A Terrible Loss

Lincoln’s assassination 150 years ago turned plans for postwar reconciliation to a frenzy of violence

Assassination conspirators Samuel Arnold, Lewis Payne, and Michael O'Laughlin (Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)
Assassination conspirators Samuel Arnold, Lewis Payne, and Michael O'Laughlin (Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)

“Now he belongs to the ages.”
—Edwin M. Stanton

When on March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address from the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, the sun broke through the clouds and shone down on him as he called for “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” Lincoln hoped for reconciliation between North and South, asking American citizens “to bind up the nation’s wounds” and to “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace.”

A few weeks later, when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, cannons boomed in celebration throughout the Union. Four long years of killing and dying were over, and northerners rejoiced at the long-awaited triumph. Many of them welcomed Lincoln’s call for reconciliation. “The hour of victory is always the hour for clemency,” editorialized The New York Times, while Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune headlined “Magnanimity in Triumph” and Henry Ward Beecher preached a sermon in Brooklyn entitled “Love Your Neighbor, the Nation’s Motto.” From ordinary Americans up to the highest councils of the nation, northerners appeared ready to reunite with the South in the spirit of brotherhood. Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward remembered that the discussion at Lincoln’s final cabinet meeting was focused on “kindly feelings toward the vanquished.”

Sadly, Lincoln’s vision would be short-lived. On Good Friday, just five days after the surrender, the president was shot, and he died the following morning.

Rumors about who was responsible for the crime swirled throughout the North. Within hours, federal authorities determined that John Wilkes Booth had pulled the trigger, but nobody knew how high the conspiracy went. Many believed that Jefferson Davis and Confederate agents in Canada had been behind the plot, and President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation on May 2 declaring the southern leaders guilty (not until 1866 did it become clear that evidence against Davis had been perjured). Within 10 days of the assassination, federal agents rounded up seven of Booth’s alleged accomplices, and after a 12-day manhunt they finally caught up with the assassin himself in a barn about 65 miles south of Washington. Booth refused to surrender and was shot in the neck (he died a few hours later); his eighth and final co-conspirator, David Herold, gave himself up to Union authorities.

As word of Lincoln’s death spread throughout the country, people were incredulous. In Philadelphia, Sidney George Fisher learned the news from his son while he was dressing on the morning of April 15. “Father,” said the little boy, “Lincoln is shot.” “Nonsense, child,” replied Fisher, “how did you hear that?” Soon Fisher’s wife came in to confirm the awful news. With tears welling in her eyes, she read the account in the paper “in a tremulous voice.” Fisher felt as though he had lost a very close friend, while his wife “was as much agitated as if she had lost a relation.” He later recorded these emotions in his diary. Lincoln was “the great man of the period,” he wrote, and his assassination was the culminating misfortune of the war:

His death is a terrible loss to the country, perhaps even a greater loss to the South than to the North, for Mr. Lincoln’s humanity & kindness of heart stood between them and the party of the North who urge measures of vengeance & severity. The southern people have murdered their best friend, as they are likely to find ere long. The feelings of good will & conciliation, which were spreading thro the North at the hopes of speedy peace, will now be checked & converted in the minds of many into resentment & rage.

Fisher’s private sentiments captured the transition that was sweeping through the minds of many in the North. Those who had been inclined to show charity for all were now engulfed in grief, anger, and the need for vengeance. “Stern justice to be Awarded to Traitors,” headlined the Washington Sunday Morning Chronicle on Easter Sunday, two days after Lincoln was shot. Similarly, a Union soldier remarked, “What a gloom has fallen, like a pall over the whole army! And liberality toward our enemy changes to bitterness!”

Lincoln’s assassination altered the trajectory of the postwar period. “Our papers don’t say as much about conciliation as formerly,” wrote the correspondent for the Daily Alta California, a Republican sheet in San Francisco. He quoted a St. Louis paper’s suggestion that rather than reconcile all Americans, the North “must break down utterly and forever the planting aristocracy” and “drive out of the country, or hang for treason, the leading politicians, whose wicked ambition has made a desert of the South.” A Quaker woman in Delaware similarly recognized—with some regret—how the power of Lincoln’s second inaugural address was diminishing. “We shall have no more speeches overflowing with the milk of human kindness & breathing ‘Charity to all,’ ” she wrote in her diary. “We shall still ‘conquer a peace,’ but I am afraid we shall lose its crowning triumph, of mercy & forgiveness.”

