By Rachel Walman
Tuesday, April 14, 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of the fatal shooting of President Abraham Lincoln, who died at 7:22 am the next morning. If you’re looking to pay your respects to “Father Abraham,” come to the New-York Historical Society this Saturday, April 11. Gilder Lehrman will be offering a rare look at Lincoln-related ephemera here at New-York Historical in a program called Up Close and Personal with Treasures from the Gilder Lehrman Collection. DCHM will be offering a Lincoln and the Civil War-themed family scavenger hunt. And while you’re here, don’t miss out on our ongoing exhibition, Lincoln and the Jews through June 7. Kids can always meet the immortalized Lincoln himself in bronze outside our Central Park West entrance.
Most of us know the story of Lincoln’s assassination. Stage actor John Wilkes Booth fatally wounded Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., while he along with his wife Mary Todd, and friends Clara Harris and Henry Rahtbone watched the play Our American Cousin. The story ends with the capture and killing of both Booth and eight co-conspirators, two of whom also attacked Secretary of State William H. Seward on the same day. This reward poster for Booth and his compatriots was plastered across the country during the 12-day manhunt. It will be on display at Up Close and Personal this Saturday here at N-YHS.
While we often hear about how Lincoln’s death, we rarely hear about how he was mourned. It’s hard for us to comprehend what Lincoln’s assassination meant to the United States back in 1865. The day after his death, newspaper man James Gordon Bennett wrote an editorial in the New York Herald, declaring that it “has created a keener sorrow, a deeper, broader, more universal sense of the public loss, than, dare we say, has been experienced in any age, in any country, or by any people, over the death of one man.”
This profound sense of grief reverberated across the country in the weeks and months following April 15. Of course, some Confederates worried that by assassinating Lincoln, Booth had transformed Lincoln into a martyr, elevating his place in history. Yet, Myrta Lockhart Avery of Richmond, Virginia, captured a common southern sentiment when she wrote, “I heard some speak who thought it no more than just retribution upon Mr. Lincoln for the havoc he had wrought in our country. But even the few who spoke thus were horrified when details came…our reprobation of the crime…was none the less. Besides, we did not know what would happen to us.”
Dr. J.L. Burrows of the First Baptist Church in Richmond elaborated on the fear of northern retribution when he penned: “To hold a whole people responsible for an outrage which they not only disown, but deplore and abhor…cannot become a principle of action with fairminded and magnanimous men.” Southerners also feared the realities of Reconstruction under Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.
African Americans had the most to fear from the loss of Lincoln. Frederick Douglass called his death “a great calamity” for people of African descent, who had hopes that the president’s second term and the conclusion of the war would result in increased civil rights.” Douglass mentioned in a speech that he saw a woman crying at the White House gates that her people had “lost our Moses.”
National mourning for Lincoln officially began on April 22 with his elaborate 1,662-mile funeral procession. Lincoln’s casket traveled the same path he took in life when campaigning for the presidency in 1860, visiting Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and finally Springfield, Illinois, where he was buried. More than half a million people lined New York City streets to catch of glimpse of Lincoln’s casket on route to City Hall. And as many as 150,000 waited in line to view his casket over the course of the three days it remained there.
As you walk around your neighborhood in the days after April 14, imagine yourself doing the same 150 years ago. Imagine seeing black crepe, draped on buildings; flags with only 34 stars, also covered in bunting, stuck in windows or on lawns; and words of grief like these posted in front of one New York City home:
The tear that we shed,
Though in secret it rolls,
Shall long keep his memory
Green in our souls.
We hope you come remember Lincoln this weekend with us.