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How to Write an Essay on Lincoln’s Assassination: 5 Primary Sources for Research

6 min read

Over the years, I’ve learned that the key to a good history paper is good research. And the key to good research is a diverse set of primary sources. I recently graduated from college with a degree in History in May 2017, so it wasn’t too long ago that I was the one writing papers and doing research for school projects!

A primary source provides firsthand testimony or direct evidence of the topic you are researching. Usually, a good clue that something is a primary source is if it dates from the period you’re studying (in the case of President Lincoln’s assassination, April 1865). Sources can include diaries, letters, speeches, newspaper articles, photographs, drawings and even objects.

head and shoulders portrait of Abraham Lincoln. He wears a dark suit jacket, white button-down shirt and dark bowtie.
President Lincoln image courtesy of Ford’s Theatre Historic Site.

When it comes to finding primary sources on Abraham Lincoln’s life, assassination and legacy, Ford’s Theatre is a great place to start.

If your teacher has assigned an essay or presentation answering the question “Why was President Abraham Lincoln assassinated?”, here are some Ford’s Theatre primary sources that can help. 

1. Objects

Find objects in high-definition on Google arts and culture. 

Using an object like a museum artifact as a primary source can be daunting, but objects can be a great place to start your research. Start by observing the object closely—go beyond the basic who/what/where/when/why questions. Ask yourself questions like, “Where does my eye go first?” and “What did I see that I didn’t expect?”

The blade of John Wilkes Booth’s bowie knife. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, FOTH 3235.

As an example, let’s look at John Wilkes Booth’s bowie knife, which he used to stab Major Rathbone who was seated in Lincoln’s theatre box. The dagger has a horn handle and carved details on the blade. 

You may notice that it has inscriptions along the blade— “The Land of the Free, Home of the Brave,” “Liberty” and “Independence.” A personal object like this can provide useful evidence of assassin John Wilkes Booth’s understanding of the cause of the Confederacy and his motivation for murder. Booth’s vision of America was so different from Lincoln’s that Booth viewed Lincoln as an enemy of liberty and independence. 

2. Diaries

Booth’s Diary Can be Found in High-Definition on Google arts and Culture and diaries of those who lived through lincoln’s assassination can be found on Remembering Lincoln, search by “diaries.”

Diaries are a great primary source because they provide evidence of a specific person’s point of view in their own words. Since entries are typically dated, a diary can help you find textual evidence of what someone was thinking or feeling at a particular moment in history.

John Wilkes Booth’s diary. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, FOTH 3221.

At Ford’s we have the diary that John Wilkes Booth kept during his attempted escape from Washington after he shot Lincoln. In the diary Booth writes about Lincoln, 

“Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country April 1865 is not what it was. This forced union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me.”

This source can help us understand the motivation behind Booth’s crime. Booth’s reference to a “forced union” shows that he was displeased with the result of the war and how the North was dictating the terms of surrender. His diary can also provide clues on where to research next—why did Booth directly mention “April 1865”? 

3. Speeches

Many of lincoln’s speeches can be found on the ford’s Teaching Resources page, search by “Speeches.”

Official speeches are usually given by prominent figures, especially political figures. Presidents give speeches to mark special occasions, to announce their accomplishments or to give their political opinions. Speeches can help you better understand the political temperature during a certain period of history. 

In the following example, we see that Booth was angry about the state of the country in April 1865. We might next examine one of Lincoln’s speeches to find out the impulse of Booth’s anger. In a speech delivered on April 11, 1865, Lincoln says: 

It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.

A source like this helps to demonstrate that the end of the Civil War brought about the possibility of new policy changes. The fact that Lincoln was publicly stating his support for giving the vote to black veterans angered white supremacists like Booth and reveals an important reason why Booth assassinated Lincoln only three days later.

4. Newspapers

Newspapers from April 1865 can be found on Remembering lincoln, search by “newspapers.” 

Newspapers are an important resource in understanding the ways that different regions reacted to national events. An analysis of newspaper coverage from different regions can help us to discover why Lincoln was ultimately murdered, even as the war came to a close. 

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Considering the fractured state of the United States at the end of the Civil War, it might be useful to begin by learning how the South reacted to the death of Lincoln. On April 30, 1865, the Southern Sentinel printed

“Two weeks since we designated Lincoln as a despicable despot, and our opinion of him is unchanged by his death, which at an earlier date had it occurred in any other way, we should have rejoiced at, as the enemy of the South and the rights we are contending for. Our feelings and principles revolt alike however, at the infamous and cowardly crime by which he was cut off… it will create a feeling of indignation and revenge at the North, which will further delay and embarrass the negotiations, which as we have always contended, will at last have to be resorted to for peace…”

This Southern newspaper demonstrates a lingering anger and hatred towards the Union, while also revealing that Lincoln was viewed as a crucial figure for reconciliation. This newspaper can help us to understand the begrudging peace at the end of the war—Lincoln’s efforts to unify the country were both the reason why the Confederacy didn’t want him assassinated and the reason that Booth ultimately assassinated him. 

5. Letters

Letters of those who lived through Lincoln’s assassination can be found on Remembering LIncoln, search by “letters.” 

Like diary entries, letters can reveal a first-person account of a historical event. But they can also show connections between two people—ultimately revealing how information was shared and on what timeline. 

A great example of this is a letter from Dudley Avery, the son of a plantation owner and former Confederate soldier. Dudley Avery writes to his father, Daniel Avery, on May 12, 1865, just weeks after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender and President Lincoln’s assassination:

My views in regard to the assassination of Lincoln are the same as yours. I think that in the present condition of the Country it is a misfortune to the South. Johnson seems to be a man void of principle and honor… Next to our being subjugated I regard his being raised to supreme command our greatest calamity.

Avery’s letters show that Booth’s reason for the assassination – as a way to help the Confederate cause – was not shared by actual Confederate soldiers. For men on the front lines the war was already lost. Lincoln had shifted from an enemy commander to someone who could help negotiate peace. In this way, many saw Lincoln’s death as a “calamity.” 

Using a wide array of Ford’s Theatre resources, you can begin to answer questions like, “Why was Lincoln assassinated?” and many others. 

Don’t just stop with five of these primary sources! Ask your teacher how you can use a diverse set of sources, including sermons, sheet music, lithographs and more!

Find all these and more on Remembering Lincoln

Anali Alegria is Communications Associate at Ford’s Theatre. As a former history major she’s relied heavily on primary sources for a whole host of projects, big and small.

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Anali Alegria is a former Communications Associate at Ford’s Theatre.

History Teaching and Learning