Lincoln Visits the Ironclad Montauk Hours Before His Assassination

By David J. Kent

Washington D.C.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021



April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s last day alive, was a busy one. Included was a visit to the ironclad USS Montauk. Days later his assassins would be held on the same ship.


The day started with a welcome visit. Captain Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, returned to the city in time to join Lincoln for breakfast. With him he brought first-hand witness to the recent surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Many formal interviews later (including with former New Hampshire John P. Hale, whose daughter Lucy was later found to be secretly engaged to John Wilkes Booth), Lincoln held a cabinet meeting in which he related a recurring dream of a ship “moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore.”


Perhaps inspired by the dream or simply his interest in technology, Lincoln and Mary went out for a drive and found their way to the Washington Navy Yard. Lincoln had frequented the Navy Yard to talk strategy with John A. Dahlgren, who by that time had risen to the rank of Admiral. But Lincoln was here today to see three ironclad ships. Recently damaged in action at Fort Fisher, North Carolina, they included the Passaic-class monitor, the USS Montauk. After touring the vessels and talking with Navy Yard staff, the Lincolns returned to the White House and shortly thereafter set out again for what they had hoped would be a relaxing night at the theater. Our American Cousin, a comedy, should lift their spirits as this long grueling Civil War appeared to be coming to an end.


A few hours later, Lincoln would be lying in a pool of his guest Major Rathbone’s blood. The next morning he would be dead.


Days later the ironclad Montauk would be the temporary prison for six of the accused assassin’s co-conspirators. All but Doctor Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt were kept on board before being transferred to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary for trial. That wasn’t the end of the Montauk‘s role. Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, passed over the Navy Bridge on his escape out of Washington, but twelve days later the body of Booth was brought back to the Navy Yard and onto the deck of the Montauk for examination and autopsy.


The Montauk was decommissioned shortly thereafter and stored in Philadelphia until sold for scrap iron in 1904.


There is some irony that the last ironclad Lincoln had visited became a bier for his assassin and a jail for the co-conspirators. When he related his ship dream to his cabinet the morning of his assassination, he said its earlier occurrences had presaged Union victories. When General Grant pointed out that at least one of the battles Lincoln listed was certainly not a victory, Lincoln noted that he still felt it an omen of something important to occur. His long days on Earth would come to an end.


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