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Ford’s Theater

In my last two posts on our trip to Washington, D.C., and Civil War battlefields, I discussed our return to Washington from Gettysburg and subsequent visit to the National Museum of American History, then our dinner that evening at Café du Parc. In this post, I’ll move on to our visit of Ford’s Theater the next morning (a week ago today)..

I had decided after we visited the battlefield in Gettysburg that the theater would be a perfect place to conclude our Civil War travels, and so it was. We had started our journey on Saturday at Harpers Ferry, where John Brown‘s raid of the federal armory in 1859 played a key role in the build-up to war, and whose takeover by Confederate troops in September 1862 was the lead-in to the battle a couple of days later at Antietam, site of the greatest number of casualties in a single day in US military history. Antietam National Battlefield was, in fact, our next stop, that afternoon. That night we arrived in Gettysburg, whose Gettysburg National Military Park we visited over the next two days. This was the scene of the worst battle of the Civil War, from July 1 to July 3, 1863. After driving to DC on Monday afternoon, we reviewed more Civil War history at the National Museum of American History, and had a look at the furniture used by Generals Lee and Grant to sign documents after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Now, Tuesday morning, we were to visit Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated just five days later.

The theater sits on 10th Street, between E and F Streets. Our hotel was also between E and F, just west of 14th Street. Thus the theater was a short walk away. We had 10:00 reservations, or so I thought. It turns out that I had screwed up in my effort to secure reservations through Ticketmaster two nights earlier, a screw-up I actually blame on Ticketmaster, but it won’t do any good now. There are several options for visiting, depending on what time one chooses and what else is happening at the theater (which is a working theater, with on-going productions). One can visit the museum in the basement, under the theater itself. Or one can combine a museum visit with a ranger talk. Or one can combine the museum visit with the viewing of a short play, One Destiny. I tried to choose the third option. It seems I had selected the second. I was aware of the ambiguity at the Ticketmaster website and so re-started the process several times in order to try to resolve the ambiguity correctly, but Ticketmaster defeated me. When I got to the box office at 9:45 to pick up our tickets, I learned that we were too late — the ranger talk started at 9:30. But I didn’t want the ranger talk. Well, tickets were still available for the 10:00 entry with museum and play, at a charge of $5.00 apiece. This was odd, since Ticketmaster said everything was free, except for fees, which I had already paid for nothing. No matter. No point arguing. We were there for the play. We could see the play. We just had to kiss goodbye the $6.00 I had already invested for nothing through Ticketmaster and pay another $10.00, then get on line, where Gail was already standing, behind a gigantic school group.

At 10:00, we were let in and directed to the museum in the basement. The structure of our visit was now clear. We would be allowed to look at the exhibits until a little before 10:45, when we would be sent back upstairs for the play, and then (I suspected) we would be kicked out; that is, we would be denied further access to the museum, unless we wanted to get tickets for later entry. This is indeed what happened, to Gail’s immense frustration, since we hadn’t had time to see all the exhibits before the play and she wanted to go back downstairs afterwards. It isn’t easy to see everything, by the way, when a group of some 60 kids is wandering around, chatting, texting, etc. I don’t blame them. I wonder how well prepared they were for the visit. They weren’t loud or boisterous. Just distracted. And there was also a group of ten or so bigwigs getting a private tour by a young woman, the quality of whose comments seemed distinctly lower than the text of the displays. This group tended to be more of a problem than the kids, since the group would stand in front of exhibits for minutes at a time while being spoken to.

Anyway, there was lots to see. including the centerpiece: the derringer that John Wilkes Booth used to shoot Lincoln. Around 10:40, we headed upstairs behind the massive school group and took our seats for the play. It was unexpectedly effective. There are two actors, playing the roles of Harry Ford, eponymous co-owner of the Theater, and Harry Hawk, the comedic actor who was on stage in mid-performance when Booth shot Lincoln and jumped down. They review the events of the day, taking on the roles of others in the theater that day as well as themselves while discussing what happened and what might have been. The production lasted about 35 minutes, after which the two actors (Stephen F. Schmidt and Michael Bunce) stayed onstage to answer audience questions for about 20 minutes. They were every bit as good at this as they were at acting. Very impressive. About halfway through the Q&A, the school group got up to leave. Odd. Perhaps they had a plane to catch. They were quiet, under the circumstances, but it was a distraction. The actors wrapped it up, we left, and were required to exit the theater onto the sidewalk. No going back down to the museum.

Our museum tickets also entitled us to a visit of Petersen House across the street, where Lincoln was taken and tended to after the shooting, and where he died early the next morning. One climbs a stairway from the street to reach the front door, then goes into the front room, where Mary Lincoln waited, then the back room, where Lincoln lay and died. Space is tight, only a handful of people are let in at a time, and only 3 or 4 can stand in the back room, from which a door leads down stairs and around a corner to an alley that returns to the street.

I will never forget how powerful the experience was of coming to the end of David Herbert Donald’s 1995 biography Lincoln and reading the concluding death scene. I felt I was there, as I described in a post I wrote a year ago, on the occasion of Donald’s own death. We were fortunate to visit Ford’s Theater and Petersen House a year after I read the biography, and fortunate to return.

I’ll close with the final paragraph of Donald’s book, his description of the moments after Lincoln died:

In the small, crowded back room there was silence until [Secretary of War] Stanton asked Dr. Gurley to offer a prayer. Robert gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, leaning on Sumner for comfort. Standing at the foot of the bed, his face covered with tears, Stanton paid tribute to his fallen chief: with a slow and measured movement, his right arm fully extended as if in a salute, he raised his hat and placed it for an instant on his head and then in the same deliberate manner removed it. “Now,” he said, “he belongs to the ages.”

Categories: History, Theater, Travel
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