By Michelle Miller and Christopher Wills
America’s northern states were in a celebratory mood on April 14, 1865. The Confederacy’s most important military leader had just surrendered, a sign that the long, bloody Civil War was about to end. It was Good Friday, a time for the nation’s Christians to celebrate rebirth and renewal. Even some Rebel sympathizers may have been feeling relief that the bloodshed was coming to a close.
Then came word that President Lincoln had been shot. Some got the news late that night, when it wasn’t clear whether Lincoln would live or die. Most did not hear until the next day, after “Father Abraham” was already gone. Some would not hear for many days more.
Part of an ALPLM display about Lincoln’s murder.
Whenever it reached them, the news was stunning. Letters from the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum offer a look at the reactions.
Businessman George Young was in Cairo, Ill., when he heard the news. He described the scene in a letter to his wife, Lydia, in Wisconsin:
“Oh what a crime. What a blow to the nation. It has not its parallel in modern history.
“Gen. [Nathaniel P.] Banks … addressed the citizens for half an (h)our, and spoke splendidly he was very much affected the tears rolled down his cheeks like rain. Stout men cried and trembled. Language cannot describe the sorrow of all who love this country."
Young’s letter included the fate of a Confederate sympathizer who made the mistake of celebrating Lincoln’s assassination.
“One rebel wretch expressed great pleasure at the sad news, and said he was glad of it, and that it ought to have been done long ago. but he has had his last exultation he was shot on the spot.”
Detail from a schedule for the train carrying Lincoln’s body home for burial.
Hiram Walbridge, a New Yorker and former member of Congress, offered a short summary of the situation:
“The memory of Abraham Lincoln will live in immortal renown, while his assassin will be remembered only to be execrated in eternal infamy.”
Headlines from the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph. (Library of Congress)
Lincoln’s murder was a shock even in states fighting to secede from the United States, as described in a letter by Richmond, Va., minister T. Moore:
“No words can depict the grief and consternation that this foul murder has produced here. We were beginning to hope for speedy tranquility, and knew that in Mr. Lincoln we had a man whose policy w[oul]d certainly secure it … We felt that in him we had a wise, true and humane ruler, whom we c[oul]d trust.
“Oh it is unspeakably sad and fearful, and we can only gaze in silence on this new act of sorrow … What the effect will be on this awful struggle, God only knows. … Oh it is a time for good men to pray as they never prayed before.”
Sheet music from the ALPLM’s collection. One of many marches written to honor the slain president.
Cyrus Barnes was a soldier in a regiment that held the post of honor in Lincoln's second inaugural parade. Years later, he recorded his memories of the response when soldiers learned the commander in chief had been shot at Ford’s Theatre and was dying at a nearby boarding house.
“Grief, wrath and indignation all seemed to strive for the mastery, until suddenly a thought took possession of some of them and found vent in these words ‘perhaps all the members of that theatre are accomplices in a deeply laid plot to murder Lincoln’ and they said ‘come on boys, we’ll burn the building.’ And I have no doubt the threat would have been speedily executed only that the word was passed along the lines if that is done, the home where the sufferer lies will be endangered by the fire.”
A drawing of Lincoln's death in a boarding house across the street from Ford's Theatre.
Benjamin B. Emory, a clerk in the Quartermaster General’s Office in Washington, said the city was thrown into panic and believed (falsely) that Lincoln was not the only fatality.
“The murder of the President was so public and witnessed by so many that for several hours no one would believe, but that Seward and the rest of the Cabinet had shared the same fate. I venture that so many anxious hearts seldom if ever, so longed for the coming of day as the residents of this city did upon that occasion. But the darkness of the terrible deed did not disappear with the darkness of the night. It was considered a crime without parallel and perhaps will continue to remain so in all coming time.”
Detail from a Harper’s Weekly illustration of Lincoln’s body lying in state.
John W. Meath, an Irish immigrant who served in an Illinois regiment during the Civil War, also discussed the reaction among soldiers.
“It went to their heart like an arrow. I never thought that the death of any man would cause such gloom all over the country. Every soldier here looked as though he had lost his nearest or best friend. In reality, we have. We have lost a noble and true friend, the country one of its best statesmen.”
An illustration of Lincoln’s Tomb from the ALPLM collection.
Michelle Miller is the ALPLM’s manuscripts librarian. Christopher Wills is the communications director.