A Room with a View on History: The Petersen House
Every time I set foot in the house where Lincoln died I think about HIM. In my work as the Associate Director of Museum Education at Ford’s, I get to spend a lot of time in that house, which means I think about him often. Lincoln? Of course I think about him, too, but the man I’m talking about here is Willie Clark.
William T. Clark rented the back bedroom on the first floor of William Petersen’s boarding house on Tenth Street, directly across from Ford’s Theatre. When theatregoers carried the mortally wounded President Lincoln from Ford’s Theatre across the street to the boarding house, they brought him to a bed where Clark, a 23-year-old army clerk, usually slept.
At the time of Lincoln’s death, Clark, a former private in the 13th Massachusetts regiment, was working as a clerk in the Headquarters of the Adjutant General for the XXII Corps. Like many people in Washington, Clark was out on the town the evening of April 14, enjoying the days-long celebration following Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9. He was not at home when soldiers carried the dying Lincoln into his bedroom. He returned the next morning after Lincoln had been removed from the house. How did Clark react to the news that the president had died in his bed? He simply got into that very same bed and went to sleep.
Willie was meticulous about his possessions, and he kept his room neat and organized. On Wednesday, April 19, 1865, he wrote a letter to his sister, Ida. He commented on what he had faced in the previous four days:
“Since the death of our president hundreds daily call at the house to gain admission to my room. Everybody has a great desire to obtain some memento from my room so that whoever comes in has to be closely watched for fear that they will steal something.”
Clark goes on to describe things that he saved after Lincoln was removed from his room:
“I have a lock of his hair which I have neatly framed, also a piece of linen with a portion of his brain.”
Clark also had Lincoln’s clothes and boots, which he later returned to Robert Lincoln. He described sleeping in the bed, which was largely untouched since Lincoln’s death:
The same mattress on my bed, the same coverlit (sic) covers me nightly that covered him while dying.Willie Clark
It must have been impossible to continue living in that room. Indeed, we know that Willie Clark moved out soon after Lincoln’s death. Beyond his few days in the limelight, we don’t know too much more about him or his time in Washington.
But we do know that he was something of a foodie and had beautiful handwriting. In a May 30, 1865, complaint letter uncovered in the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site archives, Willie writes to the Chief of Staff of the XXII Corps headquarters asking to be transferred back to his regiment. What was his issue? He couldn’t stand the food that was provided:
“I would prefer to do duty with my Regiment rather than be subjected to the annoyances consequent upon being obliged to mess at the Government Barracks where the food furnished is insufficient and of a repulsive quality so much that at times it is impossible to eat.”
To me, the stories of Willie Clark and the Petersen House offer great entry points into understanding the immediate impact Lincoln’s assassination had on ordinary people: not just on the residents of the house, but on the throngs who felt the need to come to the house to see the room where their beloved Lincoln died and perhaps snatch a keepsake on their way out. It was Willie Clark, an unwilling participant, thrust into the narrative of this national tragedy, but it could have been anybody.
Jake Flack is Associate Director of Museum Education. He oversees the Civil War Washington Teacher Fellows program and the school field trips program. Jake also manages education outreach initiatives.