In cities, towns, and villages throughout the North people openly expressed their grief. Black bunting hung from houses, churches, and businesses, closed shutters darkened homes, and American flags now drooped with black streamers. Hundreds of Americans placed in their windows portraits of the fallen president draped in crepe, and people walked the streets appearing sad and depressed. The Easter Sunday sermons focused more on the martyred president than on the resurrected Christ, and a day of Christian celebration became a day to mourn.

From April 21 until May 3, Lincoln’s body made a 1,654-mile journey back to his home in Springfield, Illinois, retracing the route the president-elect had taken to Washington in 1861. Thousands of mourners waited in line to walk past the open coffin in the cities where the funeral train stopped. Thousands more rural Americans stood along the tracks to watch the ornate train car rattle by.

On April 24, well over 100,000 Philadelphians filed quietly past Lincoln’s coffin to pay their respects. Although the mourners appeared peaceful on the outside, a venomous anger stirred just beneath the surface. Indeed, quiet would not remain in the City of Brotherly Love for long. Many Republicans blamed Democrats for the tragedy, believing that their antiwar rhetoric and pro-Confederate sympathies over the previous four years had divided the North and instigated this bloody crime (and indeed, one Democratic newspaper in Wisconsin had called for Lincoln’s assassination during the previous year’s presidential election).

The day before Lincoln was shot, Philadelphia Democrat Edward Ingersoll had delivered an antiwar speech in New York City. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin headlined its belated coverage of the speech “The Ingersoll and Booth Doctrine” and asked whether “such a traitor” should be allowed to continue living in Philadelphia. Ingersoll’s brother-in-law, Sidney George Fisher, worried about Edward’s safety and confided in his diary that arresting him “might save his life.”

Philadelphians read Ingersoll’s speech in the papers, and when his train from New York arrived in Philadelphia on April 27, a frenzied mob was waiting at the depot “for the purpose of giving Mr. Ingersoll a parting salute of groans.” Seeing the assembled throng, Ingersoll slipped out a back door of the station, but the crowd saw him and began to follow. An army captain called for Ingersoll to apologize to the country and the soldiers, to which Ingersoll told the captain to “go to hell.” The two men scuffled, swinging at each other with their canes, and Ingersoll drew a revolver from his pocket. He cocked the gun, but a police officer seized him before he could fire. Subdued but still defiant, Ingersoll was taken to the police station, followed by the frenzied crowd.

The mob surrounded the station all day. Although Edward’s friends and family considered him safe while in prison, they thought he should exile himself until the passions of the moment subsided. When his brother, Charles, went to the station for a visit, the mob descended upon him and beat him badly. “His face swollen out of all human shape,” wrote Fisher in his diary,

his shirt & waistcoat drenched in blood. The mob dragged him out of the carriage, beat him over the head & stamped upon him. The policemen allowed them to do it for a time & then, merely to save his life, interfered. They in truth sympathized with the mob.

Covered in his own blood but somehow with his spirits still high, Charles went home, escorted by three policemen.

Newspapers in the 19th century were unabashedly partisan, and they reacted to this affair in a predictable fashion. Republican papers called on their readers to “Rejoice, oh ye people! for treason—yea, sympathy with treason—is becoming unpopular.” Democrats, by contrast, responded with outrage. Noting the “strange inconsistency” of the times, the Bellefonte Democratic Watchman in central Pennsylvania editorialized: “Papers in Philadelphia and elsewhere, that went into deep mourning for the assassination of President Lincoln, rejoice over the late attempt to assassinate the two Ingersolls, and allow the culprits to go unpunished.” Still, the Ingersolls were lucky to escape with their lives. In several northern cities men were shot dead when they exulted in Lincoln’s demise.

Word reached the Pacific Coast by telegraph on the very day Lincoln died. People flooded into the streets of San Francisco, openly expressing their anguish. The city had been euphoric at the news of Lee’s surrender but was now dazed and dismayed. Soon the throng turned into an angry swarm. The crowd stormed five or six Democratic newspaper offices, threw the furnishings out into the street, started a bonfire, and melted the lead press type over the embers. Policemen tried to intervene, but each time they caught up with the mob, it would disperse and reassemble at another Democratic paper, ever widening the swath of destruction.


