Abraham Lincoln and the Assassin Lost to Time
A reader of this article may wonder why Abraham Lincoln appears on a list of failed assassination attempts. Everyone knows Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated. What is far less commonly known is that there were multiple attempts in his life. One in particular, which came within inches of succeeding, shot Lincoln’s top hat right off of his head. What is more, Lincoln’s insistence on keeping the incident a secret means the event will forever be shrouded in mystery.
Only eight months before John Wilkes Booth shot the President in the back of the head at the Ford Theater, another would-be assassin took aim. Lincoln enjoyed riding on horseback from the White House to the presidential cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, where many Civil War soldiers, too old for service, came to rest. He often did so secretly, sneaking away without anyone’s notice. A friend later recalled: “…he often eluded our vigilance; and before his absence could be noted he would be well on his way to his summer residence, alone, and many times at night.”
It was during one such outing, in August of 1864, that Lincoln was riding towards the cottage when a military guard heard the crack of a firearm at about 11:00 at night. Soon afterward Lincoln raced his horse to the property’s gate, bareheaded and clearly shaken. The guard asked where his hat went. Lincoln told him “…somebody had fired a gun off at the foot of the hill, and that his horse had become scared and jerked his hat off.” The guard and another soldier immediately went to investigate the situation where they found Lincoln’s hat. After inspecting the hat and the rest of the scene, the guard later wrote, “upon examining it [the hat] we discovered a bullet hole through the crown. The shot had been fired upward, and it was evident that the person who fired the shot had secreted himself close by the roadside.”
Though the guard was convinced someone was trying to kill him, Lincoln insisted that the two men keep quiet about the incident, claiming that the incident was a mere accident. Later, Lincoln recalled the event to a friend who repeatedly begged him to have more security. But Lincoln continued to insist that he did not believe it was an attempt on his life stating “…I can’t bring myself to believe that any one has shot or will deliberately shoot at me with the purpose of killing me…”.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, President Lincoln did not implement a permanent security detail. Doing so would almost certainly have saved his life and avoided the turmoil of the Johnson presidency. Not only did his insistence on keeping this event a secret mean that the assassin was sure to escape justice, but Lincoln’s utter denial that someone could want to kill him led to his ultimate demise, just a few short months later.