THANK YOU, DR. LEALE
Attorney Jonathan Emord
November 30, 2009
Thanksgiving just past and Christmas soon upon us we reflect on the
blessings of life and express our gratitude for them. While some are
burdened with greater hardships than others, there are always precious
moments of great majesty and beauty that can touch and transform even
the most heavily laden heart and mind. One such moment occurred on April
15 and 16, 1865. On those fateful days a twenty-three year old Army
surgeon, Colonel Charles Augustus Leale, undertook acts of selflessness
and love that have escaped most Americans’ notice but are ones
deserving eternal thanks giving.
Consider the timeline of history immediately preceding mid-April 1865. On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, an address he thought for some time would not be his to give, but the war had turned to favor the Union. With great magnanimity this President who could just begin to perceive an end to the nation’s greatest conflict spoke not of wresting spoils from the vanquished but of bringing the war to an end and healing the wounds of the vanquished with malice toward none:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Brothers clothiers had provided the President with a custom-made wool
overcoat which he wore at the Second Inaugural and also at Ford’s
Theatre on April 15, 1865. The coat included an embroidered image of
an eagle and motto on ribbon (held in the eagle’s talons) which
read “One Country—One Destiny,” encapsulating perfectly
the central view of the man who ventured all to save the Union.
On April 3, 1865, the Confederate Capitol at Richmond fell to the Union Army. Consistent with his inaugural message, Lincoln boldly chose to visit the Capitol city unannounced to sit in the White House of the Confederacy and transmit the message that the Union would be restored. Lincoln arrived to a city in ruins accompanied by his twelve year old son Thomas “Tad” Lincoln (it was Tad’s birthday), just 2 days after Confederate forces had abandoned it. He disembarked at the 17th Street dock, startling nearby workmen who could not believe their eyes.
The crowd largely comprised of recently freed slaves came forward to greet him. Historian David Herbert Donald records the following in his 1995 best-seller Lincoln:
Landing without notice or fanfare, the President was first recognized by some black workmen. Their leader, a man about sixty, dropped his spade and rushed forward, exclaiming, “Bless the Lord, there is the great Messiah! . . . Glory, Hallelujah!” He and the others fell on their knees, trying to kiss the president’s feet. “Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln told them, embarrassed. “That’s not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”
returned to Washington on April 9. He arrived to the momentous news
that on the same day the Army of Northern Virginia under Commander Robert
E. Lee had surrendered to the Army of the Potomac under General-in-Chief
Ulysses S. Grant. The war would soon end.
Five days later on April 15, 1865, Good Friday, President Lincoln and his wife joined Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée for a night at the theatre. The comedy Our American Cousin was playing at Ford’s Theatre. Earlier that same day, Lincoln delivered an impromptu speech in front of the White House to people who came seeking a speech from the President concerning the imminent end of the war. Among those who saw the President speak was the Surgeon in charge of the Wounded Commissioned Officers’ Ward at the U.S. Army General Hospital in D.C., Colonel Charles Augustus Leale, M.D., a twenty-three year old who had just been graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York two months before. Dr. Leale was taken by the President’s unusual and wide ranging facial features and wanted to see more of them.
read in the newspaper that Lincoln would attend a Ford’s Theatre
production that evening. After completing rounds at the wounded commissioned
officers’ ward, he went to Ford’s Theater and obtained a
ticket to sit in the dress circle, near the stage, some forty feet from
the President’s box. Lincoln arrived after the program began,
but the actors on stage stood still as the orchestra played “Hail
to the Chief” and the audience arose to give the President a standing
In the third act of the play, John Wilkes Booth entered the presidential box and fired a bullet from his derringer into the back of the President’s head. Booth also slashed Major Rathbone’s arm with a dagger. Yelling “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants”), Booth lept from the box to the stage. In an ironic twist, the spur of his boot got caught in the Union flag which caused him to crash upon the stage, breaking his left shin. The Union appeared to lash out at Booth through its greatest emblem, the flag, crippling the assassin and ultimately hastening his capture.
A cry for a doctor came from the President’s booth. In response Dr. Leale came forward and received Mary Todd Lincoln’s authorization that he take charge of the President’s care. He then embarked on a vigil which gave the President a calm, unwavering and steadfast companion on his journey from this life to the next. Dr. Leale checked for a pulse. He could not find one. He then moved the president from his chair to the floor and removed so much of his coat and clothing as was necessary to determine the extent of his injuries. At first Leale suspected that Lincoln had been stabbed, removed mucus from his throat that appeared to block his breathing, and performed mouth to mouth resuscitation. He then located a bullet wound behind the President’s left ear.
experienced considerable difficulty breathing. To help the president
respire, Leale manually removed a blood clot from the bullet wound opening
and continued thereafter to remove all of the clots that periodically
formed. Assessing the apparent damage done to Lincoln’s brain
by the bullet, Dr. Leale declared in a statement that would be wired
across the country within the next few hours, “His wound is mortal;
it is impossible for him to recover.” Accompanied by Drs. Charles
Sabin Taft, another Army surgeon, and by D.C. doctor Albert F. A. King,
as well as a few soldiers from the President’s guard, Leale gently
moved the President from Ford’s Theatre to the Peterson House
across the street. At 6’4” Lincoln was too tall for the
bed upon which he was placed, so they laid him atop it at a diagonal.
Leale remained at Lincoln’s side, holding his hand, throughout that long night. He wanted Lincoln to know that a friend was at his side. “Sometimes recognition and reason return just before departure,” Dr. Leale later wrote. “I held his hand firmly to let him know, in his blindness, that he had a friend.”
At 7:22AM on April 16, 1865, Abraham Lincoln heaved a big sigh and then expired. Dr. Leale rose from his chair at Lincoln’s bedside and said a silent prayer for the larger than life statesman, master rhetorician, military tactician, folk legend, emancipator, and savior of the Union. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton thereupon observed, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Dr. Charles Leale himself died on June 13, 1932. Although a guardian angel to one of the world’s greatest statesman, Dr. Leale remained a humble physician following his overnight vigil at Lincoln’s side, avoiding much public comment until others begged him to recount for the ages his recollection of that dreadful night.
Each holiday season I recall Dr. Leale and his selfless and humble acts of service to President Lincoln at that great man’s time of greatest need. His sensitive care for the president, his outstretched hand of friendship throughout the ordeal, epitomize the kind of generosity of spirit and kindness for which we must all be thankful. Dr. Leale served as a divine instrument to help Abraham Lincoln depart from mortality and enter the spirit world.
© 2009 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved