In a display case at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, rests a tiny, misshapen lead ball. To the casual visitor it may seem an unlikely object of historical interest. But for all its seeming insignificance, it may well be one of the most important metal fragments in the world. For it was this piece of lead that tore through the brain of President Abraham Lincoln a few minutes after ten o’clock on the evening of April 14, 1865. It was fired from a Derringer pistol by the actor John Wilkes Booth in the presidential box of Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln and his wife were watching a comedy called “Our American Cousin.” The president lingered unconscious for nine hours before dying in the dingy rear bedroom of a boarding house across the street. With his death, the cause of civil rights for black Americans was dealt a severe blow.
Three nights before he went to Ford’s Theatre for the last time, Lincoln stood at a second-floor window under the North Portico of the White House, and addressed a large crowd gathered below. By the light of a candle held by an aide, he expressed joy and relief at the coming of peace after four terrible years of war: “We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart.” But most of the speech was concerned with the challenges of Reconstruction. As he neared the end of his remarks, he made history by issuing the first public presidential endorsement of black suffrage, observing: “It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
Even this cautious call for the expansion of civil rights was too much for Booth, who was in the crowd under the window. He snarled to a companion, “That means n—– citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through.” When he did, he ensured that Lincoln—author of the Emancipation Proclamation and fervent supporter of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery–died a martyr for civil rights.
Booth was a Confederate sympathizer and virulent racist enraged by the south’s defeat in the Civil War. He led a gang of conspirators with the aim of decapitating the government by killing Lincoln; Vice President Andrew Johnson; and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Seward would be viciously attacked that night, but he survived his injuries; George Atzerodt, the conspirator tasked with killing Johnson, lost his nerve and ended the evening in a drunken haze.
Booth’s bullet and Atzerodt’s bumbling led to the elevation of the boorish Johnson to the presidency. The only southern senator to remain loyal to the Union in 1861, he was appointed Military Governor by Lincoln the following year, and in 1864 nominated to replace Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin as vice president. Though he proclaimed himself a friend of black Americans, the new president was deeply prejudiced, declaring that “Everyone would, and must admit, that the white race was superior to the black.” He clashed with the Radical Republicans in Congress pressing for civil rights legislation, vetoing measures designed to ameliorate the condition of former slaves. And while Lincoln had worked behind the scenes to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Johnson used his influence to delay ratification of the Fourteenth, which granted citizenship and civil rights to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” regardless of race. Johnson was thwarted in his efforts; his vetoes were overridden, and the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. He was even impeached by the House of Representatives, and escaped conviction in the Senate by only one vote. But even a weak president has the power to do great harm, and the absence of moral leadership in the White House contributed to the failure of Reconstruction and the unconstitutional denial of civil rights in the southern states.
The importance of Booth’s bullet was apparent to Dr. Edward Curtis, one of the physicians who performed the autopsy on Lincoln’s body in what is now the President’s Dining Room on the second floor of the White House. As he later recalled, “suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.”
The final casualty listed in the official Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion was “A. L—–, aged 56 years…shot in the head, at Washington, on the evening of April 14th, 1865, by a large round ball, from a Derringer pistol, in the hands of an assassin…The protracted death-struggle ceased at twenty minutes past seven o’clock on the morning of April 15th, 1865.” It might have listed another casualty: the cause of civil rights, another victim of that “round ball”. It would take another century, under another southern president named Johnson, for that cause to be revived.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.