Lincoln’s Assassination and the Making of History—Before Your Eyes

If you’re old enough to remember President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, you know the feeling: the world standing still while history is being made before your eyes. In the spring of 1865, many Americans felt that way too, when President Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14. The magnitude of events was unprecedented and without parallel: a four-year civil war had largely ended five days earlier when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, and for the first time, an American president had been assassinated.

When Lincoln died the next morning, the bereaved shrouded their homes in thick mourning drapery. Down South, recently vanquished Confederates may have cheered for John Wilkes Booth, but formerly enslaved people, along with Union soldiers, cloaked buildings in black bunting. For all of Lincoln’s mourners, North and South, the instantly transformed landscape made for a palpable sense of participation in history.

Swept up in this tide of history-in-the-making, mourners were eager to record the event—evidence of which is now available in the Remembering Lincoln digital collection. They pasted headlines into wartime scrapbooks and copied details of the catastrophe into diaries and letters, registering the assassin’s leap to the stage and the president’s last breath at Petersen’s boarding house at 7:22 the next morning. One 11-year-old boy transcribed a newspaper article word-for-word across four pages of his journal. Black and white, rich and poor, mourners gathered images of Lincoln, from cheap postcards to expensively framed engravings. They purchased reprints of funeral sermons, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural.

Mourners in Washington, both residents and tourists, made their way to the scene of the crime. Ford’s Theatre remained closed in the aftermath, but tailor William Petersen kept his boardinghouse open for business. “We went to the house, where the President was carried and where he died,” a visitor from Boston wrote home in May. In the cramped back bedroom where Lincoln had expired, she saw the bed, complete with the blood-soaked pillow “left just as it was on that night—a painful sight.” Why had she gone? Because, she explained, it was “an historical fact,” and because it made everything “so vivid to be in the place where such a tragedy has been enacted.” To stand in that room made for a visceral connection to still-astounding events. To gaze upon the slain president’s blood helped the incredible become credible.

Mourners also attempted to put the historical proportions of the assassination into words. “What a calamity—what a loss.—What a dreadful event in our history,” a distraught New Yorker wrote to her husband, her dashes standing in for unspeakable emotion. For many, the proximity of the murder to the glory of Union victory made it especially momentous. A man in Washington called the month of April 1865 “the most eventful in the History of our Country,” while a New Englander upped the ante, declaring it “the most remarkable month in modern history.” Diligently, mourners recorded their own presence in these astonishing annals, like the Union army abolitionist who wrote to his wife from South Carolina, “O how much I have lived in these few days!” On Easter Sunday, April 16, one devastated woman assured her young niece, “You will remember, forever, with satisfaction, that you were alive at this time.”

Indeed, the passage of time from victory to assassination felt unnaturally compressed and, at the same time, unnaturally drawn out. “What a life time has crowded within three weeks!” exclaimed a soldier in the 20th Ohio regiment. “We have lived during the past month it seems to me a lifetime,” a Californian told his sister. “There has certainly been great scenes enacted within the past two months,” mused a captain in the United States Colored Troops, “& a person lives many years in one of these.” To a Delaware Unionist, it was all “equal to a century of ordinary history.”

To one mourner on April 15, it seemed impossible that he was living “in the same world, and in the same week of our Victory.” As Lincoln’s shocked and shattered mourners struggled to understand God’s inscrutable intentions and to absorb the incomprehensible, they understood that they—each one of them—stood as witnesses. Whether or not you were inside Ford’s Theatre that terrible night, history was being made before your very eyes.

Martha Hodes is Professor of History at New York University and the author, most recently, of Mourning Lincoln. She serves as an advisor to the Remembering Lincoln digital project. Professor Hodes will speak at Ford’s Theatre as part of the Abraham Lincoln Institute annual meeting on March 21 and again in a panel on mourning leaders on April 15. Learn more about her here.