By David Langbart
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln attended a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater. While there, he was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. He died the next morning. As part of the same murderous conspiracy, Secretary of State William Henry Seward was attacked at his home and seriously wounded.
It was imperative that the Department of State notify its representatives abroad of those events. Perhaps no such notification was as important as that to the American Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams. The U.S. relationship with Great Britain during the period of the Civil War had been fraught with danger. At several points over the previous four years, the relationship came close to breaking.
On April 15, William Hunter, the Acting Secretary of State, sent Minister Adams a short notification of the assassination of the President and the attack on the Secretary of State. The same day, Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, sent Adams a long communication informing him of the circumstances of the attack on the President and the Secretary of State. On April 17, the Department sent the following circular to all U.S. representatives abroad. Note the black border on the first page.
Source: Department of State to U.S. Legation Great Britain, April 17, 1865, Notes [Instructions] From the Department, Records of the U.S. Legation and Embassy Great Britain, RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, National Archives.
Upon receipt of the Department’s circular, Minister Adams communicated the news of the President’s death to British Foreign Secretary Russell. Russell responded with the following note.
Source: Lord Russell to Minister Charles Francis Adams, May 1, 1865, Notes From the Foreign Office, Records of the U.S. Legation and Embassy Great Britain, RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, National Archives.