How Americans Mourned Lincoln—and Didn't

NYU historian Martha Hodes examined hundreds of letters and diaries to show just how far from united citizens were in their feelings about the president’s death.
collage: archival photo of Abraham Lincoln's Face, U.S. map in black, and red, white, and blue teardrops

NYU history professor Martha Hodes was standing on West Third Street on September 11, 2001 when United Airlines flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center, struck the south tower. After hearing the first inexplicable boom, she’d joined her Greenwich Village neighbors to gaze, stunned, toward the thick smoke billowing from windows a mile and a half downtown.

That disorienting experience was part of Hodes’s inspiration for Mourning Lincoln, her new book about individual American responses to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln—just days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender and victory parades by Union supporters heralding the end of the Civil War. Lincoln’s death was for many living in 1865 what 9/11 was for us, or the JFK assassination was a generation ago—a startling national tragedy that seared the mundane details of an otherwise ordinary day into permanent memory.

When we look back on such events, we tend to dwell on how they shattered what we thought we knew. And when we grieve together, it can feel as though no one is talking or thinking about anything else—as though the machinery of everyday life has ground to a halt. “It astonishes me now that I went on to class,” Hodes writes of 9/11, “that the students—they too had seen the burning towers—arrived on time and sat in their chairs.”

Later, after the towers collapsed and the magnitude of what had happened began to settle in, Hodes wandered the neighborhood, studying the makeshift shrines the city’s residents had begun to create. Nothing about that day felt routine, she writes, and yet “the cellophane-wrapped bouquets made clear that people in flower shops and corner delis were still at work.” 

After Lincoln’s death, too, life went on—despite many declarations to the contrary. A funeral train carrying the president’s body traveled nearly 1700 miles from Washington, DC, to Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, stopping for eleven different public funerals. But meanwhile, men plowed fields and misplaced overcoats. Women sewed dresses and prepared griddles for pancakes. People got married. A writer, Bayard Taylor, asked his publisher, George Palmer Putnam, “How about my 3d novel? Shall I commence it, or wait for a more favorable season?”

book cover: Mourning Lincoln

Such details are often lost in history books that—drawing on newspapers, sermons, and other formal and public expressions of condolence—tend to gloss over the aftermath of the assassination with a line or two about a nation united in shock and mourning.

Hodes’s account paints a different picture. In eschewing polished postwar memoirs and carefully crafted reminiscences in favor of journal entries and private notes from the spring and summer of 1865, she’s able to capture people’s intimate and immediate reactions to the news—in the context of whatever else was going on in their lives. Hodes estimates that she read through about a thousand diaries, collections of letters, and other relevant writings in dozens of archives and libraries around the country, from the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

She found that reactions across the political spectrum—from a radical abolitionist couple in Massachusetts to a Confederate lawyer in Florida who deliberately misspelled “Lincoln” as “Lincon”—could hardly have been more different, and in comparing a range of responses Hodes illustrates just how far from united citizens were in their feelings about the president’s death and their visions for the future of the nation. (Think of how, in the days after 9/11, some Americans urged peace, while others demanded revenge.) There was so much uncertainty after Lincoln was shot that some of Washington’s black residents, gathering in front of the White House, even wondered aloud whether the death of the president would mean the return of slavery.

In advance of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s ill-fated trip to the Ford Theatre, on April 14, NYU Stories sat down with Hodes to talk about the psychology of collective grief, how people mourned before social media, and what Lincoln might make of the 21st-century cry that “black lives matter.”  

photo: portrait of Martha Hodes

Some critics have used the term “performative grief” to describe what happens now on, say, Twitter, when a beloved public figure dies. Was there some variation of this back in 1865?
Well, the 19th century is known as a moment in which grief is overwrought and very melodramatic. People expressed what they were feeling at that time in very flowery language, but I decided to treat those expressions as genuine, because this was the standard expression for loss.

And I think 19th century grief is performative in a different way—because it’s not confined to a screen, it’s actually much more public. [For Lincoln], people covered their homes, their businesses, churches, and schools with black cloth, and would maybe wear a black ribbon or a black badge. Then of course there was the hugely majestic and resplendent funeral. Everywhere the train passed, people would wave and take off their hats and fall to their knees. On the other hand, there were moments of disappointment, where because embalming was still a very elementary art in 1865, people would notice that Lincoln’s body was decomposing and would write, after standing in line for hours to see him, that his features didn’t look very majestic.

How quickly did news of the assassination spread?
Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, and the telegraph ran through many towns and cities across the country, so for example, people in New York, Boston, and San Francisco knew that day. But in places that didn’t have the telegraph, they had to wait for newspapers to be delivered. And then getting the news overseas could take weeks or even months. For London it took two weeks, and places like China and Australia didn't hear until June.

Do you have a sense of what people did right when they found out?
What’s interesting to me is that some of the first people to get the news were laborers, members of the working classes, who heard newsboys shouting the headline on the streets. They would then get the newspaper and convey the news to their employers. So upper-class diaries will say something like, “my servant burst into my room and told me Mr. Lincoln had been shot.”

