Martha Hodes prefers the mess. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 150 years ago this month, has its own sacred texts, with Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!” foremost among them. But Hodes, a historian at New York University, has collected many more. “Mourning Lincoln” draws on letters and diaries written by Americans during the spring and summer of 1865. Together, they offer an intimate, bracing account of a people who, still grappling with the conclusion of a brutal war, experienced the murder of the victors’ standard-bearer.
For Union supporters, the news of Lincoln’s shooting struck as their celebrations and parades had barely ended. In a single day, one woman wrote, “the sun rose upon a nation jubilant with victory” and set “upon one plunged in deepest sorrow.” One soldier told his parents of his sadness that Lincoln was killed just when peace was going to “crown his honest and earnest efforts.” In Virginia, an African American boy, age 5 or 6, asked an adult, “Have I got to go back to massas?”
The news traveled slowly, taking weeks to reach some parts of the country, but soon black trim appeared on the edges of victory flags, and homes were draped in black-and-white bunting. “If you have not already draped our flags with mourning, have it done,” a husband told his wife.
Those who mourned Lincoln wrote of a nation overcome by a “universal” grief, but clearly that grief was not universally felt, Hodes notes. Among Confederates, the assassination barely registered compared with the magnitude of their recent defeat. “Heard of Lincoln’s death. Mobile & Columbus lost,” one Confederate officer wrote in his diary. Similarly, “when a Confederate woman wrote of the ‘deplorable events’ of April 14 and 15, she described how she had watched from her Virginia porch as Union gunboats landed and Yankees marched through the streets,” Hodes writes. They came into her yard, and eventually her former slaves left with them. “For her,” Hodes explains, “those events, not the crime at Ford’s Theatre up in Washington, were the tragedies.”
A Texas doctor wrote his son-in-law to express joy at the killing of “the cold hearted tyrant,” but in general there was little rejoicing among white Southerners. The death of their chief antagonist “was nothing more than a temporary lifting of the shadows,” Hodes writes. Some feigned sorrow. A Confederate gunboat sailed with the American flag at half-mast while in sight of federal ships, only to hoist the Stars and Bars moments later. And Sarah Morgan, a Confederate supporter in New Orleans, observed that even those who “hated Lincoln with all their souls” decorated their homes for fear of retribution. “The more thankful they are for Lincoln’s death, the more profusely the houses are decked with the emblems of woe,” she explained. Some Confederates were in fact arrested and jailed for expressing joy at the crime, Hodes notes, on the theory that they were “virtually accessories after the fact.”
One of the strengths of Hodes’s work is that she shows how reactions did not break down along predictable North-South, Rebel-Yankee lines. More radical abolitionists in the North, worried at the conciliatory signs in Lincoln’s second inaugural address (“with malice toward none, with charity for all”), took some comfort in his absence, while some pro-slavery advocates missed him. “Old Abe with all his apeishness, was a kind-hearted man and disposed to treat us generously,” wrote a North Carolina slave-owner.
Hodes returns frequently to Rodney Dorman, a Jacksonville, Fla., lawyer, pro-slavery and virulently racist; and Albert and Sarah Browne, a white married couple in Salem, Mass., abolitionists and paternalistically racist. Their recurring letters and diary entries offer continuity in a book where the volume of quotes and sources can overwhelm. Dorman is unfailingly memorable, a 19th-century version of a cable-news partisan blowhard. Abolitionists were “pitiful, pettifogging scoundrels” trying to “out-negro the negro,” he wrote. Lincoln’s killer was “a great public benefactor.” Top Northern government officials “ought to have their brains blown out immediately,” that is, “if they have any brains.” After a while, I almost expected a sarcastic “Thanks, Lincoln” to appear in his writings (though that would be “Lincon,” as Dorman would purposely misspell it, emphasizing the leader’s supposed duplicity).
The book’s chapter titles invoke basic feelings of “Shock,” “Glee” and “Everyday Loss,” and, in one called simply “God,” the author explores the religious overtones of the assassination. Its timing — the president was shot on Good Friday and died the next morning, with Easter Sunday preparations well underway — led to stridently religious interpretations. Lincoln’s death was God’s will, many argued, though explanations of that divine intent usually revealed the political preferences of each believer.
The assassination would compel the nation to honor Lincoln’s wishes for a peaceful reconstruction. Or it was punishment for the sin of slavery, in which both North and South had been complicit. Or it meant God knew that the president would have been too lenient on the Confederates. As more radical mourners contended, God had taken Lincoln “in order to alert the victors to the enduring intransigence of their vanquished enemies,” Hodes writes. “The assassination had opened the eyes of these radicals, both black and white, to the necessity for revolutionary policies following Confederate defeat on the battlefield, because defeated Confederates who held political power could still win the war off the battlefield.”
Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass captured the mix of uncertainty and pessimism. “It may be,” he posited on the day Lincoln died, “that the blood of our beloved martyr President will be the salvation of our country.” But a month later, he was far more concerned about oppressive Southern laws and the absence of black suffrage: “In what new skin will the old snake come forth?”
Though Dorman and the Browne family are useful touchstones, some of the most essential voices of the era — those of African Americans — are also among the most muted in this book. In a “Note on Method,” Hodes writes that she had intended to feature a recurring African American protagonist but encountered many obstacles. The archives of men in black Civil War regiments often belonged to white officers; the papers of black politicians mainly begin in the Reconstruction era; and regardless of race, only people of a certain social and economic standing possessed the literacy and leisure to write. But it is still a distorting omission, one Hodes sought to rectify. “Because black experiences are central to the story I tell,” she writes, “I turned to two kinds of sources to augment the comparatively small number of personal writings: letters and editorials published in black newspapers, and the writings of whites who related black people’s words and sentiments.”
Despite such shortcomings, this book brings to mind historian Drew Gilpin Faust’s masterful “This Republic of Suffering,” which chronicled how America dealt with the business of mass death, during and after the war. (Hodes thanks Faust in her acknowledgments, calling her “unstintingly generous.”) Not as epic or elegant as that work, “Mourning Lincoln” nonetheless unearths a valuable story, one that shouldn’t be missed among the glut of Lincoln anniversary books. It shows that with all great tragedies, whether dated April 14, Nov. 22 or Sept. 11, the answer to that most human question — why? — springs from one’s closely held biases and dearest beliefs.
After all, mourning is always more about the living than the dead.
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