Abraham Lincoln’s sudden death on April 14, 1865 created a new level of concern to an already anxious nation. Just days before, President Lincoln had strolled triumphantly through the streets of the fallen Confederate capital. Richmond’s former slaves rejoiced and one kneelt at his feet prompting Lincoln to say “kneel only to God and thank Him for the freedom you are about to enjoy.” For those peeping through windows, the moment had to be surreal – – seeing Lincoln in their city was unimaginable. General Robert E. Lee’s had surrendered his army just five days before, so, the war was essentially over, but the country was still divided. Some say, even more divided than ever. It was too late to save the South, or its “peculiar” institution. Slavery had been the wheel that kept southern whites in control of their world. The war cost the lives of over 600,000 young men, and a once robust national economy had all been crushed. As the losers, Southerners expected harsh treatment from the victors. Many felt that their defeat had meant that “God had spoken” and now free black man would seek “their revenge” and the murdering of whites would be widespread. Others thought that the same fate, if not worse, would come from the occupying Yankee army. Clearly, the subject on most Southerners minds, was not the death of Abraham Lincoln.
As the news spread about the assassination, many Rebel sympathizers wasted no time in disparaging the memory of Lincoln. Others took on a pretense of mourning for him, and possibly a few were sincere in their praise. It would not be accurate to say that the lovers and haters of Lincoln were divided evenly between the borders of the Union and Confederate states. For the pro-Union sympathizers, their tears and acts of sympathy were real. Lincoln’s funeral procession passed through various cities and small towns, ending up in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri. During the two week procession over 1 million people stood along the streets, and in line, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lincoln’s funeral train. Emotions ran high for everyone, but for different reasons. Lincoln’s death laid bare just how divided the nation was in April 1865. Part of the country sincerely mourned the loss of the President, while the other half mourned the loss of a cause, and a place that no longer existed – the Confederacy.
Lincoln’s death was a surprise, but, it was not completely unexpected, especially to the President himself. He was aware of the long list of those who had prayed for his death. Determined, Abraham Lincoln had told his family and others that he needed to be accessible to the public. Several times a day he would walk, often alone, and many times at night, from the White House to the Government Telegraph office. He could have sent a messenger to retrieve the recent battle details, but that was not his style. Lincoln placed the needs of the nation ahead of his own personal fears. He did, however, ponder his own death. A few days before his assassination Lincoln experienced a prophetic dream. The story was retold later by several who witnessed Lincoln telling the tale, that in his dream there was a coffin in the East Room of the White House. He asked who was in the coffin, and was told that it was the President.
On the morning of the assassination, John Wilkes Booth wrote a letter that was intended for the editors of the Washington, D.C. newspaper, the National Intelligencer. Booth asked fellow actor John Matthews to deliver the letter to their office. Never delivered, and supposedly destroyed, it was later reconstructed by Matthews. According to Matthews, Booth stated, “Many, I know – the vulgar herd – will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me.” Lincoln’s killer felt that in time the entire nation would be grateful for his killing the President. Many Rebel sympathizers were grateful, but most simply did not care. They were so wrapped up with worrying about themselves and their families to feel much about Lincoln. In the years after his death the South suffered greatly, and many former Lincoln haters changed their minds.
In 1865 there were more churches than schools and hospitals combined in the country. Abraham Lincoln was murdered on Good Friday, and by Easter Sunday many Northern churches were comparing him to a Christ-like savior. Some pastors told their congregations that Abraham Lincoln had died for the sins of the nation. The New York Times compared Lincoln’s legacy with that of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There was no tolerance for any disagreement about the greatness of Lincoln. Those who dared to make insults faced mobs of vigilantes, who took justice into their own hands. In one New England town a loud-mouthed Lincoln hater was tarred and feathered, others were intimidated and threatened with either death or bodily injury. A group of factory workers beat one man nearly to death when he quipped that Lincoln “had as much brain now as he ever had.” Others were shot or hanged. Emotions were so strained that Secretary Stanton ordered that all people expressing treasonable sentiments about the late President would be arrested.
As expected many of the Southern newspapers joyfully announced his death. The Chattanooga Daily Rebel stated, “Abe has gone to answer before the bar of God for the innocent blood which he permitted to be shed, and his efforts to enslave a free people.” In North Carolina, however, the Raleigh Standard, surprisingly expressed “profound grief.” In five years, however, the Southern press had accomplished a great deal in convincing their readers that Lincoln was less than human. Lincoln had been portrayed in textbooks, cartoons, verse and the theater as a devil, buffoon, ape, baboon, butcher, and above all, as an incompetent oaf.
In occupied Richmond, Union officer Oscar Ireland wrote to his wife that he saw Richmonders “mourning and regret for the loss of the President,” and expressed “hatred and scorn for the fiendishness and utter folly of the assassins.” The African American war journalist Thomas Morris Chester held a very different opinion. After observing several Rebel officers who wore black crape in honor of Lincoln, Chester felt that they “feigned regret for the assassination.” It is doubtful that Rebel officers or other Southerners were sincere in their expressions to an officer of the occupying army. They may have been grieving, but not for Lincoln. There was a deep bitterness about Lincoln that was tied to both the Southern defeat and the great loss of so many sons, husbands and fathers. Behind closed doors some quietly said to one another that Abraham Lincoln “deserved assassination.”
Many Southerners were so weary of war that Lincoln’s death was nothing special. Confederate Officer John Taylor Wood wrote in his diary “Heard of Lincoln’s death. Mobile and Columbus lost.” Wood was referring to the Alabama cities that had fallen to the Union army. There were plenty of Southerners who expressed what most felt in there heart. “Pity it hadn’t been done years ago,” said one, and a Rebel coming home from Lee’s defeated army wrote in his diary, “Thus passed from earth one of the greatest monsters who ever lived.” Seventeen year old Emma LeConte wrote in her diary, “Hurrah! Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated! My heart is mixed with gratified revenge.” Amanda Edmunds from North Carolina wrote in her diary that now Unionists “felt the suffering which they have inflicted on our Southern people.” A Tennessee woman ranted with glee at African American soldiers saying “Your father is dead.” Other Southerners, however, saw a dark future for themselves without Lincoln. One wrote “I fear it bodes no good for the south.” The well-known Southern novelist Mary Chestnut also wrote, “This foul murder will bring down worse miseries on us.” An exiled Jefferson Davis agreed with Mary Chestnut’s observation stating, “I fear it will be disastrous for our people,” despite that members of his staff had “cheered” upon hearing the news.
Abraham Lincoln was wise enough to foresee troubled times ahead for the nation, and especially the South. Just weeks before his death, and at his 2nd Inauguration ceremony, he addressed the issue of national unity when he said “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln was extending an olive branch of peace to the South, and many Southerners took comfort in his words, but many Unionist viewed his comments as not tough enough toward the so-called “secessionist’s traitors.”
The tragic death of Abraham Lincoln made an already impossibly complex situation of uniting the country post-war, much worse. Lincoln would have brought to the table a measure of trust, patience, and encouragement. Instead, neither side felt any amount of trust towards the other, and the virtues of patience and encouragement were replaced with harsh federal rules that were viewed by Southerners as punishment and revenge. White Southerners passed Black Code Laws, later called Jim Crow laws, which created an entire legal system designed to oppress African Americans. In the end, it is Lincoln’s legacy that we remember.