Because it was such an unbelievable—literally unbelievable—event, the nation's first presidential assassination, people were scrambling for a way to confirm what they’d heard. In the 19th century, the only way to do that was to go out of your house and look into other people’s faces to see if they were grief-stricken, shocked, with tears rolling down. Passing on the news became the first act of mourning—knocking on doors and rapping on windows to say, “Have you heard?”

In reading hundreds of diaries and letters, did you notice patterns in how people described their feelings?
Lots of people invoked metaphors of disbelief, the manifestation of shock, with synonyms like “astonished,” “astounded,” and “stupefied.” The metaphor of a thunderclap from a clear blue sky was also a common one. The word “realize” in the 19th century meant “to make real,” so people would write things like, “I cannot realize it,” meaning “I just don't believe this is happening.”

Then there’s grief and sorrow, of course. Sometimes you can tell, with a really formulaic phrase like “this is the saddest day that the nation has ever known,” that people were copying from newspapers, or taking ideas from ministers’ sermons on Easter Sunday, the day after Lincoln died. But other people wrote much more personally or much more haltingly, with dashes between almost every word. That made me think that maybe the person was crying and couldn’t quite get the words out.

What about anger and revenge?
Some Northerners, especially Union soldiers, were very angry. They wrote things like, “I am savage with rage.” And even though the battlefield war is over, I found that a number of Union soldiers wrote that they wanted to have another battle because they wanted to—and this word comes up over and over again—”exterminate” the Confederates. There was a regiment in which the officer wrote down that the men said they wanted to make a monument of dead rebels. People were infuriated and blamed not just the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, but also the Confederate leadership and the whole institution of slavery for the assassination. They understood that Lincoln was assassinated for ending slavery.

But of course not everyone was devastated by the news.
Yes, there were two groups of people who were gleeful over Lincoln’s death—the Confederates, and also Lincoln's Northern political opponents, the Copperheads. But there’s also a third group—some of the most radical white politicians in Lincoln's own Republican party—who express a kind of relief in their personal writings that the president has been assassinated. That’s because they think that Lincoln will treat the vanquished Confederates with too much lenience. It's fascinating because in hindsight, they were proven wrong in what happened next. They thought that vice president Andrew Johnson, who became president, would treat the Confederates much more harshly, because he was known to despise the Southern aristocracy—the former slaveholders. What they didn’t realize is that although Johnson hated the Southern aristocracy, he hated black people much more. He was a virulent racist. And so he ended up siding with the former Confederates as opposed to former slaves. African Americans had a sense that this was going to happen. They had a sense right away that Johnson really despised them, whereas Lincoln had an interest in not just black freedom but also equality and citizenship.

Could anyone have predicted that we’d still be struggling over racial inequality in 2015?
Frederick Douglass makes the point in 1865 that there will be no “permanent peace”—that's his phrase—until there's justice. And by justice he means not just black freedom, the end of slavery, but citizenship, education, equality, and suffrage for black men. In today’s terms, we’d say that he’s saying, “no justice, no peace.” Douglass, who always seemed to say everything before anyone else thought of it, also writes, “In what new skin will this old snake come forth?” What he's talking about there is this idea that slavery can be recreated, even though the legal institution of it is abolished, if lawmakers aren't careful. Of course he’s absolutely right, because after the era of radical Reconstruction, which lasts from 1867 to 1877, we have the long decades of Jim Crow lynching and segregation.

At the same time that people were mourning Lincoln, many families had also lost relatives and friends in the war. How did the two kinds of grieving overlap?
Part of everyday life in 1865 was what I call “everyday loss.” In the Civil War, there were about 750,000 deaths, or about two percent of the population. Today that would be the equivalent of seven million lives lost, which is really inconceivable. And most people couldn't afford to have a body sent home. So Lincoln's long, drawn-out funeral allowed mourners to experience their own losses in a much more ritualistic and public way. As much as people loved Lincoln, and even called him “father” or a friend, theoretically, great leaders are supposed to be replaceable, whereas an intimate is never replaceable. So sometimes you'll see somebody write in a diary something like, “the death of the president is terrible, but the death of my daughter I'll never get over.”

What do you imagine would have happened if Lincoln had lived?
Well, I read through Andrew Johnson’s correspondence for this whole period, and he was terribly racist and dismissive of petitions African Americans sent to him at the White House. I think we can say for sure that Lincoln would have listened to African Americans, as he did during the war. He was often slow to act, and he was criticized for that, but most Lincoln biographers would say that it was because of those criticisms—by white radicals and African Americans—that Lincoln moved toward the more radical or progressive end of the spectrum.

My sense is that had Lincoln lived, he might have angered people who wanted him to move more quickly on issues of equality and justice, but he would have come around. He was strategic and diplomatic, and he might have learned and acted upon the politics of those who were more radical than he was.