Most tourists go to all the incredible museums in Washington D.C. which are mostly free of charge. However, if you are interested in history, a tour inside the Ford’s Theatre might be a good addition to your itinerary. Visiting the place where President Abraham Lincoln was shot has no cost, since it is managed by the National Park Services. We walked by this place and decided to go inside since my mother’s last name is Ford. Out of curiosity we went to the ticket booth and they told us they had a show starting in 15 minutes. This was a fortunate stroke of serendipity, so we decided to stay.
We went in February, 2020, during was low season and there were barely any people, so it was possible to obtain a ticket on site. If you want to make sure that you have a space reserved at a particular time, then it is best to reserve the tickets on the Ford’s Theatre’s website. They receive over 650,000 visitors per year, with a peak from March through July. To book online you must pay a processing fee of $3. It is also possible to go to the theater’s box office at 8:30 a.m. and get up to six same day tickets. Tours are done from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with final entry to the museum at 4 p.m.
Ford’s Theatre Tour
On this historic site you will learn what happened on April 14, 1865. Plan to spend about two hours at the Ford’s Theatre since there are four places to visit. Tours start at the museum where you are allowed to spend 45 minutes. The museum has a lot of information and if you are a history nerd (like me!) it might not be enough time. Then you will pass to the theatre where a ranger gives you a historical speech. This is still an working theater and the stage changes according to the play which is being performed.
After, you go to the Petersen house where Lincoln was taken after he was shot. Soldiers carried the President out of the theater. A man at the steps of the house owned by tailor William Petersen called them to come in. This house was used to lodge people, like an Airbnb, since housing in Washington D.C. was scarce. Doctors placed him diagonally (because he was so tall) on a bed located on the first floor of the building. He was unconscious the whole time and he died the next morning at 7:22. The government of the United Stated purchased the home in 1896. It was the first time they had ever purchased a historical home. In 1933 it opened as a museum with everything preserved as in the era. However, when we went it was closed for refurbishing, which is quite common.
Center for Education and Leadership
The final place is also across the street. These exhibits show how that event changed and influenced the world.
When entering you will notice a huge tower of books that goes up four stories. They are all books written about Abraham Lincoln. Some 15,000 books have been written about this enigmatic man, more than any other person, with the exception of Jesus Christ.
Another thing to see is the casket in which he was transported through the funeral route which was 1,700 miles long, going from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.
Abraham Lincoln was born in a poor family in Illinois. He educated himself and became a lawyer, as well as a state legislator and a U.S. Congressmen. In 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act was passed by a Democratic Senator and signed by President Franklin Pierce, who was pro-slavery and wanted to keep the union of the country. This act allowed “popular sovereignty” to determine if slavery was allowed and it created conflicts known as “Bleeding Kansas”. Northerners were outraged because they were anti-slavery and established the Republican Party in 1854.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the first Republican President. He favored the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery in territory north of 36° 30′ latitude. The Republican Party was a strong proponent of free market labor with a “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” ideology. They started giving free land in the west to farmers in hopes of developing the country. Modernization of the United States was the goal, and that was achieved through banking and transportation.
The origins of that political party shifted drastically after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now the party is quite conservative, with a stronger presence in the southern states. While the Democratic Party is favored by more liberal Americans who live in the northern states.
American Civil War
Slavery of Africans and African Americans was the cause of the war. This practice was legal in all 13 colonies when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. When the U.S. Constitution was done in 1789, slave owners were given political power through the three-fifths clause. Northern states started passing abolitionist laws prohibiting slavery and by 1805 all northern states had some type of prohibition.
Shortly after Abraham Lincoln became president, the American Civil War broke out. In his inauguration speech he told the south that he was not going to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it existed. A month later, on April 12, 1861, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, a Union fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
The country was divided, those in the north were loyal to the Union, while seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) in the south separated to form the Confederacy. Four more states (Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina) joined after the war began.
About 625,000 Americans lost their lives during the American Civil War, which finally ended in the spring of 1865. General Robert E. Lee surrendered 28,000 Confederate troops to General Ulysses S Grant in Virginia. Grant said “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.”
Emancipation Proclamation was the turning point of the Civil War. This presidential order started on January 1, 1863 freeing 4 million slaves who were living in Confederate States. Federal law stated that slaves were free if they ran across Union lines or waited for federal troops to arrive. You can see the original document at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Abraham Lincoln met with Frederick Douglass in August 1863. This former slave (he escaped from Maryland to New York) had been recruiting “colored troops” for the Union Army. However, he was outraged by how the Confederate forces were treating captured black soldiers, since many were mutilated, assassinated or sold as slaves. He also told Lincoln that black soldiers earned a lot less than white soldiers. Lincoln committed to sign any commission recommended by the Secretary of War relating to black soldiers. But he did not commit to equal pay, since he knew many did not approve of black troops. Douglass was happy with the President’s answer. About 10% of the Union Army was made of black soldiers, which meant about 179,000 people. Of those, nearly 40,000 died in the war.
On December 1865 after the Civil War ended, the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery was added to the United States Constitution.
