Awaiting admission outside the theater, young Charles was dazzled by the luminous crowd. Dressed in the uniform of a U. S. Army Captain, he felt somewhat out of place in this distinguished gathering. But what could be finer than spending his Easter leave at the theater?
Cherry blossoms celebrated the arrival of spring. Dogwoods in flower lined the streets; riverside willows wore green. In parks and dooryards, lilacs bloomed. 2
As the theater gates opened, a woman smiled at her husband. “The day after tomorrow, churches will be decked in the beauty of the lilies.” 1
Halfway through the second act, Charles was enjoying himself, as he had not in months. The horrors of war dissolved in magical lighting, dazzling costumes, brilliant dialog, and uproarious jokes.
During intermission he went for a short walk, and noticed a man just a little older than himself entering the saloon next to the theater. Charles recognized him as a prominent actor, although not a member of the cast of tonight’s performance.
The man’s clothes, his well-cut hair, his very air bespoke wealth, position, confidence. He was possessed of piercing, even hypnotic, black eyes. Charles watched with a touch of envy as the women in the crowd turned to gaze at the dashing fellow. What was it that people said about the actor? “Women’s heads follow him as sunflowers follow the sun.”
The second scene of the third act contained the funniest moments of the play. The crowd roared, their guffaws drowning out all other sounds.
Just as the laughter began to subside, the actor whom Charles had seen during intermission, leaped from the balcony and vanished.
From the balcony, a woman screamed. Charles rushed to her side. “I’m a surgeon.”
“Oh, doctor, please help my husband.” The woman was sobbing.
“Dear lady, I will do all I can.”
The woman’s husband was comatose, his breathing labored, his pulse faint. Charles thumped the man’s chest and called for brandy.
He recruited four soldiers from the audience. “Place him on the floor and cut away his clothing.”
Probing the man’s head, just behind the left ear, Charles felt a hole where a clot had formed.
I’ve tended wounds far more horrible on the battlefield. I can do this. Dear God, guide me.
The bullet’s entered his skull. If I remove the clot, I’ll decrease the pressure on the brain.
Charles removed the clot. The man’s breathing improved and he even swallowed a little brandy.
With the soldiers’ assistance, he transported the man to a place where he could be treated.
The man motionless, not speaking. Yet his breathing was deep and regular, his pulse detectable.
His legs are so cold. Charles called for more blankets.
Five other doctors, all with years more experience than Charles, arrived. All looked grave.
I’m young but I’ve treated many more trauma cases than anyone here. I will---I must---save this man.
The man’s breathing faltered; his pulse weakened.
“No!” I won’t let this happen. “Stay with us!
Charles pressed repeatedly on the man’s chest, until breathing and heart rate, though irregular, were restored.
There’s more I can do. Charles gave the man the kiss of mercy.
Breathing and heart rate regained normal rhythms.
“Magnificent, Charles.” Dr. Bliss gave him an admiring glance.
Through the night, Charles kept clots from forming at the site of the wound, thereby preventing compression of the brain. Cradling the man’s head, he fancied that the receptacle, into which the blood drained, was the Holy Grail.
At dawn’s early light,3 Dr. Stone put a hand on Charles’ shoulder. “You have done all you can. Let him pass in comfort.”
Charles fought back tears. I will hold the man’s hand. On account of his wound, he can’t see, but perhaps he can feel the pressure of my hand, and know that he has a friend.
The man appeared to regain consciousness, his lips moving as if trying to speak.
Charles leaned down to hear. “Mine eyes have seen….mine eyes have seen the glory of….the glory of….”
Charles finished. “The coming of the Lord.” 4 He squeezed the man’s hand.
His face….so peaceful, as if in communion with the Almighty.
The great heart ceased to beat.
Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton placed silver half dollars on the dead eyes. “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Abraham Lincoln was dead.
Dr. Charles Leale, Army Surgeon, twenty-three years old, put his head in his hands.
He had tried.
1. Courtesy of Julia Ward Howe, 1861. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, 5th Verse
2. Courtesy of Walt Whitman, 1865. “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloomed”, an elegy to the death of President Lincoln.
3. Courtesy of Francis Scott Key, 1814. “The Star Spangled Banner”.
4. Courtesy of Julia Ward Howe, 1861. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, 1st Verse
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