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The Death of Abraham Lincoln

The Death of Abraham Lincoln

On April 4, 1865, as news of the fall of Richmond spread, public buildings throughout Washington were illuminated in celebration. “The Capitol made a magnificent display—as did the whole city. . . . It was indeed glorious, all Washington was in the streets,” wrote Benjamin Brown French, commissioner of public buildings in Washington, D.C. To celebrate the event, French “had the 23rd verse of the 118th Psalm printed on cloth, in enormous letters, as a transparency, and stretched on a frame the entire length of the top of the western portico, . . . ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.’” A week later, after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, crowds of Washingtonians again took to the streets in jubilation. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered that guns be fired in salute to commemorate the day.

The euphoria of Union victory came to a sudden halt on the night of April 14, 1865, when President Lincoln was shot while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre. As the president lay dying in a house across the street from the theater, Senator Charles Sumner appeared at his bedside. Keeping his deathbed vigil throughout the long night, the Massachusetts senator was one of the few present when Lincoln died on the morning of April 15. “Mourn not the dead,” Sumner later wrote in his eulogy to Lincoln, “but rejoice in his life and example . . . . Rejoice that through him Emancipation was proclaimed.” Having just days before taken to the streets in joyful celebration, Washingtonians now solemnly lined Pennsylvania Avenue as the massive funeral procession made its way to the Capitol. In the Rotunda, the body of the martyred president lay in state upon a hastily constructed catafalque. Reporter Benjamin Perley Poore described the dramatic scene:

The procession was two hours and ten minutes in passing a given point, and was about three miles long. The centre of it had reached the Capitol and was returning before the rear had left Willard’s [Hotel]. In one single detachment were over six thousand civil employees of the Government. Arriving at the Capitol, the remains were placed in the centre of the rotunda, beneath the mighty dome, which had been draped in mourning inside and out.

The death of the president muted the celebrations of Union victory. “It seems even yet a frightful dream, rather than a reality,” said Senator James Dixon of Connecticut, “in the hour when his wisdom and his patriotism were about to be crowned with the success they deserved.” With the prospects for peace finally at hand, Dixon thought it especially tragic that Lincoln, “the humane, the forgiving, the patient, the forbearing, has been stricken down by the hand of an assassin. That voice is silent.” The Capitol was still draped in mourning in late May when Washingtonians witnessed the Grand Review of the Union armies. The Senate doorkeeper, Isaac Bassett, captured these emotional two days in his diary:

No nation ever looked on such a triumphal procession as railed through the 150,000 strong and twenty miles at least in length. The soldiers were returning from the longest marches, the severest exposures which any armies in modern times have passed through, their tattered banners told the tale of their prolonged hardships. This was no holiday parade of soldiers. Here were our fellow citizens who had for four long woeful years left home and all that makes home dear and risked all. Sacrificed for law and liberties for us and our children. . . . As far as the eye could see up Pennsylvania Avenue seemed like a river of life. . . . There were the old banners first blessed at home and consecrated with the prayers of wives and mothers. Now shorn to shreds, scarce able to cling to the flagstaff. How glad they seem to be—their work well done, their homes secure, their nation saved.

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