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The news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, just days after Confederate surrender, astounded the war-weary nation. Massive crowds turned out for services and ceremonies. Countless expressions of grief and dismay were printed in newspapers and preached in sermons. Public responses to the assassination have been well chronicled, but this book is the first to delve into the personal and intimate responses of everyday people—northerners and southerners, soldiers and civilians, black people and white, men and women, rich and poor.
Through deep and thoughtful exploration of diaries, letters, and other personal writings penned during the spring and summer of 1865, Martha Hodes, one of our finest historians, captures the full range of reactions to the president’s death—far more diverse than public expressions would suggest. She tells a story of shock, glee, sorrow, anger, blame, and fear. “’Tis the saddest day in our history,” wrote a mournful man. It was “an electric shock to my soul,” wrote a woman who had escaped from slavery. “Glorious News!” a Lincoln enemy exulted. “Old Lincoln is dead, and I will kill the goddamned Negroes now,” an angry white southerner ranted. For the black soldiers of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, it was all “too overwhelming, too lamentable, too distressing” to absorb.
There are many surprises in the story Hodes tells, not least the way in which even those utterly devastated by Lincoln’s demise easily interrupted their mourning rituals to attend to the most mundane aspects of everyday life. There is also the unexpected and unabated virulence of Lincoln’s northern critics, and the way Confederates simultaneously celebrated Lincoln’s death and instantly—on the very day he died—cast him as a fallen friend to the defeated white South.
Hodes brings to life a key moment of national uncertainty and confusion, when competing visions of America’s future proved irreconcilable and hopes for racial justice in the aftermath of the Civil War slipped from the nation’s grasp. Hodes masterfully brings the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination alive in human terms—terms that continue to stagger and rivet us one hundred and fifty years after the event they so strikingly describe.
likewise felt sure that slavery was “not abolished & never will be,” unless there was no amnesty for any Confederate, with or without an oath of allegiance. As a white commander of black troops wrote home from New Orleans in early summer, “If Andy doesn’t put his foot on slavery hard, they will try to start it again somehow.”21 Here were the echoes of Frederick Douglass’s prediction, made weeks before Johnson’s pardon proclamation, which in turn echoed the fears of the freedpeople immediately
Confederate capital that night, soon to be followed by the rest of his government. With impending occupation, white residents could stay or go, and the streets were chaotic, crowded with loaded-down horses, carriages, and wagons. Rebel troops would burn parts of the city on their way out. When Union troops marched in the next morning, they sang “Babylon Is Fallen.” Union soldiers, black and white, met crowds of black men and women who shook their hands, blessed them, and thanked God for
dismissed school. Washington was in an intoxicated uproar all day April 3 and for three days afterward, the White House “resplendent with candles,” the Capitol dome decorated with “tiers of lights.” The War Department and Post Office were lit up too, and in front of the Patent Office, gas jets spelled the word Union in enormous letters.13 “Richmond has fallen,” Emilie Davis wrote in her Philadelphia diary. The young woman’s words were spare but the occasion grand, for her brothers had fought
Lincoln Herald 84 (1982), 237; shot: Elon N. Lee diary, Apr. 15, 1865, ts., Lee and Bastin Papers, Chicago; warning: Eugene Marshall diary, Apr. 20, 1865, Marshall Papers, Duke. 32. all: Saran Browne to Albert Browne, Salem, Mass., Apr. 20, 1865, BFP; served right: “Albert” [?] to mother, New York, Apr. 17, 1865, box 2, Civil War Collection, AAS; John Henry Wilson to wife, Washington, D.C., Apr. 16, 1865, in Drake, “Letter on the Death of Abraham Lincoln,” 237; mob law: Martha Coffin Wright to
never sold one. He then defended slaveholders, who he claimed cared as much for slaves as did any northerner, and lectured the men not to “become loafers and depend upon the Government.” When Johnson deplored the state of “notorious concubinage” in which, he implied, all four million enslaved people had willfully lived (with not a word about the illegality of slave marriages, the rape of black women by white men, or the breeding of slaves by their masters), he further taunted the men by adding,