Smith Stimmel recalls Lincoln’s Death
Two days after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army in April of 1865, a jubilant crowd gathered outside the White House calling for President Lincoln. Among the crowd waiting to hear what would be Abraham Lincoln’s final public address was a 22-year-old man named Smith Stimmel.
A member of the elite "Union Light Guard" assigned to the White House as a member of Lincoln's personal mounted escort, Smith Stimmel’s duties brought him in close personal contact with the President on an almost daily basis. More than half a century later, the former bodyguard recorded his recollections of the events surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln.
After several days of celebrating, Smith Stimmel described April 14, 1865 as “an ideal spring day.” “All nature,” he wrote, “seemed to bask in the warm sunlight of assured peace…We of the guard retired reasonably early that night.”
Having just fallen asleep, Stimmel was awakened by the sound of someone calling his name. “I jumped up,” Stimmel recalled, “and put my head out the window…The man who had called said hastily, ‘Lincoln and Seward have been killed’ and then went off down the street…If I had been struck a stunning blow in the face I could not have been more dazed than I was for a moment on receiving that announcement.”
The men quickly dressed, saddled their horses and headed for Ford’s Theater. “Our thought at the first,” Stimmel later wrote, “was that there was a riot in the city, instigated by a revengeful spirit of the defeated enemy…We hastened to the place and found that the street was blocked with a great crowd…We were ordered to clear the street for one block in front of the house where the President lay.” Stimmel continued, “Having cleared the streets, we remained there on guard the balance of the night, admitting only those whom we knew had to do with the care of the President.”
Recalling the events of the next day, April 15, Stimmel wrote, “We were relieved…[in] the morning, and it was not until after I had had breakfast and a few hours of sleep that I was able to fully realized the awful act. The President died at 7:20 o’clock that morning.”
Stimmel was often later asked where the President’s bodyguards were the night of the assassination. He answered, “President Lincoln flatly refused to have a military guard with him when he went to places of entertainment or to church in the city. He said that when he went to such places he wanted to go as free and unencumbered as other people, and there was no military guard with him the night of his assassination.”
After Stimmel was discharged from duty in the fall of 1865, he earned a degree in law before moving his family and law practice to Fargo in 1882. Smith Stimmel died on April 14, 1935 in Fargo, North Dakota; seventy years to the day of Lincoln's assassination.
Written by Christina Sunwall
Stimmel, Smith. “Experiences as a Member of President Lincoln’s Body Guard, 1863-1865” North Dakota Historical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 2 (January 1927): 5-33