He Saw Lincoln Shot
The story of an obscure captain in the Union Army who was both a witness to and a part of a historic tragedy ...
By Charles E. Greenwood (from The Best of the Old Farmerís Almanac)
He was seated in the second row on the left side of the theater in back of the orchestra - with a command view of President Abraham Lincoln watching the play. Because the audience was laughing at the acts on stage at the time, few heard the shot that came suddenly during the performance.
Edwin Bedee, a captain in the Twelfth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, stared in disbelief as a man vaulted from the president's box onto stage. When Captain Bedee saw the man jump from the president's box, his first reaction was to pursue the fleeing gunman. Instead, Bedee, like the rest, listened as John Wilkes Booth boldly uttered the incredible words, "Revenge for the South!" Little did the captain know that he had just witnessed murder of one of America's great presidents.
Recognizing a catastrophe, Captain Bedee sprang from his chair, climbed over some rows, bolted past the orchestra footlights, and crossed the stage in the direction in which the man had disappeared. A scream shattered the mounting noise: "They've got him!" Bedee presumed the assassin was caught. Another scream, this time from Mrs. Lincoln: "My husband is shot!" A doctor was called for. Captain Bedee reeled around and bounded across the stage toward the box. As he was scaling the box, another man appeared and stated he was a physician.
Captain Bedee stepped aside, pushed the doctor up to the railing, and followed directly behind.
When Bedee and the surgeon reached the box, President Lincoln lay in his chair, his head tilted back as though he were asleep. The doctor searched for the wound. Seeking some evidence of blood or torn clothing, he started to remove Lincoln's coat and unbutton his vest. Meanwhile, Chaplain Bedee was holding the president's head. Suddenly he felt a warmth trickling into his hand. "Here is the wound, doctor," Captain Bedee said, as one of his fingers slid into the hole in the back of Lincoln's head where the ball had only moments before forced an entry.
During the removal of some of the president's clothing, papers fell from his pocket. Mrs. Lincoln, apparently rational in spite of the shock, is said to have handed the packet to Captain Bedee, requesting, "You are an officer. Won't you take charge of these papers?"
By now others had gained entrance to the box through the door. One was a surgeon, who proceeded to work with his colleague on the president. When Lincoln was removed to the house across the street from the theater, Captain Bedee helped carry the dying man; he waited at the house until Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived soon afterward. Then Captain Bedee delivered the papers to the secretary, writing his own name and regiment upon the wrapper that Stanton placed around the documents. Secretary Stanton gave the captain two assignments: first, to go to the War Department with a message, and second, to contact the officer in command at Chain Bridge on matters dealing with the escaping assassin.
When the missions were completed, Captain Bedee returned to Stanton. The secretary thanked him for his diligence in handling the duties assigned him and also for caring for the president's papers. Bedee was then told to return to his post of duty.
Captain Bedee spent the following day with his regiment, but that evening an officer brought an order for the captain's arrest. Apparently a misunderstanding of the connections between Bedee, Lincoln's papers, and the assassination had made him a suspect within the War Department.
Captain Bedee was so distraught that he telegraphed the department, explaining the situation.
For two days Captain Bedee was kept under arrest. Finally his release came, with an explanation of the confusion. Immediately the captain wrote Secretary Stanton a personal letter stating that his honorable record during the war would have a very serious blemish if the details were not clarified. The secretary wrote back, explaining the error and giving proper acknowledgment to Captain Bedee for his commendable acts in handling Lincoln's papers. Thus the good captain was completely exonerated from any suspicious association with the murder of President Lincoln.
How did Captain Bedee happen upon this sorrowful moment of American history?
Edwin Bedee was born in Sandwich, New Hampshire, and grew up in the area. Prior to the war, he was a printer by trade. At twenty-four he enlisted and spent three months in a New York regiment, but upon his release, he hastily returned to his home state to join the Twelfth Volunteers, wanting to be with fellow New Hampshirites.
Mustered in as a sergeant major of the regiment, Bedee was soon promoted to the rank of first lieutenant. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, though wounded, he assumed command of his regiment when those higher in rank were either killed or unable to lead. His actions at Chancellorsville led to his promotion to captain.
A year later, at Cold Harbor, Virginia, Captain Bedee was severely wounded. He was still recovering when he went back into action. This time he was captured at Bermuda Front, Virginia. Paroled in February 1865 and selected to serve on the staff of General Potter shortly thereafter, Captain Bedee went to Washington on special duty. On Friday evening, April 14, 1865, he decided to attend Ford's Theater.
A month after this tragic and involved affair, Captain Bedee was promoted to the rank of major. Soon he was mustered out of the army along with his regiment. He died in Plymouth, New Hampshire, on January 13, 1908, just five days after his seventy-first birthday.