Southern Fear and the Lincoln Assassination in Montgomery, Alabama

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.

Once the capital of the Confederacy, for four brief months in 1861, Montgomery, Alabama, had become politically and militarily insignificant by the end of the Civil War. When Union troops commanded by Major General James H. Wilson reached the city on April 12, 1865, war-weary Montgomerians agreed to surrender in order to spare the city from destruction. While the soldiers destroyed the railroad and supplies valuable to continuing the war effort, they left the rest of Montgomery intact.

In the weeks after the Confederate surrender on April 9 and their own surrender on April 12, Montgomerians began hearing distorted accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s death. The Montgomery Daily Mail, now part of the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s collection of Alabama newspapers, provided the city with the only local source of news of the assassination, and it is one of the few sources of Montgomery’s reaction to the assassination.

Harper’s Weekly illustration of "The city of Montgomery, Alabama, showing the State House while Congress of the Southern Confederacy meets on February 4, 1861." Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History.

The Mail remained one of Alabama’s most prolific dailies in a period when many papers ceased production because of the hardships of war. By the time news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Montgomery, the owners of the Mail’s chief competitors, the renowned Memphis Daily Appeal and the Montgomery Daily Advertiser, had already fled the city with their presses to avoid capture. The proprietor of the Mail, Richard G. Banks, Jr., preferred to stay in Montgomery to reap the profits brought from the lack of competition.

The Mail initially expressed skepticism of the varied reports of the assassination that arrived in Montgomery in late April. Nevertheless, editor Albert Roberts printed columns denouncing Lincoln’s murder, if factual, as a “dark and bloody deed” that would surely produce no rejoicing in the South.

Though some Southerners appeared to relish Lincoln’s death, as seen in the erroneous Alabama Beacon article of April 19 (which claimed that Secretary of State Seward had also perished, and that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had defeated Union General Ulysses S. Grant), they changed their tune at the threat of Union backlash. On May 26, the Beacon told of Montgomerians’ abhorrence of the assassination, which they regarded as an “[act] of infamous diabolism revolting to every upright and honest heart,” in a local citizens’ meeting held on May 11.

If many Southerners, who had long despised Lincoln, expressed dismay at his death, they did so for self-serving reasons. Deflection of blame and fear of “subjugation” at the hands of occupying Union troops and the federal government fueled editorial columns. Rather than mourning the late president, journalists across the South scrambled to defend their countrymen from accusations of complicity in the assassination. The Mail hoped for exoneration through the capture of a non-Southern assassin, as did other publications and many individuals. Some newspapers refuted Southern involvement in Lincoln’s assassination with the claim of nobility: “Such deeds could never do honor to the cause we espoused,” affirmed the editor of the Meridian Clarion in a column reprinted by the Mail on April 24.

While the Clarion cloaked the South in chivalry, the Mail launched a defense that was distinctly conciliatory to those it saw as Union invaders. Roberts was quick to paint Southerners as “chief sufferers [of] grinding despotism” and “unwilling instruments of this rebellion.”

The assassination also provided the editor with a convenient opportunity to condemn the Confederate government in the wake of its defeat: “Wicked and wrong-headed as may have been its direction we cannot believe that the Richmond Head of the rebellion, have any sympathy with or is in any way accessory to this diabolical murder,” wrote Roberts. The presence of Union Major General A.J. Smith’s troops in the city at the end of April certainly influenced the tone of his editorials. He may have also harbored Unionist sympathies, of which the Chattanooga Gazette accused him after the war.

Though the Mail and other Southern newspapers attempted to defend themselves by denouncing the assassination, few of them betrayed any sentimentality concerning Lincoln’s memory. Roberts’s May 8 assertion that his death was “lamented by the Union men of the South quite as much as those of the North” was the closest the Mail’s editorial column came to eulogizing Lincoln.

This 1865 photograph shows Ford's Theatre draped with mourning ribbons after the death of Abraham Lincoln. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Roberts’s tenure as editor ended soon after he printed this affirmation. When he stepped down in late May, the paper assumed a less conciliatory position; the new editors were even chided by  an anonymous Montgomerian for their refusal to  “play the spaniel” to the Union. News of the assassination faded from the Mail’s pages by mid-June, as the conspirators had been caught, and the paper concerned itself with fallout from the Confederate surrender.

It is difficult to know how Montgomerians at large felt about the assassination or Roberts’s columns because so few voices of the city have survived. However, Montgomerians were forced to deal with the possibility of Union retribution and blame, and the Montgomery Daily Mail reflected the fear and defensiveness that pervaded the South following Lincoln’s assassination.

You can find more information about Alabamians’ reactions to Lincoln’s assassination in Harriet E. Amos Doss’s essay “Every Man Should Consider His Own Conscience: Black and White Alabamians’ Reactions to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” included in The Yellowhammer War: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. To learn more about the Montgomery Daily Mail and Confederate journalism, consult Barbara G. Ellis’s The Moving Appeal: Mr. McClanahan, Mrs. Dill, and the Civil War’s Great Newspaper Run.

Caroline Jones is an aide in the Public Services division of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, a partner organization for the Remembering Lincoln digital collection. She earned her B.A. in History at Auburn University, where she is currently a graduate teaching assistant and M.A. student in History focusing on Archival Studies.