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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.
his own heart was breaking. Nor was every white person up north thrilled—one New Yorker surmised that the “contemptable Copperheads” were keeping quiet out of fear, some even deceitfully waving flags, despite their hatred of Lincoln, black people, and the whole Civil War.16 For Lee’s men, the last months in the Army of Northern Virginia had been an ordeal of despair and exhaustion accompanied by steady desertion. A member of the Richmond Howitzers, watching the bursting mortar shells through the
Tenn.: McCowat-Mercer, 1954), 242–43 (May 7, 1865, entry), ACWLD; Sewards: Numerous letters and diaries discuss the Seward deaths; Tad: Samuel Pickens diary, Apr. 16, 1865, in Hubbs, Voices from Company D, 372. 2. shot: Henry Morrill to C. Henry Albers, Memphis, Tenn., Apr. 15, 1865, Morrill Papers, Western Americana, Yale-Beinecke; traced: Lyman P. Spencer diary, Apr. 15, 1865, Spencer Papers, LC; hardly: “Civil War Diary of James Wesley Riley: Who Served with the Union Army in the War Between
the Confederacy.19 Rippling outward, beginning that day and extending for weeks into the remotest corners of the nation, word traveled. At Appomattox, African Americans lined the road to honor Union soldiers. Something so long prayed for, “yet it seems impossible that it has come,” wrote Thomas Morris Chester in Richmond, as he watched elderly men and women weep, pray in gratitude, and call out their jubilations. In that once capital city, former slaves congregated—some well dressed, others in
they called Saturday, April 15, 1865, the saddest day they had ever known, that was true only in the most collective, public, and communal sense. If the elaborate ceremonies staged for the president momentarily stood in for the absent bodies of loved ones, survivors still had to cope with terrible absences in their everyday lives. For all Union supporters who had suffered the loss of intimates in the war, the end of fighting called forth retrospective thoughts that intensified grief and yet
on the day Lincoln died, “We had felt as if we too had cast our votes for him.” Children drew themselves into the swirl and fray as well. African American youngsters in the South, who saw the jubilation of emancipation and victory all around them, also heard clearly articulated fears for a future without President Lincoln. Nor could white children remain sheltered, and even some of the youngest grasped the magnitude of events. A week after the assassination, one mother found her son “tired out