Five days after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater to see a play. In the audience that night was Albert King M1865, who heard the fatal gunshot and saw the assassin flee. “Murder!” screamed Mrs. Lincoln, followed by the cry, “Is there a surgeon in the house?” King rushed to the president’s side, and he and another doctor held his arms as a third pumped his chest. Then they carried him across the street to a townhouse, where Lincoln’s family doctor, Robert Stone M1845, took over. Soon the surgeon general, Joseph Barnes M1838, arrived and probed the gunshot wound to the victim’s head. Nothing could be done.

Four doctors performed the autopsy in an upstairs bedroom at the White House. All were Penn graduates: Stone, Barnes, Joseph Woodward M1853, and Edward Curtis M1864. As Curtis lifted out the brain, a sharp clatter broke the silence of the room: the bullet had fallen out, landing in an empty basin on the floor. “There it lay upon the white china,” he recalled, “a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.”

Lincoln’s body was shipped home to Illinois by a circuitous route, with numerous public viewings. Accompanying the cadaver was William Newell M1839, a friend of Lincoln’s since they were in Congress together; he had been summoned to the White House when Lincoln’s little boy Willie was dying. So extensive was the funeral tour, that 20 days elapsed between Lincoln’s assassination and burial. To withstand this ordeal, his body was embalmed—a process that had been popularized during wartime by former Penn professor Henry Smith M1837, permitting 40,000 grieving families to look upon their sons and husbands one last time. As surgeon general of Pennsylvania, Smith developed a technique by which dead soldiers were embalmed on the battlefield by having arsenic pumped into their arteries with a syringe. Then the corpse was shipped home by train in a zinc-lined coffin. This same process was used on Lincoln.

In Philadelphia, huge crowds like the ones that turned out in 1861 now gathered to watch Lincoln’s funeral procession. The University Battery of Penn student-soldiers—clad in blue uniforms with red stripes—fired six-gun salutes to the casket. But one of the guns discharged early, and an undergraduate lost an arm.

The seminal history of the Civil War was written in 1867 by John Draper M1836, a chemistry professor at New York University who had earlier perfected the art of photography for portraiture and also had taken the first pictures of the Moon. Penn graduates were also at the forefront of recording the surgical history of the war. During the Battle of Gettysburg, William Norris M1861 had dressed wounds in a church converted into a hospital for two-and-a-half days without food or rest, before collapsing from exhaustion. He also pioneered the use of cameras to study injuries, as well as photography of tissue sections using a microscope; now he provided samples to the Army Medical Museum, where Alfred Woodhull M1859 catalogued grisly specimens. The museum’s two Penn-educated curators edited the landmark Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 3,000 pages of battlefield case studies and gruesome illustrations.

The postbellum decade marked an historic turning point for Penn. Charles Stillé, who had proved his genius for organization with the Grand Central Fair, was appointed Penn’s provost in 1868. Soon after came the symbolic rebirth of Penn with its removal to West Philadelphia, to a new campus designed for Stillé by architect Thomas Richards, who built military hospitals during the war. Now the school started anew. It had a fresh vantage point, amid sunny fields near the site of Satterlee, where alumni had worked so heroically to alleviate soldiers’ hellish suffering. Even as it turned a hopeful face to the future, the University could look back with pride to the extraordinary contributions it had made—whether on great battlefields or at hospital bedsides—during America’s most terrible hour.

W. Barksdale Maynard is the author of five books on American history, including Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency.


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FEATURE: Penn Fights the Civil War by W. Barksdale Maynard
Illustration by David Hollenbach
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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