Today, when thinking upon America’s response after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, one’s predominant recollection is that of a nation united in mourning. This is largely due to present-day America’s outlook on the president. How could our nation respond to the killing of our ‘great emancipator’ and ‘savior of the union’ in any other way? In this remembrance, we largely forget the enormous shock that the news imparted upon our country, especially in such temporal proximity to the end of the Civil War. We forget the humanity of the citizens of America whose feelings about Lincoln’s death were coupled with attempting to reconcile feelings about the outcome of the war itself. In reality, the assassination of Lincoln was a ”key moment of confusion and conflict” in America. It provoked a far more multifaceted response that has been largely “glossed over with generalities” and forgotten with time (Hodes 8).
When the news of the assassination broke, the first reaction was one of resounding shock and fear. In a time when the spread of news relied on Telegrams, it was difficult to circulate and confirm the story. Because of this, many Americans first turned to disbelief. It was quite a lot to swallow that such a tremendous event could strike so soon after the massive conflict of the civil war had finally been resolved. A report from the Twenty-Fifth U.S. Colored troops who had fought in the war stated “they refused to believe the report until absolutely confirmed” (56). . Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated, so it is easy to imagine the alarm that this news caused. Especially for the recently freed African Americans – who had the most to lose after Lincoln’s death- it must have been difficult to accept the humanity and fallibility of their godlike emancipator.
As time passed, the shocking news ceased to be a rumor and Americans were forced to recognize Lincoln’s passing. There is a reason that our predominant memory of mourning Lincoln is that of weeping nation; many adored and venerated the president and were largely distraught. These mourners included African Americans and the majority of White northerners who saw the assassination as a heart-wrenching antithesis to their recent victory. Sarah Brown of Salem Massachusetts, an abolitionist and avid Lincoln supporter, is a perfect representation of these Lincoln-mourners. In a letter to her husband she wrote, “The terrible news came to us in the midst of our great rejoicing. On the very day too when the eyes of the nation were turned towards Fort Sumter- What a change! From frantic joy to frantic grief!”(Hodes 47). She went on in her letter to note the way women in her neighborhood had sewn black borders onto American flags that been recently hung from their houses to celebrate the Union victory. This atmosphere of celebration-turned-mourning was not unique to Salem. Starting with the Nation’s capital, a sense of gloom began to pervade the cities of the Union. Where days before there had been parades and fireworks, candlelight vigils were held and businesses shut their doors early. State buildings were covered in black fabric and supporters of Lincoln donned morning emblems of white or black ‘Crape’ fabric pinned to their bonnets or sleeves (Hodes 64).
Conversely, there was a different type of mourning by Lincoln-antagonists that has been largely forgotten over time. Though many, such as the confederate general Robert E. Lee, respected the president, there were those who viewed his death as pay back for confederate losses. Losing was still a fresh wound, and “it was this surrender that remained immediate and disastrous”.(Hodes 76) Because of this world-altering loss, many antagonists took the assassination as “God’s plan to vindicate their downfall” and as a temporary reprieve from their suffering. Still, many of these people were forced to mourn publicly out of fear. Union troops were stationed throughout southern cities and watching for any sign of civil disobedience. A man’s journal from Raleigh North Carolina, recounts his fear that anyone “would’ve been served the same way as Lincoln” -meaning slain- “if he had shown any pleasure about [Lincoln’s Death]” (Hodes 76). Today, it is hard to imagine viewing Lincoln’s death as anything other than a tragedy. That is because as time marched on, Lincoln has been apotheosized and has become a great American hero to all. Satisfaction over Lincoln’s death is now something that would be largely viewed as backwards and racist. Yet in this memory, we forget the reality of the lives of those who lived back in the time of his death. What about the Confederates who lost sons, brothers and husbands to Lincoln’s Armies? Were they evil for refusing to express sorrow for a man who commanded the troops who killed their loved ones? There are many cases where those who refused to grieve Lincoln were indeed driven by spiteful and racist agendas. However, many Confederate sympathizers suffered personal losses and — as a product of the times– were justifiably reticent while being forced to mourn a man that had defeated their cause.