Magazine article Humanities

Death of a President

Magazine article Humanities

Death of a President

Article excerpt

SHOT ON GOOD FRIDAY AND DEAD ON SATURDAY: The timing of the assassination made Easter Sunday 1865 a particularly important-and confusing- occasion, as shocked mourners came to church for what should have been a day of rejoicing over both the resurrection of Christ and military victory. The reversal of fortunes was manifested materially, as churchwomen rearranged the colorful springtime displays they had readied. Easter decoration had become something of a commercial enterprise by the mid nineteenth century, with elaborate presentations meant to reflect religious devotion. Flowers played a central role, and now the women highlighted the white blossoms as they searched for black fabric to cover railings and arches, chancel and altar, pulpit and organ, and placed portraits of the late president amid the myrtle, tea roses, and heliotrope. As a congregant in Boston recorded, grappling with the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, "This glorious Easter morn our Church put on the garb of mourning."

The crowds were phenomenal. Pews always filled to capacity on Easter, but no one had ever seen anything like April 16,1865. Wherever the news had arrived, from the East Coast to the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean, black churches and white churches were jammed. Aisles and galleries were full, choir steps packed tight. Men carried in extra settees and benches, leaving not an inch of floor space to spare. Many who spilled out the doors strained to hear the service, and those at the back of the outdoor crowds stood too far away to hear anything at all. The same was true in army camps, where Union officers and soldiers gathered in unprecedented numbers to listen to whoever was preaching and however many sermons were offered. The same as the day before, mourners craved company in order to absorb the tragic event. The shock had not yet dissipated, and just as in the streets on Saturday, on Sunday people observed the grief of their neighbors in church or their comrades in camp, reading the faces around them for confirmation that it was not, after all, a hoax or a dream.

Very sad: Those two words conveyed the heavy sorrow that had mixed with the initial shock from the first moment Lincoln's supporters had counted the news as credible. In Baton Rouge, a Union army chaplain found the hundreds of freedpeople "all very sad." In Minnesota, "the people all feel very sad," a soldier wrote in his diary. It was, Mary Emerson wrote from Paris, in her petit souvenir journalier, the "saddest saddest news we ever heard." Others employed more vivid vocabulary. The news "threw a mantle of sadness over every heart," or people were "struck down" in anguish, "crest fallen and agitated." One soldier thought even the defeat of Sherman or Grant would have brought less gloom to camp. Just as mourners had draped their churches, so too did they imagine nature attired in grief. Where it rained, people saw the clouds "weeping copiously," where skies were blue, "the very sunshine looked mournful." A former slave in Washington said that even the trees were weeping for Lincoln.

For communities of freedpeople across the South, grief washed through like a tidal wave. From Norfolk and Portsmouth, Beaufort and Charleston came the most "heartfelt sorrow," "troubled countenances," and "very great" grief. Everywhere children cried audibly and grown-ups wept bitterly. Some cried all night, others just felt numb. One woman described herself as "nearly deranged" with grief. Black soldiers were utterly bereft. Edgar Dinsmore of the 54th Massachusetts felt "a loss irreparable." One man compared the circumstances to a horrific scene he had witnessed as a slave: a mother whipped forty lashes for weeping when white people took away her children. The violence had traumatized him, "but not half so much as the death of President Lincoln," he confessed. Some white officers in black regiments felt the sense of loss magnified. "Oh how Sad, How Melancholy," James Moore wrote to his wife. …

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