Colors Draped in Black

There are some events in our lives that no one can escape. Everyone has a story of “where they were when” for such events. Thankfully, these events do not happen often, but when they do, they leave an unmistakable impression on our memory.

Thomas Nast memorialized Lincoln’s death with Columbia weeping over the fallen president’s casket while a Federal soldier (left) and sailor (right) weep from afar. (sonofthesouth.net)

In 1865, I would imagine at least two events fit this category. Where were you when you learned about the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia? And, where were you when you heard about President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and death? The latter event is widely remarked on in contemporary sources who were near and far to Washington, DC, on the night of April 14, 1865. Postwar regimental histories also shed light on how Lincoln’s soldiers viewed this tragic turn of events.

One of the most poignant accounts of soldiers receiving this news comes from the regimental history of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, members of the famed Irish Brigade. The survivors who made it to Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865 saw their friends and comrades fall by the score from Fredericksburg until the war’s end. For President Lincoln, they showed a special sign of affection, as their history describes:

The 1865 colors of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry.

…on the evening of the 15th the sad news of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was received. When the despatch was read the Regiment was just forming for dress-parade. The adjutant quietly removed his coat, and, ripping out the black lining, used it to drape the colors. The dress-parade that followed was silent and sad, the men looking towards the heavily draped flag and wondering what it meant. When the adjutant read the orders, and then, with tears streaming down his cheeks, and choking voice, read the announcement of the murder, the effect was indescribable. When arms were stacked the men gathered in little groups in the company streets and spoke in low tones of the martyred President, whom they loved so tenderly.

The veterans of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry joined a nation of mourners. They did not have buildings to drape in black. Instead, their adjutant draped their bloodstained colors in black to honor their fallen leader.

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