John Wilkes Booth
The American Civil War was over and Abraham Lincoln had just been reelected as President with Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, as Vice President. He was a hero and people loved him, but of course, not everybody shared those feelings. Lincoln gave a speech on April 10, 1865, where he spoke about giving voting rights to blacks, especially soldiers who had fought for the Union. Actor John Wilkes Booth did not agree with the speech he was listening and said, “That means n—- citizenship! Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland to an important family of actors. His father performed for Presidents and the Queen of England. He felt like he lived in their shadows, so he decided to break away. At age of 26 he started performing in theaters in the south. When the American Civil War began he was pro-south, but decided not to fight. He travelled to Montreal, Canada, to join the Confederate spy network. The original plan was to kidnap the President, but he did not show up as he was warned. When the south fell he decided it was time to take out the three most important people in the government: President, Vice President and Secretary of State. Doing this would create chaos and possibly give the south a chance.
Assassination of President Lincoln
Lincoln was a huge fan of the theater, especially of Shakespeare and comedy. He visited Ford’s Theatre at least nine times and they always decorated the box where he sat. On April 14, 1865 they decorated his box with an American flag and a portrait of George Washington, the first President of the United States. That morning, John Wilkes Booth was receiving his mail in that theatre when he heard that the president was going to attend that night. He met with three conspirators to assign their targets, which were all failures. The Secretary of State was attacked but survived and nothing happened to the Vice President.
President Lincoln arrived with his wife at the Ford’s Theater half an hour late. 1700 people gave him a standing ovation and the play continued. Booth followed the same path and casually entered the box where there was only a messenger from the White House accompanying the President. There was no Secret Service until 1902 after two more presidential assassinations. Body guards were only in charge of moving the President from one place to the other. The assassin waited patiently till the end of the play when he knew people would laugh, which would muffle the sound of the gun. He pulled a one shot pistol (which is on display at the museum), shot the President and jumped on stage. Making one final performance, he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis! (Ever thus to tyrants!) The South is avenged.”
It is ironic to see a man who gave people freedom considered a tyrant, but Booth thought Lincoln was taking people’s property. He ran out the back and rode south on a horse. A man hunt was ordered and Booth was finally found 12 days later hiding in a tobacco barn in Virginia. He was shot by one of the soldiers and died.
The United States has always been a segregated country with very strong differences in perspectives. Changing history comes with the ultimate price, as those who dare usually get killed for altering the way things are. Almost 100 years later another President would be killed for exactly the same reason. You can visit the former Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas which is a now a museum to commemorate the life of John F. Kennedy.
At the western end of the National Mall you will find the Lincoln Memorial which was built between 1914–1922. It stands across the Washington Monument. If you visit during the spring you will be able to view the delicate cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. This imposing white building was built from marble quarried from Colorado. However, the architectural style has nothing to do with the rest of the city, since it was designed as a Greek temple. As you walk up the steps you will see the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, sitting with his arms placed over the chair. It is a powerful image. Behind are inscriptions of two speeches he gave, the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address.
Symbol of Freedom
Former President Taft declared the Lincoln Memorial a place where all could worship. Yet, for many years African American could only see events from the sidelines. This was a mockery of Lincoln’s death. In 1939, Marian Anderson was barred from presenting in Constitutional Hall because of her race. Her supporters picked a bigger venue, the Lincoln Memorial, which was attended by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
On August 1963 leaders of the civil rights movement decided to hold their first national rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King spoke in this place, saying “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But 100 years later, the negro is still not free.” His famous “I have a dream” speech moved the nation.
When the United States turned 300, it was again in crisis, since in 1979 the US embassy in Tehran was taken hostage. The Lincoln Memorial was chosen as the location for the vigil since it was a symbol of freedom. Abraham Lincoln said, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.” The hostage crisis served in uniting the country divided because of Vietnam.
Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
John T. Ford bought an old Baptist Church to convert it into a theater. The building was destroyed in 1862 one year after it opened. It reopened a year later as Ford’s Theatre with a capacity for 2,500 people. In those times seats were smaller, they used both balconies, and there was standing space. Now only 650 people are allowed. Behavior at the theater was quite different in those times. Crowds used to be loud and wild, throwing things at stage, stomping their feet and spitting chewing tobacco on the floor.
Ford’s Theatre was shut down after the Assassination of President Lincoln. Eventually, place was given back and Ford intended to continue using it, but he received death threats. Secretary of State used this public safety threat in order to confiscate the building. As a consequence, Ford was paid $88,000 in compensation.
The building was then used as an office mostly for the War Department. On June 9, 1893, part of the building collapsed, killing 22 people and injuring another 68. People started believing the building was cursed. It was repaired and used as a warehouse. In 1932, a museum opened on the first floor of the theater and in 1933, the building was transferred to the National Park Service.
It took two decades to get the funds to restore Ford’s Theatre. Finally, it reopened on January 30, 1968. It was renovated again, with another re-opening ceremony on February 11, 2009, commemorating Lincoln’s 200 birthday. Funds for management have been given by various countries and companies. They also ask visitors to give donations to maintain this historical site.