Life was good.
Josephine Cain beamed as she and her mother entered Ford’s Theatre on the arms of her father, who smiled graciously at those
offering congratulations and greetings.
An artillery sergeant approached them. “It is quite the celebration, is it not, General Cain?”
Josephine had become very good at recognizing a soldier’s rank by his chevrons and sashes. This man wore the red wool of a non-
Papa wore the buff sash of a general. This very evening Josephine had embraced the honor of wrapping Papa’s sash twice around
his waist and tying it over his left hip. She had been very careful to align the two tassels to hang just so.
“It is a celebration that comprises only five days of peace after four years of hell,” Papa said to the sergeant. “There is still much to
do to heal this nation. I simply pray it can be healed.”
The man looked shocked, as if he had no doubt.
Josephine squeezed her father’s arm while keeping her eyes upon the sergeant. “When my brother and cousin come home, then it
will truly be over,” she said.
The sergeant’s eyebrows rose. “Of course. General. Ladies.” He excused himself.
As soon as he left, Mother leaned across Papa and spoke to her. “The sergeant had no wish to hear your opinion, Josephine. He
wanted to speak to your father.”
Papa smiled down at Josephine. “It just so happens that in this, your opinion is my opinion.”
“You simply want the boys home so you can go on your Grand Tour together,” Mother said.
“That is not true. But can I help it if I’ am eager to see Europe?” Josephine said. “We were all set to go, and then this stupid war—”
Papa pulled free of her arm. “Never, ever call this war stupid,” he said under his breath. “To do so diminishes the sacrifices made
on both sides.”
Josephine hated having him cross with her—and she also hated that others might witness her scolding. She smiled at him prettily
and said, “I am sorry, Papa. It was selfish of me to say such a thing.”
“It most certainly was,” Mother said.
If Josephine collected all the two -cents her Mother added to conversations, she would be independently wealthy.
“In fact,” Mother continued, “I am not sure I shall let Thomas go anywhere after he returns home, and I know my sister will concur
and keep William close, too. The boys have been gone far too long already.”
Papa shushed them. He was right. This argument could be delayed—for a short time. Tonight Josephine wanted to concentrate on
the most important man in her life. Papa was home, and though his military duties would likely drag on for a few more months,
tonight she had him in her presence. She was going to savor every moment.
Josephine loved the attention they received as they meandered through the lobby of the theater and took their seats. She knew
much of it was due to Papa’s rank and station—after all, he was a confidante of President Lincoln’s—but she hoped some of the
notice was devoted to her appearance. She felt beautiful in her evergreen velvet gown. She hadn’t had a new gown since the war
began, but when Papa had confided that it would likely end soon, he gave permission to have this one made.
She had personally told the dressmaker to add short gold fringe along the wide, off-the-shoulder band, and longer fringe to
accentuate the draped scallops along the bottom of the overskirt. For the occasion her mother had generously offered to let her
borrow an emerald necklace. Josephine was grateful, but then she’d been bold. Could she please borrow the amber necklace
instead? The tawny orange stones might be a striking contrast to the deep green of her dress and accentuate the ginger cast of
her hair. It turned out Josephine was right—as she usually was in all things pertaining to fashion.
Their seats were front and center, just six rows back. The presidential box was raised and to their right, its railing draped in the
stars and stripes. Two arches highlighted one extended seating area, and white lace curtains opened within each arch beneath
heavy gold fabric swags. A portrait of George Washington hung on the center-point outside the balcony, as if the first president’s
job was to connect the two viewing areas. She had a thought that President Washington would be very relieved the war between
the states that he had helped unite was finally over.
The president and Mrs. Lincoln sat to the right side of the box, and another couple sat in the archway to the left. The woman looked
fairly young. “Who is that girl, Papa?”
Papa squinted. “Ah yes, that’s Clara Harris. She is the daughter of Senator Harris, and the man with her is her fiancé, Major Henry
Rathbone. A good man, Rathbone.”
Josephine felt a twinge of jealousy. Clara Harris had a fiancé and had been invited to sit in the president’s box? Josephine imagined
herself in that spot, perhaps with Papa by her side.
But as for a fiancé? The absence of eligible men in Washington was another reason she was glad the war was over. She ached
to be courted and taken to parties and soirees where she could enjoy a beau’s company.
The play began. “Our American Cousin” was a comedy, but Josephine didn’t pay much attention to it. Her eyes were on Clara
Harris, admiring the lace on her dress and wondering what the play looked like from her vantage point.
Enough daydreaming. Josephine forced herself to be thankful for her own pretty dress and Papa’s presence beside her.
But just as she chastised herself, just as Josephine decided she really should watch the play so she could discuss it later, she
aw a man enter the box from behind the president. She assumed it was a servant, bringing refreshment, but then—
A gunshot rang out!
Another scream—her own.
Josephine pointed to the box. “The president’s been shot!”
The shooter tried to escape, but Major Rathbone struggled with him, adding his own scream to the uproar as he was stabbed and
slashed with a knife.
The shooter jumped from the box to the stage and said something in Latin, then limped away.
The audience was on its feet. She saw the crowds in the two tiers of balconies vying for a view—or perhaps seeking a means for
their own escape.
“Papa, what should we do?”
General Cain pulled his wife and daughter under the protection of his arms, but Josephine sensed from the twitchiness of his
muscles that he struggled between chasing the shooter, helping the president, or herding them all to safety. She could feel the
beating of his heart through his uniform. He yelled out, “Doctor! He needs a doctor!”
Help was already in motion with people rushing to the president’s aid. One man came into the box from the door and another was
lifted up from the stage. President Lincoln slumped in his wife’s arms. The initial communal screams of fright had been replaced
by wails of sorrow and disbelief.
“He’ll be all right, won’t he?” Josephine asked.
Papa’s eyes were locked on Lincoln. She heard him murmur under his breath, “Please God, please God, please God . . .”
Josephine joined him in prayer.
Copyright 2013 Nancy Moser
April 14, 1865