Six days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln while at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC. Almost immediately, a word of mouth network began diffusing throughout the city. As news of the president’s death spread, disbelief, sorrow, and even joy crossed the minds of many Americans. Many exclaimed their opinions publicly, while others quietly expressed their grief or exultation in their letters and diaries.
The first reaction to Lincoln’s death was disbelief. One Richmond citizen remarked in his diary, “It was whispered, yesterday, that President Lincoln had been assassinated! I met Gen. Duff Green, in the afternoon, who assured me there could be no doubt of it. Still, supposing it might be an April hoax, I inquired at the headquarters of Gen. Ord, and was told it was true.”[i] Eliza Andrews, while boarding a train in Camack, Georgia, heard the news from an individual who thrust their head through one of the train’s open windows. She remarked, “We had heard so many absurd rumors that at first we were all inclined to regard this as a jest. Somebody laughed and asked if the people of Camack didn’t know that April Fools’ Day was past.”[ii] When the African American population in St. Helena, South Carolina, was told the news, they refused to believe it, praying for him in church “as wounded but still alive.”[iii] This disbelief turned to shock as telegraphs and newspapers confirmed the news in the coming days and weeks.
Abraham Lincoln’s death created an outpouring of grief from citizens in both the North and the South. One citizen, voicing the thoughts of many, declared that, “It seemed as if the whole world had lost a dear, personal friend.”[iv] This sentiment was echoed by a majority of the African American population. Overwhelmed with sadness, a number of Washington’s African Americans traversed the street in front of the residence where Lincoln died, while others lined the sidewalk in front of the White House, pressing their faces against the iron fence.[v]
The multitude of Northern grief is extremely apparent in the sheer number that participated in the numerous processions, visitations, and sermons relating to Lincoln’s death. The day prior to Lincoln’s funeral, 25,000 people filed through the White House, expressing their anguish. Following the hearse from the White House to the Capitol, 40,000 mourners marched solemnly behind the casket, with a detachment of the Twenty-second United States Colored Infantry leading the procession.[vi]
Lincoln’s body was then transported from the Capitol city 1700 miles west to Springfield, Illinois, where he was laid to rest. Twelve cities along the route held their own procession and public viewing, visibly illustrating their grief through black mourning attire, along with black badges made of fabric or crepe. By the time of Lincoln’s internment in Springfield on May 4, it is estimated that over 7 million people had visited, viewed, and participated in some part of Lincoln’s final voyage to Springfield. Parke Godwin, editor of the Evening Post, described the feelings of the country eloquently: “No loss has been comparable to his….Never in human history has there been so universal, so spontaneous, so profound an expression of a nation’s bereavement.”[vii]
Lincoln’s death catapulted the country into a high level of uncertainty. The tenuous relationship between the newly reunited states was thrown into question as Andrew Johnson took the oath for office. African Americans grew fearful, asking “We going to be slaves again?”[viii] Some southerners felt Booth’s actions would hurt the fragile and newly acquired peace. Eliza Andrews understood this: “[Lincoln’s death] is a terrible blow to the South, for it places that vulgar renegade, Andy Johnson, in power, and will give the Yankees an excuse for charging us with a crime which was in reality only the deed of an irresponsible madman.”[ix]
While a majority of the country mourned, many Southern Confederate loyalists mirrored Booth’s thoughts in justifying the assassination of Lincoln. In his datebook, he declared: “Our country owed all our trouble to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”[x] This defiance to Lincoln and what he stood for was not only written, but openly discussed in the South. Upon hearing the news of Lincoln’s death, Emma LeConte excitedly wrote, “Hurrah! Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated! It may be abstractly wrong to be so jubilant, but I just can’t help it. After all the heaviness and gloom…this blow to our enemies comes like a gleam of light….The man we hated has met his proper fate.[xi] Kate Stone agreed with Emma- “All honor to J. Wilkes Booth….What torrents of blood Lincoln has caused to flow, and how [William] Seward has aided him in his bloody work. I cannot be sorry for their fate. They deserve it. They have reaped their just reward.”[xii]
In some occupied Southern cities, the citizens acted distraught, but an undercurrent of excitement for Lincoln’s death pervaded. One Louisiana resident described the Confederate loyalists decorating their houses with black crepe, secretly exulting in Lincoln’s death: “For the more violently “Secesh” the inmates, the more thankful they are for Lincoln’s death, the more profusely the houses are decked with the emblems of woe. They all look to me like ‘not sorry for him, but dreadfully grieved to be forced to this demonstration.’”[xiii]
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination made him a hero and a martyr in the eyes of many in the country, while pitting Booth as a villain. Despite many Southerners’ dislike for Lincoln, the prospect of Andrew Johnson as president seemed a worse fate for the southern states. If Booth had not succeeded that fateful night, one can only wonder about the success of Reconstruction in the years after the war under Lincoln’s steady and stubborn guidance.
[i] J.B. Jones, A Rebel Clerk’s War Diary at the Confederate States Capitol, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1866), 479.
[ii] Eliza Frances Andrews, The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, 1864-1865, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908), 172.
[iii] Laura Towne, Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne, (Cambridge: The Alberside Press, 1912), 159.
[iv] Champ Clark, The Assassination: Death of the President, (Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1987), 118.
[v] Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 239.
[vi] Herbert Mitgang, ed., Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, Noah Brooks, p. 235.
[vii] Phillip Kunhardt III, “Lincoln’s Contested Legacy,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2009.
[viii] Elizabeth Ware Pearson, Letters from Port Royal, (1906), 311.
[ix] Andrews, 172-173
[x] John Wilkes Booth, 1864 Datebook, Collection of the Ford’s Theatre.
[xi] Emma LeConte, Diary 1864-1866, 65-66.
[xii] Kate Stone, Brokenburn: The Diary of Kate Stone, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University State Press, 1955), 333.
[xiii] Sarah Morgan Dawson, A Confederate Girl’s Diary, (Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Co, 1913), 437.
Andrews, Eliza Frances. The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, 1864-1865. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908. http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/andrews/andrews.html
Booth, John Wilkes. 1864 Datebook. Collection of the Ford’s Theatre.
Clark, Champ. The Assassination: Death of the President. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1987.
Dawson, Sarah Morgan. A Confederate Girl’s Diary. Boston: Houghton & Mifflin Company, 1913.
Harrell, Carolyn Lawton. When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln: Southern Reaction to the Assassination. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997.
Jones, J.B. A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary at the Confederate States Capital. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1866. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31087/31087-h/31087-h.htm
Kunhardt, Phillip III. Lincoln’s Contested Legacy. Smithsonian Magazine. February 2009, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lincolns-contested-legacy-44978351/
LeConte, Emma. Diary, 1865-1865. 1865. http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/leconteemma/leconte.html
The Lincoln Institute. The Funeral Train of Abraham Lincoln. 12 April 2015 http://abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/abraham-lincoln-in-depth/the-funeral-train-of-abraham-lincoln/
Mitgang, Herbert, ed. Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, Noah Brooks. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Pearson, Elizebeth Ware, ed. Letters from Port Royal. 1906. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/24722
Quarles, Benjamin. Lincoln and the Negro. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University State Press, 1955. https://ia700500.us.archive.org/2/items/brokenburnthejou008676mbp/brokenburnthejou008676mbp.pdf
Towne, Laura. Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne. Cambridge: The Alberside Press, 1912.