The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is widely accepted today as an American tragedy. But it wasn’t always that way.
When the news of Lincoln’s death, 156 years ago today, first reached the public, the reactions were as varied and visceral as the reactions to his life and career. Many people mourned — some even sought out his bloodied clothing and other relics. But others, in both the North and South, celebrated and reveled in the president’s death. And many people simply didn’t believe it was real.
Historian Martha Hodes examines the actual public response in her book Mourning Lincoln, delving into hundreds of letters and diaries from the time. She paints a far more complicated picture of Lincoln’s death than the one we know.
“Most of the books I’d read about Lincoln or the Civil War made these blanket statements that the nation was in mourning,” Hodes says. But the world was far more complex than that. “The Union and Confederacy were terrible antagonists, and victory or defeat didn’t repair that.”
1) Many people dismissed Lincoln’s death as just another rumor
Today, we all know the bare facts about Lincoln’s assassination. Late on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. On the 15th, Lincoln died. But at the time, many people didn’t even know that.
“Lincoln is alive & Well”
The advent of the telegraph made it relatively easy to transmit information in 1865, but Hodes notes that “rumors were still faster than the telegraph.” Because of that, it was difficult to know if the assassination had really happened. Soldiers joked about “Madam Rumor” if they didn’t take the idea seriously, and if they did, it was jumbled with other rumors, like ones that claimed General Grant had died or that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had been killed. That problem was even worse in the South, where telegraph lines had been ravaged by the war.
Some newspapers reported on Lincoln’s assassination quickly, but it took a while for the truth to spread and be confirmed. Hodes quotes one soldier in Ohio who said the news “could be traced to no reliable source.” Making things worse, some telegraph messages were sent claiming “Lincoln is alive & well.”
Even Lincoln’s son Tad didn’t know the truth right away. The night of the assassination, he was seeing a play at Grover’s Theatre. War Department clerk James Tanner was seeing the same play, and he reported that the president had been assassinated. However, somebody else shouted that it was just a rumor being spread by pickpockets.
2) Some Southerners gleefully celebrated. But others mourned.
It shouldn’t be surprising that some people celebrated Lincoln’s death. He was the symbol of a war that had just ripped apart the nation, and he was a victor whose Southern opponents were still suffering the stings of their loss. Even so, the gleeful reactions could be shocking.
Confederate lawyer Rodney Dorman called the killer “a great public benefactor” and felt relieved at Lincoln’s assassination. (In his diary, he spelled Lincoln’s name “Lincon” to emphasize the “con” he felt Lincoln was.) Some Confederates also hoped that Lincoln’s death might change the course of the war and, as one wrote, “produce anarchy in Yankeedom.” Hodes quotes one teen who took to her diary: “Hurrah!” she wrote. “Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated.”
“alas! for my poor country”
That said, celebrations weren’t universal in the South. Other reports paint a different picture — one Union soldier wrote that throughout Virginia, people mourned Lincoln’s death. Similarly, one former slave owner wrote “Alas! for my poor Country” in his diary, recording a much more charitable response to the president’s death. Others simply ignored it, since they were busy rebuilding a crippled South.
The reaction was further divided in the South by race. “It was very starkly divided between black Southerners and white Southerners,” Hodes says. Black Southerners genuinely mourned Lincoln’s death, while white Southerners felt something closer to a sense of reprieve from Union dominance, though they still worried about the future of the Confederate states.
3) Some Northerners reveled in Lincoln’s death — with ugly results
It’s easy to forget that Northerners didn’t universally support the Civil War or Abraham Lincoln. There were the “Copperheads,” vocal Northern Democrats who weren’t loyal to the Union cause. “People often write about the North loving Lincoln,” Hodes says. “Lincoln’s Northern antagonists were a minority, but a significant and vocal minority.”
