The conversation was about whether they were going to Petersburg and what would happen to Parke’s corps if Lee’s surrender prompted a general peace. It was also about the terms of that surrender, which had been greeted hotly by both officers and men, a fact that made John believe the eastern army still understood very little about General Grant. They were arguing over it once more when a commotion started in the camp. The boy sent to investigate came back ashen, the blood totally drained from his face. John could just make out that the president had been at Ford’s Theatre the previous night, and his first thought was that it would scandalize his mother, Mr. Lincoln going to a play on Good Friday. That thought, though, was instantly erased by the rest of the news that had come by messenger and been delivered by this shaking boy—that the president had been shot in his box at Ford’s, that Secretary Seward had been stabbed in his bed, and that the president had lingered for a few hours, unconscious, and now he was dead.
It was a horrible moment. John could not have imagined one more horrible. Some men were stunned into quiet. Some ran out to look for the messenger themselves. One man stood in the middle of the barn, his arms crossed over his forehead and his mouth fixed in a silent scream. Others swore and threw things and cried. John knew how frightened and suddenly rudderless they felt, for it was how he felt as well. He sat on an empty barrel, striking it methodically with his heels. Then, downing a drink that a man offered him, he went out to the stricken camp. He wandered aimlessly in the muddy dark, and he couldn’t push it out of his mind how much the president’s words had always been at hand, printed in the papers and ready for debate. It had made him a real presence, someone to talk to, and John realized just how much he’d relied on that private dialogue to help him think. He was reflecting still on the words of the recent inaugural—moved certainly, but mostly perplexed by their troubled darkness. He needed more words from Mr. Lincoln if he was ever truly to understand what he’d meant. And now he wouldn’t have them. They were gone.