General Grant was one of John Wilkes Booth’s targets on April 14, 1865.
This is Julia Grant’s story, penned some 35 years after it occurred, and not known to the general public for more than a century.
April 14, 1865
The article had appeared in the newspapers. General and Mrs. Grant would join the President and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theater later that evening. The audience would be getting a double treat. Not only the President, but the Hero of Appomattox.
Julia Grant did not wish to go. She did not care for Mary Lincoln. Her husband complied, knowing that his generally agreeable wife was uncomfortable with the high strung First Lady. Besides, the Grants wanted to return to their rented house in Burlington, NJ to see their children, whom they hadn’t seen for several weeks.
Some time around noon, a disheveled looking man came to Julia’s door with a purported message from Mrs. Lincoln. The message stated that the Lincolns would call for the Grants at exactly 8:00 that evening. Mrs. Grant detected an imperious tone that she found offensive, and told the messenger to tell Mrs. Lincoln that the Grants would be unable to accompany them.
Mrs. Lincoln had never sent any message, nor was she even aware of it.
Later that afternoon, while Mrs. G. was having lunch at their hotel with the wife of General Rawlins, Grant’s aide-de-camp, four unsavory looking men seated themselves at their table. One of them, Julia believed, looked like the same man who had delivered the message. Another dark-haired, pale man looked vaguely familiar, and (according to Mrs. G. many years later) may have been John Wilkes Booth. The strangers made her uncomfortable.
Julia Dent Grant was not a particularly intellectual woman, but she was very intuitive, especially about her husband. The two were very close. They kept no secrets from each other. She made a point of telling the General about this peculiar encounter. He listened attentively and asked for a description. The description she gave seemed unknown to him, and he advised her to forget it.
The Trip to Burlington
Burlington, New Jersey is a small town near the Delaware River. The Grant’s rented house there was about an hour from Philadelphia, a city where trains to Washington were frequent. General Grant had not been able to spend much time with his children during the past few months, and he missed them. Now he was planning to spend the Easter weekend in the bosom of the family he loved so dearly.
The Grants left Washington in the early evening. On route to the train station, their carriage was passed by a galloping rider. He rode twenty yards ahead, then wheeled around and rode past, facing them. Julia recognized that same dark haired pale man she had seen earlier, the one who had made her uneasy. According to Mrs. G. “He thrust his face quite near the General’s and glared in a disagreeable manner… I noticed the General draw back as the man returned and came so close.”
They continued to Philadelphia without incident. While they were waiting for the ferry across the Delaware River, they stopped for a meal. They no sooner sat down when a messenger came running up to the General with a telegram. Within moments, two more telegrams arrived. Grant’s face paled noticeably, and Julia asked if it was bad news. Grant nodded, and told her quietly that President Lincoln had been shot, and that he had to return to Washington right away.
He said he would take her to Burlington, spend an hour with the children, and then order a special train back to the capital.
The Following Days
The days following Lincoln’s death on the morning of April 15 were filled with grief and anger and despair. They were also filled with information.
Almost immediately, John Wilkes Booth, a well-known stage actor, was identified as the man who shot the president, and who had spearheaded a complex conspiracy. Secretary of State William Seward had been brutally attacked in his home that same night. Within a day, it was learned that Vice President Andrew Johnson had been targeted for assassination as well, but the assailant had cold feet and the plot was aborted. Several conspirators were hunted and found and eventually tried. Four were hanged.
What is not known, however, is that the day after the horrific deed, Grant received an anonymous letter. He had directed Julia to open all telegrams and letters in his absence, and she read the following:
“General Grant, thank God, as I do, that you still live. It was your life that fell to my lot and I followed you on the cars. Your car door was locked and thus you escaped me, thank God!”
Many Years Later
According to John Y, Simon, who edited The Personal Memoirs of Julia Grant nearly a century later, in 1878 the General told a reporter about the incident, and added that he later learned it was John Wilkes Booth who passed them on the road. He also mentioned the letter, “but how true the letter was I cannot say.” Many years after that, their son, Jesse Root Grant wrote that he had heard about the letter. He had been a small boy at the time.
At the conspiracy trial, Michael O’Laughlin was accused of attempting to murder General Grant, but was acquitted. Grant testified, but made no mention of a plot on his life. Between the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, perhaps there had been enough turmoil.
No further charges were ever pressed by General Grant.
As it was, the matter lay dormant and unknown until Julia Grant’s Memoirs were published 1975.
Grant, Jesse R. – In the Days of My Father, General Grant – Harper & Brothers, 1925
Grant, Julia Dent – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant: (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) – 1975, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Young, John Russell – Around the World with General Grant, 1970, New York