Hodes found records of some “good Union Men” who celebrated in the privacy of their homes when Lincoln was killed. Publicly, cities like Trenton that had a reputation for anti-Union sentiment still mourned. But privately, some reveled. A company in New Jersey “secretly rejoiced” at the news of Lincoln’s death. A woman in Bloomington, Indiana, held a “grand dinner” to celebrate. A Minnesota woman wanted to celebrate at a ball.
Yet others reacted violently against anti-Lincoln sentiment in the North. “Lincoln’s mourners wanted to put forward a universal grief, ” Hodes says, “but the fact that people in their own midst were also celebrating Lincoln’s assassination was galling and infuriating to them.” In April 1865, an anti-Lincoln man was tarred and feathered in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Dissent wasn’t tolerated well in the North, when it was publicly expressed.
4) Many of Lincoln’s mourners felt like they’d lost their best friend
On April 4, 1865, shortly after the fall of Richmond to Union forces, President Lincoln arrived in the city with his son Tad. According to reports of the time, overjoyed African Americans circled the president. It was their praise in particular that was interesting: they called Lincoln “father” or “master Abraham.” Later they called him their “best friend.”
“the best friend i ever had”
That sentiment carried over after Lincoln’s assassination. In a letter to the New York Afro-African newspaper, one writer said that Booth had “murdered their best friend,” and the sentiment of Lincoln as a friend was a common one among Lincoln’s sympathizers. Freedpeople called Lincoln “the best friend I ever had” and “their best earthly friend.” The New Orleans Black Republican newspapercalled Lincoln the “greatest earthly friend of the colored race.”
That intimate relationship with Lincoln — one of friendship — is hard to imagine today. Hodes says that at the time, the term “best friend” had a sense more akin to familial closeness than we might think today — a best friend was someone with a truly intimate connection. For many at the time, especially the African Americans who felt they benefited from Lincoln’s friendship, it was the most appropriate term.
5) Lincoln’s death was wrapped up in Easter celebrations, and that prompted a religious response
Lincoln was shot on Good Friday in 1865 and died the next day. That made Easter a particularly dramatic experience, even as rumors about Lincoln’s death circulated across the country.
Churches across the country were faced with the difficult task of celebrating Easter and mourning the death of Lincoln at the same time. As one woman wrote: “Everybody here seems trying to remember that God will bear us safely through this new & terrible trial, if we are faithful.” These meditations forced broader grappling with how God could allow Lincoln to die, and what that might mean for pious behavior on Earth. Some people even believed that Lincoln’s assassination was the only fitting capstone to the violent war.
Of course, it wasn’t only the country’s Christian majority who grappled with the assassination of Lincoln. Hodes quotes a synagogue in California whose members were “stricken with sorrow” but resolutely agreed to bow to “divine decree.”
6) People jostled for relics of his life
It makes sense that people would want souvenirs from Lincoln’s life. But his death prompted scrapbooking, thievery, and fervid collection. “It was part of the aftermath of immediate shock,” Hodes says. “Even after Lincoln was buried, people still wanted these relics.”
One War Department employee took a blood-soaked towel from the president, while another clerk picked up Lincoln’s bloody collar. Others made immediate pilgrimages to the theater and place where Lincoln died to see history in the making. Like those who travel to Ground Zero today, the appeal was elemental — as one woman said, it made everything “so vivid.” Hodes recalls that some people even asked for their letters of mourning to be returned to them, so they could have a record of their initial reaction to Lincoln’s death.
In a way, that points to why reactions to Lincoln’s assassination still matter today. Hodes was first drawn to the project after 9/11, when she realized how varied reactions to a traumatic event can be. “As someone who was in New York on that day, I have an entire carton of what I would call relics,” she says. “I bought postcards of the Twin Towers, and I had newspaper headlines, and I didn’t even do anything with them. It’s about preserving history in which you participated as an individual.” That’s what people did after Lincoln’s death, and we continue to have reactions that are just as powerful — and complicated — today.
By Phil Edwards | VOX