May 28, 1865

First Responder Leale: The Eyewitness Account of Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination By The Doctor Who Treated Him at the Scene

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On the most important night of his life, Charles Augustus Leale – age 23, six weeks out of Medical School, and an Army Assistant Surgeon of Volunteers for all of seven days – went to Ford’s Theatre to see President Lincoln. He had heard that Lincoln would be attending the April 14th performance of "Our American Cousin" and wanted, he said, to behold the face of the “Savior of his Country.” He was delighted, then, when Lincoln passed by him on his way into the Presidential Box. “His face was perfectly stoical; his deep-set eyes gave him a pathetically sad appearance,” he recalled years later. “The audience seemed to be enthusiastically cheerful, yet he looked peculiarly sorrowful, as he slowly walked with bowed head and drooping shoulders toward the box. I was looking at him as he took his last walk.”

Leale’s crucial role in the terrible events which followed is exhibited here, in pages taken from his eyewitness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. They detail how on hearing a shot, followed by calls for a doctor to come forward, he vaulted over the seats as he made a direct line through the excited crowd to the President’s Box, the first physician to arrive:

saw the President sitting in the arm chair with his head thrown back. On one side was Mrs. L. and on the other Miss Harris. The former was holding his head and crying bitterly for a surgeon while the others . . . were standing crying for stimulants, water, etc., not one going for anything . . . I sent one for brandy and another for water, then told Mrs. L. that I was a surgeon, when she asked me to do what I could. He was then in a profound coma, pulse could not be felt, eyes closed, stertorous breathing…

Young Leale immediately took charge, but could tell at once that the President was as good as dead. “His wound is mortal,” Leale pronounced. “It is impossible for him to recover.”

[Lincoln Assassination] Autograph Letter Signed, by Charles A. Leale, 8 pages in all, octavo, Armory Square, U.S. Army General Hospital, Washington, D.C., 28 May 1865. To Dr. Dwight Dudley. With Envelope.

Seemingly the earliest of Leale's eyewitness accounts of Lincoln’s assassination.

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Armory Square
U.S.A. Gen Hospital
Washington D.C.

May 28th 1865

Dear Friend Dudley

Your last came safely.   You will please excuse me for not answering it sooner as I have been very busy.  As you noticed I am in the volunteer service.  There were no vacancies in the regular army and after having been examined for seven days by three old army surgeons I was accepted and have been on duty since at this hospital.  When I first came I had charge of all the sick and wounded officers which duty I fulfilled until about two weeks ago when I was appointed Executive Officer and am at present in charge   I had charge of the President until his family physician arrived.  That night was the only time that I have been to the Theatre since I came here and then partly to see Mr. Lincoln and Gen Grant.  I took a seat in the dress circle near the Presidents Box.  Saw Booth enter the box   heard the report of the pistol   then saw him jump from the box with his draw[n] dagger and rush across the stage  I immediately ran to the box and there saw the President sitting in the arm chair with his head thrown back   on one side was Mrs. L. and on the other Miss Harris.  The former was holding his head and crying bitterly for a Surgeon while the others there were standing crying for Stimulant water etc not one going for anything.  While going towards him I sent one for Brandy and another for Water, then told Mrs. L. that I was a surgeon. When she asked me to do what I could he was then in a profound Coma, pulse could not be felt, eyes closed, stertorous breathing.  I immediately with assistance placed him in a recumbent position on the floor.  While doing this I put my hand on a part of his coat near the left shoulder saturated with blood, supposing him to have been stabbed.  I asked a person near by to cut off his clothes which he did with a jack knife.  As soon as his shoulder was laid bare and no wound discovered I examined his head and first felt a protuberance about one inch to the right of mid line and the same distance above the superior curved line of the occiput.   I removed the clot and introduced the little finger of left hand completely through the cranium.  I then knew it was fatal and told the bystanders that it was a mortal wound.  Dr. Taft and Dr. King now came in and we removed him immediately to Pattersons house just opposite.  I first intended to have him taken immediately to the White House but I was afraid he would die while going there.  Besides after he was taken out to the street his carriage was not to be found.  After we put him in bed we sent for bottles of hot water to apply to his extremities    before these arrived the room was completely crowded.  I turned around and I saw a Capt who I asked to have the room cleared which he did. which he did [sic] all leaving except Mrs.L. and Miss Harris.  I went to Mrs. L. and asked her if she would have the kindness to go to the next room for a minute so as to allow us to do all we could and examine his wounds.    She did so and several Drs then came in among them Dr. Stone the family physician who was introduced to me.  When I asked him if he would take charge of the President he said that he would when I resigned.  The Surg Gen. Surg Crane and others now came in.  I then went to the head of the bed near his left shoulder where I remained until he breathed his last. 

He was completely insensible from the time that he was shot until he breathed his last.  They tried to give him a small quantity of brandy but he could not swallow it.

Mustard Poultices were applied during the night.

I had a ticket to the Green Room and had the carriage next to the Surg. General at the Funeral.

The trial of the conspirators is going on.  I went to see them last week at the Court room.   They are a very inferior looking set of men   Dr. Mudd is the only one that has any intellectual expressions (I hope that if the charges are true against him he will be unable to tell what school he recv'd his Dip[loma] from). They all look as if they did not have any hope.  O'Laughlin is very nervous and trembles terribly   they are all very pale except the Dr

The review that took place here last week was the grandest military collection ever witnessed on the continent.   The soldiers were as black as indians and covered with dust.

I had tickets sent to me for seats on the stand next to the Presidents where I saw very well.

I recv'd a letter from Dr. Gov. Smith last week he is still at Ladies Home hospt. NY. where both of us have had fun

Allow me to congratulate you on your happy prospect in the future.

Please remember me to the Tylers[,] Dr. [illegible] and all inquiring friends and believe me 

Yours sincerely



[In an unknown hand]
Important papers -
Keep this

Dr. Dwight - Dudley
Broome County
New York.

[on the side, at right angle]
D.G. Dudley
106 Lincoln
Endicott, N.Y.