Lincoln’s Assassination from a Friend’s Diary: A Primary Source Starter

This primary source starter comes to us courtesy of Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress.

Lincoln’s Assassination from a Friend’s Diary

The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, April 14, 1865

O, fatal day. O, noble victim. Treason has done its worst. The President has been assassinated.” This hand-written diary entry, dated half past 10 o’clock PM, April 14, 1865, concludes simply, “I have just come from near the scene, it is too True.”

The writer, Horatio Nelson Taft, is mourning the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. For Taft, though, Lincoln was more than just a political leader—he was a family friend. An examiner for the U.S. Patent Office, Taft lived in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. His younger sons played regularly with the Lincoln boys, Willie and Tad. His older son, Charles, was one of the doctors who attended the wounded president from Ford’s Theater to the nearby boarding house where Lincoln ultimately died.

Taft’s diaries chronicle many events in the war-torn nation’s capital, but the relationship between the Taft and Lincoln families provides a unique lens on the events. And Taft’s raw, unfiltered emotional response to the assassination raises many questions about the ways in which personal perspectives contribute to the record of history.

Subsequent entries add context, with Taft telling additional details of Lincoln’s death as he learns them.

After reading and analyzing these sections of the diary, students may:

  • Read entries from the days immediately following the assassination and construct a timeline of events.
  • Identify clues to Taft’s emotional state as he wrote the diary.
  • Compare Taft’s response to other accounts of the assassination, such as a newspaper of the time or a textbook, and analyze the point of view in each.

Three volumes of Taft’s descriptions of life in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War are available in the collection Washington during the Civil War: The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft.

Get the printable version for a copy of the primary source and the Library’s primary source analysis tools and guides.

How did you respond when you read Taft’s entries on the assassination? Let us know in the comments section.

5 Comments

  1. Frank Johns
    July 5, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Given that this is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we would be advised to consider the life and death of the man who tried so hard to prevent the secession and the inevitable internicine war that followed. Whitman decribed Lincoln’s passsing in a poem that includes the following moving desription” “While on the deck my captain lies, fallen cold and dead.”

  2. Linda Muller
    July 6, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Yes, Mr. Taft’s diary entries offer a lot of primary source conversation starters. For example, explore his diary (Volume 1) entries throughout April, 1861. He expresses much consternation as he writes, “treason is in our midst” when he learns that South Carolina has seceded from the Union. You can further palpate his anxiety as he contemplates asking his family to leave Washington as the Civil War begins to bear down on the Capitol.

  3. Rebecca Amerson
    July 25, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    The Digital Library of Georgia also has a wonderful digitized Civil War diary, written by a young soldier traveling with Sherman on his march to the sea. On page 175 is the reference to Lincoln’s assassination. I love the language in this diary. You can take a look at: http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/hargrett/platter/.

  4. David
    October 26, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    This is one of my personal favorite primary source discoveries. For every interesting primary source we find, there must exist exponential undiscovered potential.

  5. Mr. 7th grader
    November 14, 2013 at 12:50 am

    Such weird cursive!!!

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