Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.
On March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Dr. Charles A. Leale, a doctor and army surgeon in town from New York, listened with rapt attention to the President’s remarks. He and the President crossed paths one more time, although under more somber circumstances. Leale was the first doctor to attend to Lincoln after the President was shot at Ford’s Theatre.
Leale’s report to the Surgeon General of the United States concerning the Lincoln assassination is now on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
On April 14, 1865, both men attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. The play, Leale later noted, “progressed very pleasantly” until half past 10, when “the report of a pistol was distinctly heard” and the whole scene erupted in confusion.
Next, a man brandishing a dagger, later identified as John Wilkes Booth, jumped from the President’s box onto the stage, dislodged himself from the flags in which he had been entangled, and ran. As Booth made his escape, Lincoln slumped in his chair.
Leale fought his way up to the President’s box. He was the first doctor on the scene and examined the President while the family physician and surgeon general were called.
Leale found the President “in a state of general paralysis” and barely breathing. Moving Lincoln out of his chair and onto the floor Leale and several other men examined the President. Assuming that Lincoln had been stabbed, Leale searched in earnest for a wound, only to find a bullet hole at the base of Lincoln’s skull.
As word spread, Washingtonian’s gathered outside the nearby Peterson house, where Lincoln had been taken since he could not survive a trip to the White House. The President died on April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m., with Leale holding his hand.
Leale was discharged from the Union Army in 1866 as a brevet captain. He went on to a successful career as a doctor in New York, fathered six children, and played an active role in the fight against cholera. He obtained a mild amount of celebrity due to his presence at the moment of Lincoln’s assassination but spoke publicly only once on his experiences the night Lincoln died.
In recognition of the sesquicentennial of the Lincoln’s assassination, Assistant Surgeon Robert A. Leale’s report on the event will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from March 6 through April 29, 2015.
Interested in learning more about the causes and consequences of the conflict that defined Lincoln and his legacy? Check out James McPherson’s article “Out of War, a New Nation” in the Spring 2010 issue of Prologue, available here.