Sumter, and the flag is to be raised by General Anderson.
As Acting Secretary of State, Frederick W. Seward received a note from the White House on the morning of April 14: “Please call a Cabinet meeting at eleven o’clock today. General Grant will be with us.” The younger Seward, whose father was recovering from serious injuries from a carriage accident, duly “sent out the notices, and at the appointed hour came Secretaries McCulloch and Welles, Postmaster-General Dennison and Attorney-General Speed soon arrived, and I appeared as representative of the State Department. Mr. Lincoln, with an expression of visible relief and content upon his face, sat in his study chair, by the south window, chatting with us over ‘the great news.’ Some curiosity was expressed as to what had become of the heads of the rebel government – whether they would escape from the country, or would remain to be captured and tried; and if tried, what penalty would be visited upon them?
All those present thought that, for the sake of general amity and good will, it was desirable to have as few judicial proceedings as possible. Yet would it be wise to let the leaders in treason go entirely unpunished? Mr. Speed remarked that it would be a difficult problem if it should occur.
Seward recalled: “General Grant entered, in accordance with the President’s invitation and was received with cordial welcomes and congratulations. He briefly and modestly narrated the incidents of the surrender. Mr. Lincoln’s face glowed with approval when, in reply to his inquiry, ‘What terms did you make for the common soldiers?” General Grant said, “I told them to go back to their homes and families, and they would not be molested, if they did nothing more.” He added: "Kindly feeling toward the vanquished, and hearty desire to restore peae and safety at the South, with as little harm as possible to the feelings or the property of the inhabitants, pervaded the whole discussion."
Seward described the conversation about reconstruction as “long and earnest, with little diversity of opinion, except as to details. One of the difficulties of the problem was, who should be recognized as State authorities? There was a loyal governor in Virginia. There were military governors in some of the other States. But the Southern legislatures were for the most part avowedly treasonable. Whether they should be allowed to continue until they committed some new overt act of hostility; whether the governors should be requested to order new elections; whether such elections should be ordered by the General Government – all these were questions raised." He added: "Among many similar expressions of the President was the remark: ‘We can’t undertake to run State Governments in all these Southern States. Their people must do that, though I reckon that, at first, they may do it badly.'"
Frederick Seward noted: “It must have been about two o’clock when the meeting ended. At its close, the President remarked that he had been urged to visit the theatre that evening, and asked General Grant if he would join the party The General excused himself, as he had a previous engagement. He took his leave, and some of the others followed him.
Then I said, “Mr. President, we have a new British Minister, Sir Frederick Bruce, He has arrived in Washington, and is awaiting presentation. At what time will it be convenient for your to receive him?’
President Lincoln met a variety of Administration and congressional officials that day while finding time to take a carriage ride with his wife that afternoon and go to the theater that night. Carl Sandburg wrote: Other callers that day included Congressman Cornelius Cole of California, a Grand Rapids, Michigan, lawyer, W. A. Howard, and the ‘lame-duck’ Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire, appointed by the President to be Minister to Spain, his many slashing attacks on the Administration now forgotten.”4<.SUP>
One official with whom Mr. Lincoln met was Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, who was in charge of army intelligence. On April 14, he received a telegram from Portland, Maine. The provost marshal that Jacob Thompson would travel through Portland that night and requested instructions. Dana sought the President's advice:
Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi, had been Secretary of the Interior in President Buchanan's administration. He was a conspicuous secessionist, and for some time had been employed in Canada as a semi-diplomatic agent of the Confederate Government. He had been organizing all sorts of trouble and getting up raids, of which the notorious attack on St. Albans, Vt., was a specimen. I took the telegram and went down and read it to Mr. Stanton. His order was prompt: 'Arrest him!' But as I was going out of the door he called to me and said: 'No, wait; better go over and see the President.'