Anti-Commemoration

After Lincoln was assassinated, he was celebrated throughout much of the country and he was made into a martyr, especially because he died on Good Friday. Not everyone was in mourning, however. In the South, there were many people who celebrated his death and made John Wilkes Booth into a martyr instead. This isn’t to say that all southerners were pleased. Robert E. Lee and many others mourned his death and some were fairly ambivalent. Massachusetts journalist Russell Conwell visited the south four years after Lincolns’ death and wrote “Portraits of Jeff Davis and Lee hang in all their parlors, decorated with Confederate flags, photographs of Wilkes Booth, with the last words of great martyrs printed upon its borders; effigies of Abraham Lincoln hanging by the neck…adorn their drawing rooms… The Rebellion here seems not to be dead yet” [1]. Conwell was a northerner and may have been looking for ways to vilify the south, so it is likely that these are some of the more extreme examples, but this does not subtract from the fact that many people in the South celebrated Lincolns’ death as an act of fate and Wilkes Booths as the death of a martyr who had slain a tyrant. [3]

For years, Booth was seen as the martyr who gave his life to slay a tyrant

For years, Booth was seen as the martyr who gave his life to slay a tyrant [3]

The North wasn’t the only side to write down the South response to Lincolns’ assassination.  “All honor to J. Wilkes Booth, what torrents of blood Lincoln has caused to flow, and how Seward has aided him in his bloody work. I cannot be sorry for their fate. They deserve it. They have reaped their just reward.” wrote Kate Stone, a southern diarist at the time, referring to both the death of Lincoln and the failed attempt on Secretary of State William Seward [1]. This sentiment was shared at the time and openly recorded, instead of being hidden in shame. The sense of celebration was matched by a sense of fear on the part of the American-American community. Part of Abraham Lincolns’ legacy is that of an anti-slavery president and progressive. The hope that many former slaves had for the future was dashed when Lincoln was murdered. This public memory of Lincoln as the abolitionist and great man was used in the following years to urge politicians to push forward with Reconstruction, and was further used by activists such as Fredrick Douglas when Reconstruction failed and Jim Crow began [2]. His memory was used to try to shame the politicians and point out what the nation had been supposedly fighting for not even 50 years before.

Citations:

  1. Kunhardt, Phillip B., III. “Lincoln’s Contested Legacy.” Smithsonian. Smithsonian Museum, Feb. 2009. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
  2.  “Loss for the North and Happiness for the South.” History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research. University of Richmond, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
  3.  Kunhardt, Philip B., and Peter W. Kunhardt. Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

1 thought on “Anti-Commemoration

  1. Mary Page Boyd

    This article on “Anti-Commemoration” was fascinating to me because it is something that I briefly mentioned in my own post and wish I had the time and space to explore it further. In looking at the immediate commemoration of Lincoln in the newspapers, it is easy to focus on the Northern papers reporting his death as soon as was humanly possible, and these are the papers that are being displayed and honored in the Newseum right now. However, another genre of reporting existed that was typically Southern and pro-confederacy. These papers and reports celebrated the death of President Lincoln and one even called his death “more wonderful than the capitulation of Lee’s army” (historybuff.com). This collective memory of Lincoln conflicted with the collective memory that has largely persisted into the 21st century, and is conspicuously absent from the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of his death. Popular memory has eclipsed the Southern vernacular memory and America has mostly shamefully tried to forget the celebration of Lincoln’s assassination.

    This was particularly interesting to me in these two articles:
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/04/15/399813809/documents-show-global-outpouring-of-grief-over-lincolns-assassination
    and
    http://www.historybuff.com/library/reflinclast.html

    The article about grief over Lincoln’s death is published through NPR, a reputable news source while the article about Americans who were thankful for Lincoln’s death is on a website that is not well known or highly trafficked. This was an interesting glimpse into memory politics by demonstrating what memory is today popularized and distributed to the public and what memory has to be searched for.

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