‘The noble pilot’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
Mrs. Gray’s Easter Sunday entry[1] for 1865 is one of the longest in the diary. In it, she grapples with the sharp shock of President Lincoln’s assassination at the moment of the Civil War’s end. Her 15 April diary concludes “A horror of darkness & gloom has settled over all. This awful calamity shuts out every thought but of itself…”

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Saturday, 15 April 1865: Oh, dark, dark day! Our great, good, wise President, is dead – assassinated in Ford’s theatre, in Washington City at about 20 minutes past nine last evg. Shot through the head, and lay insensible till about 22 minutes past seven this morning when he breathed his last. The assassin is supposed to be J. Wilkes Booth,[2] the actor, and brother to the great tragedian Edwin Booth.[3]

…At about the same hour another desperado made his way past the servants, into Secretary Seward’s[4] sick chamber, leaped upon his bed and stabbed him three times about the head and neck – stabbed Major Seward[5] in the arm & head – mortally wounded the nurse, a man, who leaped on the bed behind him and tried to pinion his arms – and also injured a state messenger, who was in the room – thus disabling entirely the four unarmed & astounded men who opposed him he too made his escape.

A horror of darkness & gloom has settled over all. This awful calamity shuts out every thought but of itself – and so lately we were such a proud rejoicing, triumphant people; & now – Oh God, thou knowest! but mortal faith is weak! Why, oh why!?

Sunday, 16 April 1865: The horrible news of yesterday brought on one of my worst nervous headaches; I could only be still suffering as much in body as in mind, with tears in my eyes, and a sob at my throat all day – too painfully excited for even anodyne to have any effect – waking from each momentary doze with a horror of thick darkness, a nightmare of awful disaster, loss, and crime enveloping every feeling & thought.

Oh God, thou knowest! but mortal faith is weak! Why, oh why!?

Sallie Gray[6] came in, and later Fanny G.[7] and Rebecca [Wainwright][8]; all with the same story of streets thronged with sad faces, and hushed into funereal silence, stores closed, & buildings draped in black. We were to have dined at Mother Gray’s[9] – I could not go – but Dr. & the boys did, a sad, silent, almost speechless dinner.

Last night it was reported that Frederick Seward[10] had died – and Booth was arrested. But both reports are contradicted to-day. Secretary Seward has revived & hopes are entertained that he may rally. But it will be almost a miracle if he does – an aged man, already weakened by erysipelas setting in after his bruises &c from being run-away with, in his carriage – and now the loss of blood, the anxiety about his son, the horror of Lincoln’s death, the feverish excitement of the whole awful affair! May it please God to spare him to us – for his life is very important to the nation. We could hardly find another so important to meet the vexed questions that will arise or have arisen between us and foreign nations, as this venerable statesman, so cautious, so astute, so wise & so resolute…

Oh, such a sad, sad Easter morn! Poor Mrs. Lincoln[11] has been thrown into a brain fever by the shock of her awful bereavement & is in the wildest delirium. All hearts ache for and with hers.

Why the all-seeing God should in his wisdom permit the success of this murderous conspiracy – why this great and good and wise President should be taken from us just in this culminating time of his fame, his success, his popularity, just when the tremendous responsibilities which he has met so firmly, wisely, well, during these 4 years of unprecedented trial, have become glorious achievements – is utterly inscrutable to us; our weak faith falters & staggers beneath this crushing blow. What can we do, O Father, but cling to thy mercy-seat, knowing thou doest all things well, and believing that even out of this dark cloud thou canst bring light, and make the darkness as the light, work together for the advancement of thy Holy Cause. But oh it is hard, with the haven just in sight, to lose the noble pilot, whose hand has held the helm so firm & true, through all the long storm.

Why the all-seeing God should in his wisdom permit the success of this murderous conspiracy … is utterly inscrutable to us.

If he had been shot at in Richmond the shock & loss would have been just as great, but not the surprise; we all felt it a great risk, almost an unjustifiable one in him to go there at all, and felt anxious till we heard of him safe again at home – and now – surrounded by dear friends & a loyal people, he has been foully done to death by the assassin’s hand, in the very home where we felt him safe! Such a simple, kindly hearted man; he did not care to go to the theatre that night but the people had been told he and Gen. Grant[12] would both be there & Grant had gone North – so he went that they might not be disappointed!

