Minnesota and the Impact of the Lincoln Assassination

We at the Minnesota Historical Society are very excited to be participating in the Ford’s Theatre project Remembering Lincoln. The Minnesota Historical Society’s Collection Department has been working on a Civil War Daybook for the duration of the Civil War, showcasing a Minnesota-related item (letter, diary, newspaper, photo or object) from our collection that happened on that day exactly 150 years ago. This Daybook project has really given me a new appreciation for the length of the war. The Remembering Lincoln project is a perfect complement to that work, especially as we are already neck deep in Civil War manuscript collections.

So while we’ve been reading and digitizing and thinking about war and death for a while now, I was completely unprepared for the emotional impact of the first mention of Lincoln’s assassination we came across. We contributed this note to Remembering Lincoln from Joseph Wheelock, a Saint Paul journalist, to his wife upon receiving the news of Lincoln’s death.

What surprised and touched and thrilled me even more than the note itself is the description by Wheelock’s daughter on the envelope, describing the physical scene at the time: “…and that he [her father] staggered across the room sank down and burst into tears.” It is such a simple statement, yet paints the scene so vividly that it is still raw with feeling after these many years. I love moments like this, of being able to connect to people across time. I believe this is something only interacting with collections—whether physically or digitally—can provide. We can intellectually know what happened; but experiencing the assassination’s impact through a handwritten note adds to the emotion and understanding of the experience.

Another example of an original document with both an intellectual and emotional impact is the letter from Mowis Itewakanhdiota (Moses Many Lightning Face) to Presbyterian missionary Stephen Riggs.

After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, the U.S. government sentenced 303 Dakota men to death. Lincoln personally reviewed the sentences, allowing the executions of 38 to proceed on December 26, 1862. This was the largest mass execution in U.S. history, and Lincoln’s course of action remains controversial. The remaining condemned Dakota prisoners whom Lincoln spared—but whose sentences he did not officially commute—were sent to a prison camp in Davenport, Iowa.

While there, the prisoners would write letters to Riggs, to be shared with their families, inquire about their future and ask for assistance. Mowis Itewakanhdiota wrote this letter on April 17, 1865, to ask about a rumor spreading through camp that Lincoln had been assassinated. He expressed his emotions about Lincoln: “The President has compassion for us, as so far we are still alive, but now they told us he was killed, and we are saddened.” He goes on to express concern about their future: “Perhaps the attitude of the cavalry soldiers may change toward us.”

Clearly, Mowis Itewakanhdiota recognized the implications and further difficulties for the prisoners if the man who had spared them from execution was dead. Would the new president, Andrew Johnson, keep the same policy as Lincoln? Would he allow the executions to proceed? In the end, Johnson pardoned and released the remaining prisoners in 1866.

Lori Williamson is Acquisitions and Outreach Coordinator at the Minnesota Historical Society.