Earlier, they had been doing the mundane things people did on a Friday evening in Washington DC, reading, working, resting, having a late dinner, even attending a play at a theater; but now, they had learned Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. After the attack on the evening of Friday, April 14, 1865, and after his death the following morning, the public reactions began in newspapers, private letters, diaries, pulpits, homes, and even battlefields. Some of the quotes are sorrowful, some pragmatic, some angry, some thoughtful, and, unfortunately, but not surprisingly in a deeply divided country, a few were even celebratory. News of Lincoln’s death sped rapidly through the Northern states by telegraph and railway distribution; however, throughout the South, it would be several days before the news became widespread because of the near total destruction of telegraph lines and railroads in that region during the War. As a result, reactions from Confederate officials and everyday citizens in the deep South only occurred several days later, or in some cases a full week, after the assassination.
But, whether the person first heard about Lincoln’s death on April 15th, or as late as April 23rd, the following quotes were made moments after hearing the news, and the individual was expressing the raw emotions felt at the time. Some of these people later gave more articulate comments, after they had time for reflection, but their initial thoughts seem more compelling to us today.
“It is all over. The President is no more.” -Said the doctor who had attended Lincoln, to Mary Todd Lincoln, as she rested in an adjoining room.
“My husband is gone! Why did you not tell me he was dying? – Mary Todd Lincoln wailed upon learning that her husband had died a few minutes before. (She had earlier been overwhelmed and fainted, and had to be taken from the room)
“They have killed Papa dead. They’ve killed Papa dead!” – 12 year old Tad Lincoln cried to Thomas Pendel, the White House doorkeeper, as the boy rushed into the White House. Tad had been at another theater when the owner suddenly walked out on the stage and said “The President has been shot!”
“It cannot be, it cannot be.” – Said Robert Lincoln, the President’s oldest son, who was in the White House with John Hay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries, when he learned that his father had been shot. Unaware yet that the wound was mortal, the two young men rushed to the rooming house where the President had been taken. When he saw his father and realized that he would not recover, Robert spoke those words and began to weep.
“I know’d they’d kill him” – Said Sarah Bush Lincoln upon hearing that her step-son had been assassinated. In their last visit, four years earlier, as Lincoln left for Washington DC and the White House, Sarah had said she feared that his enemies might kill him. Lincoln, attempting to sooth her fears, said, “No. No, Mother, they will not do that. Trust that the Lord will keep us well and we will see each other again.” Sarah’s sad premonition was finally proven!
“Will I be a slave again?” – Asked an elderly Black man to a young Union soldier in the outskirts of Washington DC. The young man wrote home that he was (at the time) unaware of the assassination and asked the old man why he would ask such a question? When told “Marse Lincoln is killed” the soldier wrote that he replied, “That cannot be true,” but within a few minutes he heard others talking about the attack on Lincoln. He then wrote, “I sat on a low fence and cried.”
“The Moses of my people had fallen in the hour of his triumph” -Said Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and seamstress for, and friend of, the President’s wife.
“The President is dead!” – Cried William Seward, Secretary of State, who was savagely attacked as part of the assassination plot. Because of his very frail condition, no one had yet told Seward about Lincoln, but from his bed he noticed the flag at the War Department at half-staff. Hoping to calm Seward, the attending doctor tried to deny that Lincoln was dead. But Seward, now with tears streaming, said; “No. If he were alive, he would have been the first to call on me. But, he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there is a flag at half-mast.”
Frederick Douglass spoke the next day at the Rochester, N.Y., city hall in an impromptu gathering of city leaders. First, he repeated from memory these words from Lincoln’s second inaugural, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all of the wealth piled up by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another, drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, that judgements of the Lord are righteous altogether.” Douglass continued in his own words, “Those memorable words – words which will live immortal in history, will be read with increasing admiration from age to age”.
Newspapers were quick to print the news of the assassination attempt early Saturday morning, and then most issued a second edition after receiving word that Lincoln had died. These very similar headlines were coincidental, and even remarkable, as the newspapers were bitter rivals.
“Our loss, The Great National Calamity” – New York Herald
“The Great Calamity – The Nation’s Loss” – New York Tribune
“Our Great loss – The National Calamity.” – New York Times
On the other hand, a newspaper editor in Chattanooga, Tennessee wrote: “Old Abe has gone to answer before the bar of God for the innocent blood which he permitted to shed, and for his efforts to enslave a free people.” This was an interesting choice of words since the “free people” of whom he wrote, were the Southern Whites, many of whom either owned slaves or tolerated slavery.
