Sometimes very small objects can have huge historic significance. Think of the O-ring that led the Space Shuttle Challenger to explode.
I write this Letter from Washington about a very small object: It’s a lead ball, slightly flattened, no bigger than the end of your finger. As small objects go, it’s about the saddest I’ve ever seen. I first saw it at a museum about a year ago, just by chance—I didn’t know it would be there—and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since.
It’s the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln.
You’d think it would be at Ford’s Theatre, where on the evening of Friday, April 13, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. The Ford’s Theatre museum displays other artifacts of the assassination, including Booth’s single-shot Derringer pistol.
Or maybe it would be across the street from Ford’s at the Petersen House, the boardinghouse where Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. the following morning. A museum there displays other artifacts, including the bloodstained pillow and pillowcases on which the president’s head rested.
But the bullet’s not in either of those places, nor in any of the Smithsonian museums. In fact, it’s not even in Washington, D.C. Instead, it’s a mile away in Silver Spring, Md., at a place called the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
This museum, adjacent to a part of the Fort Detrick Army base, focuses on the history of military medicine and research. The bullet’s there because the doctors who attended Lincoln during his last hours were from the Army Medical Corps and items they handled went to the Army Medical Museum, forerunner of this facility, and now part of the Department of Defense.
So that’s where the bullet is, and anyone can just walk in and see it.
It’s in a glass display case, sits on a pedestal about 3 inches high, and is mounted—like a diamond—on four tiny silver prongs. It’s dull grey, like a moon rock, made of tin, copper, antimony, and lead. It weighs less than half an ounce. You look at it and can’t help but imagine it being fired from Booth’s gun, entering Lincoln’s head just behind his left ear.
Despite it being off the beaten track, the museum still gets a lot of visitors—about 30,000 annually. In addition to the bullet, the museum displays fragments of the president’s skull, bits of his hair, and the shirt cuffs—stained with the president’s blood—of one of the physicians who attended him. Other exhibits are even more gruesome: tools used in Civil War amputations and actual amputated limbs, human fetal skeletons, jars of brains, conjoined twins, and various human body parts including a leg afflicted with elephantiasis.
But the “Lincoln bullet” remains among the museum’s most popular exhibits.
Yet, as I stared at the bullet—that dull, gray object that 154 years ago ended the life of our greatest president—I found myself wondering: What is the meaning of this bullet today?
As it happened, Lincoln’s death on April 14th, 1865, fell that year during the eight days of Passover. This year, Passover begins April 19. On that evening, I’ll sit with my family at our Seder meal and, following tradition, hold up ritual items from a plate in the center of the table and ask aloud: “What is the meaning of this matzo?” and “What is the meaning of this bitter herb?” The questions are prompts. In answering them, we’ll tell again the story of the Exodus from Egypt and discuss its meaning.
So I’ve been wondering: If I could reach inside the display case at the National Museum of Medicine and Health, release that tiny gray object from its four silver prongs, hold it up and ask, “What is the meaning of this bullet?” what might be the answer?
Is it simply that so tiny an object can change history? Dr. Edward Curtis, one of the Army physicians who assisted with Lincoln’s autopsy, made this point in a letter to his mother on display at the museum.He wrote:
‘There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger; dull, motionless, harmless, yet the cause of such mighty change in the world’s history like we may never realize.”
Or is there another meaning as well?
To ask the advice of someone who’s studied and thought deeply about these issues, I called an eminent Lincoln scholar at the University of Rochester, Larry Hudson. Hudson, associate professor of history, teaches courses on Lincoln, the Civil War, and African-American studies. He is author of several books including “To Have and to Hold: Slave Work and Family Life in Antebellum South Carolina” (University of Georgia Press, 1997). Following is an edited transcript of our recent phone conversation.
Before we get to the meaning of the bullet, does the meaning of Lincoln himself change over time?
Lincoln was so colossal that he is ours to use as we see fit, and we do use our historical figures. Look at how we use Hamilton now to feel better because of the popularity of the show. Every year or two we rank our presidents and they move up and down. Really, they shouldn’t move. We know all about the great ones: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. But because everything changes, we change our attitudes. Now Andrew Jackson will move up in the rankings with the people who love Donald Trump because of the similarities between the two of them.
And what do we know about the connection between Lincoln and Rochester?
Well, for that we must talk about Frederick Douglass because Douglass developed a profound relationship with Lincoln. It was personal. They didn’t meet every weekend for beer, of course, but they noted carefully each other’s public expressions. Lincoln was exceptionally skilled at gauging the public mood, the temperature of the populace, and he got some sense of that from listening to Douglass and reading what Douglass wrote. And Douglass was sensitive to that, was touched and flattered by it—as we all would be if we thought that we somehow had the ear of the most important person of the land.
I wonder if we would display bullets that killed more contemporary leaders, such as John and Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King? Would we publicly show those bullets?
Lincoln’s life is already a good distance away from us, but with the Kennedys and King there may be a “too soon” quality. In some ways we still grieve for them so perhaps displaying those bullets would be unseemly. Even so, it is a little macabre to exhibit the Lincoln bullet. But this museum where you saw it is a military medical museum, so I suppose one goes there prepared for dealing with limbs and the bloody aprons that Civil War surgeons wore and the crude tools.
Have you seen the Lincoln bullet?
I have not seen it. I’ve seen images of it, but I’ve not seen it close up. But the closer you get to these artifacts of the past, the more likely they are to have a profound effect on you.
I felt that when I saw it. Why does a physical object affect us that way?
I see it every time I teach Lincoln and the Civil War when my students and I visit the Rare Books Library’s collection of documents written by individuals like Lincoln, Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony. My students see words actually written by these historical figures and they are touched, they are deeply moved; for them, it makes history real.
For the same reason, I bring a boll of cotton into my classroom. Many of my students have read about cotton, they talk about it, but they have not seen it. But now they can hold the cotton boll, touch the sharp edges and imagine picking it and how dangerous it would have been—the risk of cutting their fingers as they try to pick the soft whiteness out of the boll. It gives them empathy and a connection with the people who picked it.
So the meaning of the bullet is in the connection it allows us to make?
That’s right, historical artifacts help us make those connections. To become good historians, students need to develop an historical imagination, the ability to walk in a long-dead person’s shoes, and to think like someone they cannot imagine having any regard for: think like a slaveholder, think like an overseer just about to whip a recalcitrant enslaved person.
So the bullet—this bullet that killed the great Abraham Lincoln! I can imagine my students seeing it and it being so shocking, so personal—the bullet that took this great man away from us. It can hurl them back to the past in a very real and violent way. It can be an overwhelming trigger that takes them back to April 1865, to that fateful day.
If you were in that museum looking at the bullet, what do you imagine you yourself might be thinking?
Probably that somehow if we’d known then about medicine what we know now, we could have rushed Lincoln to a hospital and saved him. He might not be quite the Lincoln he was before the shot, but he might have lived on for many more years.
Hudson’s words ring true: In the presence of that bullet I felt connected to Lincoln and the tragedy of his death in a way I had not before. In that sense, the bullet is even more powerful than the symbols on the Seder plate—because it’s not a symbol at all; it’s the actual thing. In a bitter irony, the bullet that caused his death ends up being a powerful way for each of us to connect with Lincoln and his life.
I hope you get to see it someday.
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author, is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. You can reach Peter with comments or suggestions for his “Letter from Washington” at [email protected].