Drawing of soldiers walking down a wide dirt road with a park on one side and a row of buildings on the other. In the foreground an American flag is draped over the road.
Photo courtesy of the Kiplinger Washington Collection, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Teaching Primary Sources with Remembering Lincoln

7 min read

As a student, I became enthralled with history after reading the diary of a girl who lived through the Civil War. I do not remember her name, but it was fascinating for me to be able to relate to someone my own age that was living at a different time.

Image courtesy Ford’s TheatreNational Historic Site.

Primary sources are a way for anyone to directly connect to history. They open a door for people to see history through the eyes of those who actually lived it and therefore to see the world from a new perspective.

Standards across multiple grade levels require students to understand how to read primary sources. For teachers, the question then becomes how to make these sources accessible and interesting—even exciting—to students, besides just placing a document in front of them and saying “go.”

Enter Remembering Lincoln, created by Ford’s Theatre Society as a repository for first-hand accounts of how people all over the world responded to the assassination of President Lincoln.

Remembering Lincoln provides a great resource for teachers to find a variety of primary sources that help bring the events of the Lincoln assassination to life. Sources range from physical objects, to letters, to diary entries, to an Italian newspaper depicting the assassination

Walking through a Remembering Lincoln Primary Source

One of my favorite Remembering Lincoln sources is the “Mary Henry Diary,” contributed by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It was by a young girl whose father was a prominent Washingtonian – the Smithsonian’s Secretary, Joseph Henry. She kept a diary during the Civil War. In Remembering Lincoln, we have pulled out a specific section where she succinctly captured how Washingtonians moved from joy at the imminent end of the war to mourning the slain president. Through this section she provides intimate details about President Lincoln’s funeral in Washington. For those interested, the Smithsonian Archives has the complete diary on its Transcription Center website.

First page of Mary Henry’s diary entry about the Lincoln Assassination. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

When students encounter this, or any, primary source they are provided information beyond just seeing a high-quality image of the original document. With the “Mary Henry Diary,” viewers are given the title, description, and even the transcription of the whole entry that was prepared as part of Smithsonian Archives’ transcription project.

While reading the “Mary Henry Diary,” students should be prompted to answer the big questions of a primary source:

Is this a reliable source? What can I know about the past based on this material? What questions does it raise?

The Library of Congress has a great tool for teachers to guide their students in reading primary sources. In the picture below I have used this tool with the “Mary Henry Diary” as a way to show how the Remembering Lincoln resources can be used in the classroom.

Library of Congress Source Analysis Tool, filled out for the Mary Henry Diary.

Let’s go through this process, step-by-step.


In a first read-through, I notice that this document is a first-hand account of a teen living in Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination. A lot of what she knows about the assassination is hearsay. She is asking people what they think is going on with the conspirators and where Booth might be hiding.

From this excerpt, we see that she knows a lot of important people in the city and has probably met the Lincolns before at their church. It interests me that she is intimate with so many important people in the city. She seems very aware of what is going on and educated enough to comprehend what it might mean for the country.

Lincoln’s funeral in Washington, D.C., April 19, 1865. Historical Society of Washington, D.C.


This is a diary of a young girl living in Washington, D.C., in the 1800s. Knowing something about why people write diaries today, I can infer that she wrote this to help her remember and document the events that were happening around her, and to better understand what was going on in her world. Since it is a diary, she probably meant it to be kept private and not to be shared.

This diary is important for us today because it helps us understand how a person living in D.C. felt and what they knew after the assassination of President Lincoln. We might equate this diary entry to a modern post written on someone’s personal blog. But unlike a private diary, blog posts are usually meant to be read by others.

Her information also seems to come from newspapers as well as talking with other people, and while she trusts them I begin to wonder if they are trustworthy sources amongst all the turmoil following the assassination. Using my own knowledge of newspapers and hearsay, I know that there will be some bias and even misinformation.


Asking questions that specifically relate to the diary will help me dive deeper into the source to better understand Mary Henry and her world.

Whom was she associated with in D.C.?

