This post was written by Matthew Murphy, Head of Cataloging and Metadata.
Throughout our lives, at some point or another, we will all bear witness to a historical event. Often by accident or happenstance, we end up being part of something that echoes through the ages. Many of us keep record of our experiences, often when the event is still fresh on our minds. For the generations that follow, these records are invaluable, as they become an intimate point of contact to a time and place that would otherwise only be known secondhand.
The American Historical Manuscript Collection is filled with thousands of these moments, recorded on paper by people long gone. One item that truly stands out is W. R. Batchelder’s letter to his mother and family, written on April 16, 1865. In the letter, Batchelder expresses himself in a way that so many of us would when experiencing a historical event:
“How can I describe to you the scene I witnessed last Friday evening?”
As the paragraph continues, Batchelder states that:
“I was at Ford’s Theatre (Washington) and saw the murder of President Lincoln. It was a fearful sight, words cannot express the scene.”
Batchelder then describes the entire event in detail:
“The first I heard, was the crack of a pistol. I thought it was part of the play, and looked at the part of the stage from whence the sound came, and saw a man in black clothes, (in the President’s Box) waving a large knife over his head and saying something, (I could only distinguish the words “The South”) and then he jumped to the stage about twelve feet below; but as he jumped his foot or spur caught in the fastening, or flags about the box and he fell to the stage; but as quick as a flash he was up and like lightning ran behind the scenes of the stage. In an instant he was gone. One of the spectators jumped upon the stage, after him, but when he reached the door he saw the assassin mount a horse and gallop away …”
The remainder of the letter describes the aftermath, and near the end of the letter Batchelder states:
“Such a scene I never want to be witness to again. I cannot to this moment realize the fact that it is real, it is like a dream.”
Batchelder ultimately made an addition to his letter later than afternoon:
“3 o’clock P.M. There is a report that ‘Booth’ has been captured … “
This was, of course, only a rumor, as John Wilkes Booth would not be found until April 26, 1865.
Upon reading this letter, one feels an innate sense of emotional kinship with W. R. Batchelder. His bewilderment is a part of the human condition that we all experience, and through this familiarity we can feel some sense of connection across the ages to those who have come before us.
For another eyewitness account of Lincoln’s assassination — from an occupant of the presidential booth — see this earlier N-YHS blog post, Attending Ford’s Theatre With the Lincolns.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.