Everyone knows that President Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, but what you may not know is that this was not the first attempt on Abraham Lincoln’s life. The first attempt came one August night in 1864, just under a year before the successful attempt by John Wilkes Booth. It is unknown who the would-be assassin was in that earlier attempt, just that they very nearly succeeded.
President Lincoln and his family often stayed at the Soldiers’ Home during the summer months due to the unbearable heat at the White House. President Lincoln often made the 4 mile trip from the White House to the Soldiers’ Home alone, and often late at night, an unheard of situation these days, with the secret service officers always shadowing the presidents, vice-presidents, and their families. As Lincoln was riding along that night, a shot rang out. Private John W Nichols, who was stationed at the Soldiers’ Home, rushed to the aid of the president, whom he found well, but missing his hat. President Lincoln told the private that the horse jerked upon hearing the gunshot, and his hat went flying. The private went to retrieve the hat for the president, and went he examined it, he found that it now had a bullet hole in it. It was an extremely close call, but President Lincoln requested that the matter be kept quiet, and Private Nichols didn’t tell the story until 1867. His tall hat had saved his life by causing the would be assassin to aim too high to hit his head.
For America, this missed shot changed history. Had Lincoln been killed on that August night…even just that much earlier would have had devastating consequences for America. Hannibal Hamlin would have become a lame duck president. Hamlin was already off the Union ticket for vice president, having been replaced by Andrew Johnson. Hamlin would have faced strong opposition, because at the time, the Radical Democracy Party…an offshoot of the Republicans…and their nominee, John Fremont, had not yet dropped from the race. The Radical Democracy Party were even more strongly opposed to slavery than Lincoln, which is what led to their formation. Had the assassin aimed a bit lower in 1864, the election in November would likely have pitted Hamlin against Fremont and McClellan, the Democratic nominee, with Johnson perhaps running on the Union ticket.
Presidential elections always rest on who can win in an election, and in this case the winner would have turned 1864 America into a mess. Had the earlier would-be assassin’s shot been just a little lower, Lincoln, would have been succeeded by Hannibal Hamlin which may have given the upcoming election to Lincoln’s overly cautious former commander, General George McClellan. How either Hamlin, had he actually won re-election, or McClellan would have carried on the last year of the war, much less dealt with southern reconstruction, is a source for debate. Lincoln’s death, if combined with a lame-duck Hamlin and a conciliatory McClellan, might have encouraged the South to hold on just a while longer and resulted in an armistice rather than a victory, dramatically changing the history of America. I don’t think that anyone but Lincoln could have freed the slaves at that time.