In the midst of the riot, Gen. Irvin McDowell, best known for the Union loss at the first battle of Bull Run, addressed the angry crowd, telling them that he sympathized with their excitement and “felt as I know you feel.” Since being put in command of the Department of the Pacific the previous summer, he had sought to exercise military power with discretion to avoid inaugurating a “military despotism,” and he had striven to protect the civil liberties of the people. He had, “therefore, tolerated many wrong things done by the public press, in its attacks against the Government and the administration of its affairs, feeling, under the circumstances, it was better to endure the evil than to apply so harsh a remedy as military power.” But the “devilish act” at Ford’s Theatre would make such tolerance a thing of the past. “While your course to-day was very wrong, it was very natural,” he told the crowd, “and in interfering with the affairs of the press, you have but anticipated me, and have perhaps saved me some trouble, though I should have managed the matter in a different way.”

McDowell’s speech was greeted with cheers and applause. Standing outside the offices of a Democratic paper, he implored the mob to disperse and leave matters of law and order to him. The crowd soon departed, cheering his name, and the general ordered a band of soldiers to take over the building. The editor, who was French, was relieved, mistakenly believing that the troops would protect his office. He soon learned otherwise. When he returned the next day, a soldier pointed a gun at him and shouted, “God Damned Frenchman! Go away or I’ll shoot you.”

Soldiers occupied the newspaper office for almost three weeks, finally vacating the premises on May 4. When the editor warily reentered the building, he “found it in a state of complete ruin.” The soldiers “had abused and damaged it in every way,” destroying the furniture, mixing up the type (which was in French and Spanish), urinating in water buckets, and defecating on the floor. The editor immediately sent a letter complaining to McDowell, but the general never replied. As a consequence, the Frenchman spent the next 20 years trying to recover damages in court.

Seeing the havoc that was taking place within his department—and knowing that California had a large population of southerners and southern sympathizers—McDowell took severe measures to silence anyone who might celebrate Lincoln’s death. On April 17, just two days after the San Francisco riot, McDowell issued a military order to suppress anti-Lincoln dissent. It had come to his attention, he wrote, that some persons on the West Coast were “so utterly infamous as to exult over the assassination of the President.” These persons, according to the general, became “virtually accessories after the fact” and would be arrested, either by the military or by local police. “Any paper so offending or expressing any sympathy in any way whatever with the act,” McDowell added, “will be at once seized and suppressed.”

Democratic editors in California worried about the potential repercussions of McDowell’s order. Zachariah Montgomery, one of the editors whose paper had been destroyed during the riot, published an open letter to the general asking for clear guidelines regarding what sort of publications would be permitted within the district. Montgomery denied that the military had the lawful authority to abridge freedom of the press, but he acknowledged that McDowell possessed the power to enforce the order. Hoping to appear as a moderate during this crisis, Montgomery condemned the lawless on both sides—those rebels who would assassinate the president as well as mobs that destroyed the property rights and other constitutional rights of citizens. “The friends of law,” wrote Montgomery, “besides submitting to any reasonable amount of personal inconvenience, will often endure the infliction of positive and crying injustice—for a time at least—rather than see the laws overturned, a city stirred to insurrection, or a State plunged into civil war.” He asked McDowell to side with the Constitution by protecting the rights of the press, even if what a newspaper printed was unpopular. If not, he warned that Democratic papers “will simply remain silent for want of the power to speak.”

If some newspaper editors were willing to silence themselves in the face of McDowell’s order, other civilians were not. In Potter Valley, California, about 130 miles north of San Francisco, a 60-year-old native of Tennessee made several indiscreet remarks about the fallen president. On April 20, John McCall drunkenly announced that Lincoln had been shot and that “the damned old son of a bitch should have been shot long ago.” Nine days later, he denied that General Lee had surrendered and that Lincoln actually had been killed. “I am only afraid that it is not so,” he declared. “If three or four more of the leaders of the abolition party were killed, it would be a good thing, as it would be the downfall of that party.”

