Remembering Lincoln: Detroit Mourns President Lincoln

Within the Detroit Historical Society’s collection of more than 250,000 artifacts are several that provide glimpses into how Detroiters reacted to and mourned the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The Detroit Historical Society is pleased to contribute these items to the Remembering Lincoln Digital Collection.

On April 15, 1865, the day of the president’s death, Detroit Mayor Kirkland C. Barker, released a statement to newspapers, including the Detroit Tribune, urging the city’s residents to “suspend their ordinary avocations, and to give testimony to their sense of the country’s affliction.” He requested that churches toll their bells continuously from noon to 1:00 p.m. This request also included a call for citizens to meet in the city center, Campus Martius, that afternoon to “take such action as shall be appropriate to the solemn occasion.” With businesses closed that evening, churches offered special sermons, and the city’s Union League met to memorialize the man around whom the League was organized. Tobacco tycoon, Republican politician and future Michigan governor John J. Bagley spoke at the meeting, telling the assembled crowd the emotional story of breaking the news to his daughter.

Condolences were also sent from Canada, just across the Detroit River. The stipendiary magistrate of Windsor, Ontario, Gilbert McMicken, ordered flags to be flown at half-staff and issued a warning against bonfires and other celebratory activities planned by Confederate loyalists amongst his citizens.

Additional memorial services, days of fasting and parades followed over the subsequent weeks, as soldiers continued to return home from the front. A color lithograph in the Society’s collection captures the members of the Phoenix Steam Fire Engine Company No. 3 posed with their apparatus during one such parade held on April 25 in front of their firehouse on Clifford Street. The firefighters of Engine Company No. 4 were photographed with their brand new engine (named for Mayor Barker) also decorated for one of the memorial parades. The engine carried a young girl with a harp and a portrait of Lincoln.

While most Detroiters took part in the local mourning parade on April 25, some like Matilda Bergen Beach traveled to the burial that day in Springfield, Illinois, where, as a member of a choir, she likely took part in singing dirges. As part of her ensemble for the occasion, she wore a broach made of human hair braided in the shape of a bow and held by a gold band. Her daughter would go on to pass this heirloom onto the Detroit Historical Museum.

Other Detroiters remembered the fallen president with mementos like a small plaster bust of Lincoln in profile, held within a leather case and a small silk ribbon printed with his portrait.

Beyond the immediate and overt mourning period, the memory of Abraham Lincoln looms large over later objects in the museum’s collection. While his life was cut short, he continued to live on as a symbol. He appeared on posters selling Liberty Bonds and urging food conservation during World War I. Artists have interpreted Lincoln’s likeness, including painter Douglas Volk whose 1908 portrait became the basis of an engraving from the Detroit Publishing Company. The Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science used an excerpt of the Gettysburg Address for its motto. And Henry Leland named his automobile company for the 16th president in 1917.

Brendan Roney is the Senior Digitization Technician at the Detroit Historical Society’s Collections Resource Center. He earned a B.A. in history at Wayne State University.