As every school child knows (or should know) Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and died in the early morning hours of the following day, April 15. Less well known is that, that very morning, Lincoln revealed to his cabinet a premonition—a presentiment some would call it—of his very own death.
The incident has been a favorite anecdote of Lincoln biographers for generations, although academic historians have tended to dismiss or ignore it. In researching The Paranormal Presidency, however, I went back to the primary sources, to people who worked with Lincoln or were his friends, to verify the story. Often times an anecdote, especially one about Lincoln, makes for a good story and is repeated over and over, yet has not any basis in fact. At first glance, this premonition of Lincoln’s might seem to fit that category.
While I give Lincoln’s final premonition in full in Chapter 17 of the Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a brief synopsis is that, during a cabinet meeting the morning of April 14, while waiting for the meeting to begin in earnest, Lincoln related a strange dream he had had the night before. It was about a ship sailing to an indefinite shore. What was peculiar about the dream was that he told his cabinet (and General Grant) that he had had this very same dream before every major event of the war. As Lincoln was hourly expecting news from the Carolinas from Sherman, that the last major Confederate army had surrendered, Lincoln assumed it would be good news from that front.
Doubtless at the time of the meeting, it was regarded as yet another of Lincoln’s little anecdotes that his cabinet had to suffer through. It was only after he was assassinated that night that everyone present realized that Lincoln had actually foretold his own death.
As noted above, this incident has been told and retold by many folks over the years. Charles Dickens gave a dramatic version of the story, obviously with added Dickensian touches; Lincoln’s close friend and sometime bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, likewise ornamented the story a bit. Moreover, as time went on, many writers elaborated on it. So, for the professional debunkers out there, it has been easy to dismiss the story as fiction, something invented long after the fact.
The trouble with professional cynics is that starting from a priori assumptions, they rarely look at the facts objectively; more often than not, they skip over primary sources that are inconvenient to their thesis. Some skepticism is a healthy thing: cynicism in not; neither is shoddy scholarship.
In fact, there were at least two men present during the Cabinet meeting in question who reported Lincoln’s prophetic dream. There are slight variations in quoting Lincoln’s exact words, as there are with Lamon’s account; but anyone who has dealt extensively with eyewitness accounts of an event knows that is to be expected.
Within days of his death news of the incident had spread far and wide. When Lincoln’s body was being returned by train to Springfield, Illinois stopped in Philadelphia, on April 22, his body put on display for mourners to view. Among the many memorial wreaths beside the body was one which stood out. It had a banner emblazoned across it which read:
“Before every great national event I
have always had the same dream.
I had it the other night. It is of a
ship sailing rapidly….”
The crowd in Philadelphia that April 22, needed no explanation; word of Lincoln’s last prophetic dream had already become common knowledge. It is not prima facie evidence, true; but is proof that the story was no later invention.
Lincoln’s last premonition is thus a historic fact. If one chooses to dismiss it as mere coincidence, that is always a convenient out for inconvenient truths and people are free to believe what they want. But it did happen.
Walt Whitman, who was in Washington during the war years, was so inspired by Lincoln’s prophetic dream that he turned it into one of his most famous poems, O Captain! My Captain! When I was a boy, in fact, we were required to memorize it, along with other famous pieces of American poetry. I doubt they do that any more; and I doubt that many folks who are familiar with the poem really know the true background behind it.
Clearly, Lincoln dreamed of his ship approaching that “indefinite shore,” and while soon after, “The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,”
Lincoln, its captain, did not live to see the ship of state safe in port.
For more on this last, best documented, of Lincoln’s premonitions, as well as the full text of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” read The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Oh yes, and be sure to memorize the poem for class next Monday. Class dismissed.