Military authorities promptly arrested McCall for his disloyal outbursts. Over the next several days, he was taken from Potter Valley to San Francisco, marching at least 50 miles, riding on an uncomfortable packsaddle for part of the way, and spending two days in the cargo hold of a schooner. He passed several nights imprisoned in guardhouses without a bed or any blankets, “but was compelled to lie upon the floor, with nothing to protect him but his usual clothing.” In San Francisco, after being clapped in irons and detained in “a filthy room, crowded with drunken soldiers,” he was sent to Alcatraz Island, where he broke stones for 12 hours a day. After a week of hard labor, he took an oath of loyalty and was released.


As blunt as McDowell’s actions in California may appear in hindsight, they were in keeping with military protocol during the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, Union authorities arrested at least 14,000 civilians for various acts of disloyalty—including disloyal speech—and almost 4,300 of these prisoners faced trial in military courts. The First Amendment rights of free speech and free press were at best tenuous. In Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (2014), historian Harold Holzer shows that extensive suppression of the press occurred during several periods of the war. The aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination was one final moment when First Amendment rights were openly trammeled.

Many observers looked upon actions like McDowell’s with approval. “Served them right,” wrote one Union soldier when he learned of several southern sympathizers who had been attacked by a mob following Lincoln’s death. “It is true that we have rights, guaranteed by the Constitution, to free opinion and speech as well as a free press, but traitors who rejoice at the assassination of the first citizen of the republic, the best of the patriots, a man who was full of love for those entrusted to him—such traitors cannot be tolerated.”

Grief and commotion led to riots elsewhere in the nation as well. A mob 500 strong, hell bent on exacting vengeance, descended upon the hotel in Cincinnati where the assassin’s brother, Junius Brutus Booth Jr., was staying. The hotel staff avoided violence by lying to the crowd, saying the thespian had already left town. In Poughkeepsie, New York, a woman’s house was mobbed after she “exulted in public over the assassination.” A young man who tried to defend her fired into the angry crowd and was “immediately throttled,” and both were subsequently arrested. More seriously, an angry mob in Westminster, Maryland, destroyed the printing press of a Democratic newspaper and then murdered the editor, Joseph Shaw, a few days later, because of several “abusive” articles he had published about Lincoln and Vice President Johnson.

Union military authorities stationed in both the North and the South took steps to suppress pro-assassination revelers. Soldiers were sent to investigate rebel sympathizers in California who fired cannons in celebration of Lincoln’s assassination. In Los Angeles, a citizen proclaimed that he “would walk a thousand miles, or to Washington City, to get to shit on Abe Lincoln’s grave.” Another Angeleno wished “the President had been killed six months ago” and declared that “all the Union men were nothing but a sett of d—d niggers.” Both were reported to military authorities. In New Orleans, four civilians were tried in a military tribunal for “using disloyal and treasonable language against the Government of the United States” when they publicly exulted in the assassination. Several Baltimore tavern owners were similarly prosecuted in a military court for violating an order that prohibited the sale of alcohol in the city at this time. Provost marshals and other military officers in various locations arrested many civilians who uttered “disloyal language” in praise of Lincoln’s assassination.

Surprisingly, even some Union soldiers exulted in the death of their commander-in-chief, an action explicitly prohibited by the Articles of War. Most soldiers who hated Lincoln were probably shrewd enough to keep their rejoicing to themselves. “Our tyrannical President Abraham Lincoln was shot in a theatre by a man by the name of Wilkes Booth,” wrote one soldier serving in a Pennsylvania regiment. “The whole country grieves at his death. Personally I am heartily pleased over it, yet for appearance sake I must make a long face over it.”

But other soldiers could not conceal their true feelings. One private stationed in McDowell’s Department of the Pacific was convicted by court-martial of using “treasonable and mutinous language” when he declared that “Abraham Lincoln was a long-sided Yankee son of a bitch, and ought to have been killed long ago.” At his trial, the soldier insisted that he never used “profane or vulgar language” and that he “would not rejoice over the … assassination of a gentleman whom I highly respected.” He maintained he had been wounded in the head by a musket ball and the result was that, whenever he was drunk, he had no recollection of what he said or did. “I am Non Compos Mentis,” he declared, “and act in a strange and unaccountable manner.” Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to be shot. Fortunately for him, McDowell mitigated the sentence to hard labor for the duration of his term of service and the loss of pay.

