Mourning Lincoln

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes. Yale University Press, 2016 paper.

The President and Mrs. Lincoln had decided to attend a play at Ford’s Theatre. It was Good Friday, 14 April 1865. “Our American Cousin,” a light comedy, was suitable entertainment for a President who had seen the country through a long civil war. Richmond had fallen on Monday of the previous week, and on 9 April, the Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House. On the night of 11 April, Lincoln had delivered a victory speech elaborating on his plans for the South’s ‘redemption’ – thereby closing the wounds of civil war. The public had expected a triumphal speech.

John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and son of a famous actor, was in the crowd and listened to Lincoln’s speech that night but had a different reading of Lincoln’s intentions. He was part of a conspiracy to disrupt the Union victory by assassinating Lincoln and his Cabinet.

The telegraph spread the terrible news of Booth’s deed around the Union. Martha Hodes notes, however, that the North was not united in its sorrow. There were many Copperheads who had opposed Lincoln’s militant resistance to Southern secession. Throughout the War they had pressed Lincoln to open negotiations with the Confederacy. They were outraged that those negotiations had been blocked by Lincoln’s decision to end slavery in the secessionist states. Their mourning of Lincoln’s death was measured.

News of the assassination also spread through the Confederacy, and again the responses were mixed. I thought, however, that Hodes’s using a Southerner from Jacksonville, Florida, Rodney Dorman, as her representative of continuing Southern intransigence didn’t work. His “glee” in hearing of Lincoln’s murder doesn’t, I suspect, represent the responses of most Southerners in April 1865. The war had been lost, and they had lost husbands, fathers, and sons. With trepidation they were ready for the war to end.

Both sides had believed that God favored their cause. How then could the South explain its defeat? The North had won the war; but with an enormous toll of dead and wounded.  And now their leader, also killed. God’s wrath?

Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, died the next day. Millions of Americans would attend church on Easter Sunday morning. Ministers had less than twenty-four hours to devise a sermon appropriate for an Easter Sunday but also one that comforted those mourning Lincoln. How could there not be some parallels between a murdered president and sacrificial lamb?

The nineteenth century thought much about the good and proper death. It would necessarily involve family in various rituals of mourning. But Lincoln’s family was mostly absent from his state funeral; Mary Lincoln chose to grieve in private.

Lincoln laid in state in the Capitol for two days, drawing thousands to view his body. Arrangements were made for a funeral train that would end up in Springfield, Illinois – a 1700 mile journey that involved a half-dozen railway companies. It would pass through many cities and towns, stopping for a few moments. Thousands of people had gathered along the route. There were over-night stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Harrisburg, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Everywhere there were military escorts, including African-American troops, to honor the dead President. And also no doubt for crowd control.

The wearing of black and draping buildings in black were part of the rituals surrounding public mourning. Church and courthouse bells rang as Lincoln’s body passed through each town, and again at the end of the burial ceremony in Springfield.  Flags were flown at half-mast throughout the Union.

The public suspected that the Confederate leadership and particularly Jefferson Davis were involved in the assassination. The conspirators were soon caught, however, and responsibility for the murder of the President focused on them. Booth was shot in the course of his arrest. Eight other conspirators were arrested, tried, and hanged. So the wrath and cries for vengeance were focused on the conspirators. Davis and others in the Confederate leadership were thankful; they did not want Booth and the murder of Lincoln associated with their lost cause.

There have been three assassinations of sitting Presidents since Lincoln: James Garfield, William McKinley, and John Kennedy. President Kennedy was shot in Dallas on 22 November 1963. How vividly I remember that day. What I was doing. Who told me. How we gathered together to hear the latest news bulletin. We knew of the assassination within minutes of when the shots were fired.

Northerners knew about Lincoln’s assassination as soon as their local paper could get out a special edition. News of his murder had traveled by telegraph. Kennedy’s by radio. No doubt in 1865, like 1963, the news also spread by word-of-mouth. In both; bewilderment, anger, fear, but then a great sorrow.

Mourning Lincoln was nominated for a National Book Award, and rightly so.


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