Charles A. Dana

“It’s Best to Let him Run”

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It was one of my duties at this time to receive the reports of the officers of the secret service in every part of the country. On the afternoon of the 14th of April — it was Good Friday — I got a telegram from the provost marshal in Portland, Me., saying: “I have positive information that Jacob Thompson will pass through Portland to-night, in order to take a steamer for England. What are your orders?” Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi, had been Secretary of the Interior in President Buchanan’s administration. He was a conspicuous secessionist, and for some time had been employed in Canada as a semi-diplomatic agent of the Confederate Government. He had been organizing all sorts of trouble and getting up raids, of which the notorious attack on St. Albans, Vt., was a specimen. I took the telegram and went down and read it to Mr. Stanton. His order was prompt: “Arrest him!” But as I was going out of the door he called to me and said: “No, wait; better go over and see the President.”

At the White House all the work of the day was over, and I went into the President’s business room without meeting any one. Opening the door, there seemed to be no one there, but, as I was turning to go out, Mr. Lincoln called to me from a little side room, where he was washing his hands:

“Halloo, Dana!” said he. “What is it? What’s up?”

Then I read him the telegram from Portland.

“What does Stanton say?” he asked.

“He says arrest him, but that I should refer the question to you.”

“Well,” said the President slowly, wiping his hands, “no, I rather think not. When you have got an elephant by the hind leg, and he’s trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.

With this direction, I returned to the War Department.

“Well, what says he?” asked Mr. Stanton.

“He says that when you have got an elephant by the hind leg, and he is trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.”

“Oh, stuff!” said Stanton.

That night I was awakened from a sound sleep by a messenger with the news that Mr. Lincoln had been shot, and that the Secretary wanted me at a house in Tenth Street. I found the President with a bullet wound in the head, lying unconscious, though breathing heavily, on a bed in a small side room, while all the members of the Cabinet, and the Chief Justice with them, were gathered in the adjoining parlor. They seemed to be almost as much paralyzed as the unconscious sufferer within the little chamber. The surgeons said there was no hope. Mr. Stanton alone was in full activity.

“Sit down here,” said he, “I want you.”
Then he began and dictated orders, one after another, which I wrote out and sent swiftly to the telegraph. All these orders were designed to keep the business of the Government in full motion until the crisis should be over. It seemed as if Mr. Stanton thought of everything, and there was a great deal to be thought of that night. The extent of the conspiracy was, of course, unknown, and the horrible beginning which had been made naturally led us to suspect the worst. The safety of Washington must be looked after. Commanders all over the country had to be ordered to take extra precautions. The people must be notified of the tragedy. The assassins must be captured. The coolness and clear headedness of Mr. Stanton under these circumstances were most remarkable. I remember that one of his first telegrams was to General Dix, the military commander of New York, notifying him of what had happened. No clearer brief account of the tragedy exists to-day than this, written scarcely three hours after the scene in Ford’s Theater, on a little stand in the room where, a few feet away, Mr. Lincoln lay dying.

I remained with Mr. Stanton until perhaps three o’clock in the morning. Then he said: “That’s enough. Now you may go home.”

When I left, the President was still alive, breathing heavily and regularly, though, of course, quite unconscious. About eight o’clock I was awakened by a rapping on a lower window. It was Colonel Pelouze, of the adjutant-general’s office, and he said:

‘Mr. Dana, the President is dead, and Mr. Stanton directs you to arrest Jacob Thompson.”

The order was sent to Portland, but Thompson couldn’t be found there. He had taken the Canadian route to Halifax.

Quoted in Charles A. Dana, “Recollection of the Civil War”  (1996 edn.), pp. 273-74.