There seems to be no doubt that Wilkes Booth is the assassin; he left his trunk containing papers that criminate him – dropped his pistol in the theatre – his hat – a spur & glove on the stage – and he has a mother[13] living – poor wretched heart – and 4 or 5 brothers & sisters. It was no momentary frenzy, but the fixed, fell purpose of weeks – he meant to have done it on the 4th of March – Inauguration Day[14]; but his accomplices backed out because some news they expected from Richmond did not come!

He has been a rabid seccessionist, and has made himself long notorious by his violent treasonable language. So much so that his brother Edwin turned him from his house, and refused further intercourse with him… And now this wretched man, undisciplined in character, trained by his studies & profession to extravagant feeling of every kind, seeing in daring crime only its valour, not its horror, and frenzied by one mad, unfounded idea that Lincoln was a tyrant, has wrought himself up to acting in awful earnest the part of Brutus, and perhaps even thought he should be greeted as a hero by the whole south and by the northern “copper heads,” whose disloyal talk and infamous sentiments have aroused and encouraged him to commit this disastrous deed.

He seems to have taken no pains to turn away suspicion from himself – did not destroy the dangerous papers in his trunk – or even disguise himself – for Laura Keene,[15] who was in the act of stepping on the stage as he rushed across it, recognized him and testified to his identity. And now, what a fearful awakening to his right mind must come to him, when his dreadful deed is an irrevocable and awful fact – and he feels that he is no hero but a hated felon, that he must die a felon’s ignominious death amid the execration and abhorrence of all the world, and the infamy & disgrace of all who loved him.

Continued here.


[1] Hedwiga Regina Shober (1818–1885) was married to Dr. Francis Henry Gray 1844–80; their sons were Francis Calley Gray (1846–1904), Samuel Shober Gray (1849–1926), Reginald Gray (1853–1904), and Morris Gray (1856–1931). Entries from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

[2] John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865).

[3] Edwin Booth (1833–1893), whom Mrs. Gray had seen on stage several times in Boston.

[4] William Henry Seward (1801–1872), Secretary of State in the Lincoln and Johnson administrations 1861–69.

[5] Brevet Colonel Augustus Henry Seward (1826–1876).

[6] The diarist’s sister-in-law Sarah Frances Loring (1811–1892) married William Gray in 1834.

[7] Sallie Gray’s daughter, Frances Loring Gray (1843–1919), who married William Adams Walker Stewart in 1874.

[8] Mrs. Gray’s best friend (as well as a family connection) Rebecca Parker Wainwright (1820–1901).

[9] Dr. Gray’s mother, Mary Clay (1790–1867), who was married to William Rufus Gray 1809–31.

[10] Frederick William Seward (1830–1915), an Assistant Secretary of State during his father’s service as Secretary of State.

[11] Mary Ann Todd (1818–1882) married Abraham Lincoln in 1842.

[12] Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), who succeeded Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson as president in 1869.

[13] After a long extramarital relationship, Mary Ann Holmes (1802–1885) married Junius Brutus Booth on 10 May 1851, her son Wilkes Booth’s thirteenth birthday.

[14] Booth can be seen in a photograph of the Inauguration on the steps of the Capitol.

[15] Laura Keene (Mary Frances Moss, 1826–1873) had acted with Edwin Booth in California and Australia during the 1850s.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

4 thoughts on “‘The noble pilot’

  1. This is a powerful diary entry! There is so much more impact reading about Lincoln’s assassination through the eyes of someone alive at the time. The words of Mrs. Shober’s diary pull us back to that time, and how the people of this country felt it in their hearts, especially after thinking they were done with the horrors of the Civil War. As I read, the diary also made me think of the events of 1963. Both were such awful times.

  2. Thank you for sharing the thoughts of this noble-minded lady in the aftermath of unthinkable evil. Her intelligent perception of the full horror of Lincoln’s assassination gives a voice to all those who have been history’s witnesses to tragic events, but did not leave diaries for future generations.
    What a remarkable woman Regina was!

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