The Civil War was winding to its weary close on March 4, 1865. President Lincoln and thousands of onlookers braved a drizzly spring day for the second inauguration, “purchased” by Sherman’s capture of Atlanta two months before the November 1864 election.
John Wilkes Booth apparently attempted to assassinate Lincoln during the inauguration! The chilling story of this little-known event plays out in this letter from Benjamin Brown French, clerk of the House of Representatives:
I have little doubt that the intention was to assassinate the President on the 4th of March, & circumstances have been brought to my mind which almost convince me that, without knowing what I was doing, I was somewhat instrumental in preventing it. As the procession was passing through the Rotunda toward the Eastern portico, a man jumped from the crowd into it behind the President. I saw him, & told Westfall, one of my Policemen, to order him out. He took him by the arm & stopped him, when he began to wrangle & show fight. I went up to him face to face, & told him he must go back. He said he had a right there, & looked very fierce & angry that we would not let him go on, & asserted his right so strenuously, that I thought he was a new member of the House whom I did not know & I said to Westfall “let him go.” While we were thus engaged endeavouring to get this person back in the crowd, the president passed on, & I presume had reached the stand before we left the man. Neither of us thought any more of the matter until since the assassination, when a gentleman told Westfall that Booth was in the crowd that day, & broke into the line & he saw a police man hold of him keeping him back. W. then came to me and asked me if I remembered the circumstance. I told him I did, & should know the man again were I to see him. A day or two afterward he brought me a photograph of Booth, and I recognized it at once as the face of the man with whom we had the trouble. He gave me such a fiendish stare as I was pushing him back, that I took particular notice of him & fixed his face in my mind, and I think I cannot be mistaken. My theory is that he meant to rush up behind the President & assassinate him, & in the confusion escape into the crowd again & get away. But, by stopping him as we did, the President got out of his reach. All this is mere surmise, but the man was in earnest, & had some errand, or he would not have so energetically sought to go forward…
This story is supported by the evidence in photos of the inauguration, showing booth standing on the platform above the President. Story from the Library of Congress, American Memory Collection.