“Glorious News. Lincoln and Seward Assassinated.” – Headline in the Demopolis (Alabama) Herald.
But, the War’s two most famous Generals each expressed compassionate views.
“I have no doubt that President Lincoln will be the conspicuous figure of the war. He was incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.” -Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
“Cowardly”, “Deplorable”, “A Crime.” – Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s reaction to a reporter for the New York Herald. While there is no complete text of the responses Lee gave, the reporter placed these three comments in quotation marks. The reporter also included, without quotes, that Lee condemned the assassination and said he was devastated.
On April 19th, Confederate General Breckenridge located Jefferson Davis who had fled the Capital City of Richmond two weeks earlier. The General informed Davis that Lincoln had been assassinated and was dead and (mistakenly) that Secretary of State Seward was also killed. According to the General, he ended his brief report by offering that he was regretful because the death of Lincoln was unfortunate for the future of the Southern people, to which Davis replied: “I do not know. If it were to be done, it were better if it were well done. If the same were done to Andy Johnson (Lincoln’s Vice-President), the beast, and to Secretary Stanton (Secretary of War), the job would then be complete.” There is no evidence that Jefferson Davis was aware of the assassination plot and almost all historians believe he was not involved.
“All honor to J. Wilkes Booth. I cannot be sorry for their fate. They deserve it. They have reaped their just reward.” – A southerner, Kate Stone, referring to Lincoln and Seward, wrote in her diary on April 16th .
“Hurrah! Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated. It may be abstractly wrong to feel so jubilant, but I just cannot help it.” – Another Southern woman, Emma LeConte wrote in her diary on April 19th.
But, many Southerners realized that Abraham Lincoln’s moderating influence would now be replaced by other leaders who were already seeking revenge against the South for the War; and would now be re-enforced and blame all Southerners for the death of Lincoln.
“Lincoln, old Abe Lincoln, killed, murdered. Seward wounded. Why? By whom? It is simply maddening. …I know this foul murder will bring down worse miseries on us.” -Wrote Mary Chesnut, Southern diarist and wife of a Confederate General, on April 22nd when she first learned of the assassination. It was a full week after the attack, but news had traveled that slowly into the deep south.
“The South has lost her best friend in the future cases. This is the greatest possible calamity for the South.” – Said Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston on April 17th, after being told By Union General Sherman that Lincoln was dead when the two men met to discuss surrender terms. Two days earlier, General Johnston had told Confederate President Jefferson Davis that he would surrender his army; and, when Davis suggested that they re-form an army of deserters and previously pardoned soldiers, Johnston replied that was only a wishful thought, and said, “Our people are tired of war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight.”
“The adjutant read the dispatch to the officers and men. The sad news was received in grief and silence, for we all feel that we have lost a friend…Lincoln was truly the soldier’s friend and will never be forgotten by them.” – Wrote Elisha Hunt Rhodes on April 15th. Rhodes had entered the War as a sixteen year-old private and subsequently, because of his battlefield courage and prowess, rose to the rank of Colonel.
While almost all Union soldiers would express similar grief, a few did not feel that way. Private James Walker publicly declared that; “Lincoln was a Yankee SOB, who ought to have been killed long ago.” Private Walker was immediately arrested, court-marshalled, and sentenced to death by his Commander; and only intervention by a superior officer kept the sentence from being carried out. An appeals court later commuted the sentence.
As was the custom then, people in mourning wore black arm bands or ribbons, and one seen often over those next few days quoted another famous Lincoln phrase, “With malice toward none; with Charity for all.”
“It would seem that Providence had exacted from him the last and only additional service and sacrifice he could give his country, that of dying for her sake. Those of us who knew him will certainly interpret his death as a sign that Heaven deemed him worthy of martyrdom.” – Wrote John Nicolay, the President’s other long-time secretary, who had left Washington DC and was on his way Paris to become the American Counsel when he received the news. He immediately wrote the above note to his fiancée.
And, perhaps the most eloquent and heartfelt response came from Edwin Stanton, the gruff Secretary of War, who originally thought Lincoln was unfit for the office as President, but quickly became an admirer; even saying later, “I came to love President Lincoln.” Stanton was present in the room and, at the President’s death, uttered the phrase that still rings true today:
“Now he belongs to the ages.”