Music of the Lincoln Assassination

This is the latest in a series of posts by Remembering Lincoln Digital Collection partner institutions, discussing the items they are contributing to the project and the impact of the Lincoln assassination in their locales.

In the immediate wake of President Abraham Lincoln’s death in the early morning hours of April 15, 1865, the calamitous course of events moved artists throughout Washington and the country to creative response. Through preservation, the work they produced nearly 150 years ago gives valuable insights into the collective feeling of a nation in deep mourning.

While Walt Whitman immortalized his emotions in the famous verse, “O Captain! My Captain,” a number of musical composers were inspired to honor the memory of the befallen president. One of the most well-known works, “President Lincoln’s Funeral March,” written by Edward Mack, has a permanent home in the DC Public Library’s Washingtoniana Collection.

A German immigrant to the United States when still a young child, Mack, who was based out of Philadelphia and (apparently) lost his sight in adolescence, began composing notable marches in the early years of the Civil War. These included, “General McClellan’s Grand March” (1861) and “General Buell’s Grand Quick Step” (1862).

Mack was prolific throughout the war, continuing his output with pieces such as “General Grant’s Grand March” (1864). By the time of his honorific ballad to the deceased president, Mack was evidently one of the most well-known composers in the Union. Today you can find many of his pieces within the Library of Congress’s Civil War Sheet Music Collection.

Culver, Richard, and Richard Culver. Our Country and Flag. Lee & Walker, Philadelphia, 1862. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000956/>.

President Lincoln’s funeral train left Washington on April 21, 1865, and largely retraced President-elect Lincoln’s 1861 route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington (excluding the cities of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, with Chicago being added to the itinerary). In addition to the President’s coffin, the cortège included the exhumed remains of Willie, Lincoln’s 11-year-old son who had died in Washington in 1862.

On every stop of the procession Lincoln’s body was greeted with the full trappings of a military and state funeral. It is likely that bands, both military and civilian, accompanied the funeral marchers and that they played music composed for the occasion. Perhaps they even played the march created by Edward Mack. After traveling more than 1,600 miles, on May 4, 1865, Lincoln was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, where his body remains today.

Back in Washington City, the popularity of Mack’s music was apparent in advertisements John F. Ellis ran in the Evening Star. In early May, “NEW MUSIC: JUST PUBLISHED AND FOR SALE” at “306 Pennsylvania avenue, between 9th and 10th streets,” was displayed on the paper’s second page with Mack’s funeral march composition as the first item featured.

Nearly two months later, the popular sheet music (this being the days before recorded sound) was also being sold at W. G. Metzerott’s shop on Pennsylvania Avenue alongside, “‘Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal be proud,’ President Lincoln’s favorite poem, set to music; ‘Requiem,’ ‘Lost Star of My House;’ ‘Victory at Last;’ and ‘Lincoln’s Funeral March.’”

You can see the pages of the sheet music from “Lincoln’s Funeral March” on the Remembering Lincoln Pinterest page.

John Muller is an associate librarian with the DC Public Library’s Special Collections Department, a partner organization for the Remembering Lincoln Digital Collection, and a former volunteer usher at Ford’s Theatre.

For more information:

University of Pennsylvania, Special Collections, Keffer Collection of Sheet Music, “Edward Mack”

McGill University, Digital exhibitions and collections

Library of Congress, Civil War Sheet Music Collection

Evening Star, 2 May, 1865, p. 2

Evening Star, 29 June, 1865, p. 2 (top of 2nd column)

The Daily Ohio Statesman, 2 May, 1865, p. 3 (top of 5th column)