  • De Bust – Told Hannah (possibly a servant) that Lincoln died at 7:30am.
  • Baumgrass – Originally from Germany and moved to D.C. He hung a portrait of Lincoln from the window of his studio. Mary uses this as an example of how the houses in the city were draped in black.
  • The Kennedy Family – Mary is friends with Sally and Annie (assumed to be their daughters). They asked her to go to the viewing at the White House but Mary declined.
  • and Mrs. Gurley – The pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which the Henrys attended. He had been called to go to the President the night of the assassination to perform religious rights. He also conducted part of the funeral ceremony at the White House.
  • Captain Alexander – Visited Mary and told her his suspicions of where Booth was and what he thought the plot was about.
  • Hall – One of the clergymen who conducted part of the funeral ceremony at the White House.
  • Bishop Simpson – One of the clergymen who conducted part of the funeral ceremony at the White House.

What were other concerns people had regarding the conspirators?

Today’s Ford’s Theatre Museum (renovated in 2009) includes details and life-size figures of the assassination conspirators. Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.
  • Some people believed that the plot was made to destroy the possibility—proposed by Lincoln—of more amicable relations between the North and South. There was concern that the conspirators wanted Johnson as president because people thought he would have a harsher approach to reconstructing the South. This thought also corresponded with the fact that Secretary of State Seward was attacked; he was a known supporter of Lincoln’s more lenient measures, while Vice President Johnson was not. (Little did Mary Henry know that Johnson had also been targeted for assassination.)
  • There was also fear that the conspirators would evade arrest.
  • Guards were placed at houses of prominent citizens for protection.

When was the funeral for President Lincoln held in D.C.?

  • Wednesday, April 19

How did Mary Henry feel about the assassination?

  • She feared that it will lead to more hatred of the South instead of a feeling of kindness that she had experienced. – “The feeling of resentment at the South as instigating in all probability the murder is deep and I fear will entirely replace the feeling of kindness before entertained for the insurgents.” (Mary Henry Diary, April 15th, 7:00 pm)

Further Investigation

Looking deeper into a source raises additional questions for readers that cannot be answered by the source alone. Good questions can spark further research beyond this primary source, connecting it to its larger contemporary story as well as to how we relate to it today.

Some examples: Why was there misinformation spreading around after the assassination? What did people around Washington who were not part of the elite understand about the assassination? How long was there confusion about the events that happened the night after the assassination? How did Washington recover once Lincoln was buried? What happened to Mary Henry?

John Wilkes Booth’s derringer pistol. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Concluding Thoughts

As the daughter of the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Mary Henry may have more connections with those closest to the assassination than the typical American. Interestingly, in her diary Mary displays a lot of the same initial confusion as many others did: she reports that Lincoln was shot twice in the head, when in reality John Wilkes Booth used one bullet in his single-shot deringer.

This type of information can lead students to consider the reliability of information—even from this relative insider. Comparing the diary with Washington newspapers published at the same time leads to a larger understanding of the general confusion around the first hours and days after the assassination.

Primary sources are an essential part of every teacher’s tool box. Using repositories like Remembering Lincoln not only teaches students how to read primary sources but also how to utilize online databases for research. Remembering Lincoln can be used to guide students through the process of searching for a source and exploring its metadata to find external information not seen directly in the source. This resource is simple enough for students just learning how to use an online database and detailed enough for students who are looking to delve deeper into an online source.

What sources in the Remembering Lincoln collection interest you? How have you used them in the classroom? Please comment below!

Ford’s is currently partnering with school groups to transcribe the documents on Remembering Lincoln. If you are interested in your students working with this project please let us know!

Allison Van Gilst is the current Education Fellow at Ford’s Theatre. In August 2016 she will graduate with her Masters of Arts in Teaching from the George Washington University Museum Education Program. Follow her on Twitter @alvangilst.

The Ford's Theatre Logo

Allison Van Gilst is the current Education Fellow at Ford’s Theatre.


Latest Posts From Ford’s Theatre