Like-minded soldiers received similar sentences. One in Indiana who proclaimed, “Abe Lincoln is dead. Hurrah for old Abe. Who cares a damn, let him go to hell,” was court-martialed and sentenced “to be paraded through the grounds” of the hospital where the offense had taken place for two hours with an escort of fifes and drums and “with a placard on his back, with the following words written or printed plainly thereon: This man said ‘Abe Lincoln is dead; who cares a damn, let him go to hell.’ ” One can only imagine the response of his comrades.

The ultimate public punishment was reserved for John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators. After the accomplices had been rounded up and imprisoned in Washington, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was determined to try them before a military commission. He actually wanted them executed before Lincoln was buried, but this plan proved infeasible.

Some members of the cabinet doubted the legality, practicality, and political prudence of trying the conspirators before a military tribunal. Lincoln’s former attorney general, Edward Bates, believed such a trial both “unlawful” and a “gross blunder in policy” because it would make martyrs of the accused. Other critics argued that the use of a military court would violate the protections for criminals provided in the Bill of Rights.

Such considerations went unheeded, however, and on May 1 President Johnson ordered the commission to proceed. Nine military officers presided over the trial. Unlike a trial by jury, here only a simple majority was needed to convict, and a two-thirds majority could impose death. The trial went on for two months, with 361 witnesses and nearly 5,000 pages of transcribed testimony. On June 29, the commission went into secret session to deliberate; on July 5, the verdicts and sentences were presented to the president. Four of the eight defendants were sentenced to death, three received life imprisonment, and the unfortunate stagehand who had held John Wilkes Booth’s horse in the back alley of Ford’s Theatre received six years behind bars. Johnson promptly approved the sentences. The next day, July 6, the prisoners learned of their fates. On July 7—a swelteringly hot summer day in Washington—the four condemned prisoners hanged.

The Washington Evening Star approved of the swift justice:

Their deeds have been judged patiently and impartially. Seven weeks were devoted to their trial, witnesses have been summoned from remote locations, every point that in some manner suggested innocence was carefully weighed, and the sentence of death executed only because there was not one reasonable doubt of overwhelming guilt.

A federal judge in Connecticut was less sanguine. “I think the summary execution of the conspirators struck a deep chord in the public’s bosom,” he wrote to a friend. “There were few words uttered, but the shock was almost universal, as it became known that the condemned were to die upon twenty four hours notice.”

Most contemporary observers seem to have approved of the proceedings; however, many Americans did have some reservations about executing a woman. Mary Surratt had owned the boarding house on H Street where Booth and the other conspirators occasionally met in the months leading up to the assassination. No woman had ever been executed by the federal government, and some observers believed that President Johnson should have commuted her sentence to life in prison. Even the hangmen felt uncomfortable about the situation. “It was with a shudder, almost a blush, that I saw an officer gather the ropes tightly three times about the robes of Mrs. Surratt, and bind her ankles with cords,” wrote one witness to the execution. Still, the president determined that the sentence must be meted out. In a time when northern vengeance needed to be satisfied, Mary Surratt’s execution served, according to historian Elizabeth D. Leonard, as “a symbol of all the other women of the Confederacy who throughout the war had engaged in treasonable behavior” without being punished. Surratt, then, was hanged as “the supreme representative” of all traitorous southern women.

The whirlwind of violence following the Lincoln assassination revealed the depth and sincerity of the nation’s grief. The rioting and destruction were spontaneous and widespread because people believed that southern leaders and their allies in the North had incited Lincoln’s murder. They mourned, as Sidney George Fisher wrote in his diary, as if they had lost a close friend or family member—and their rage was borne out of that piercing sense of confusion and loss.

Nevertheless, a small ray of light began to break through the gloom. Many Americans who never voted for the Rail Splitter now began to admire his good character and personal sacrifice. Indeed, our national appreciation and reverence for Father Abraham have only increased since his death. The assassination thus secured Lincoln’s place in the American pantheon.

George Templeton Strong of New York City predicted this coming transformation amid the pains and horrors of the moment. “I am stunned, as by a fearful personal calamity,” he wrote in his famous diary shortly after Lincoln died, “though I can see that this thing, occurring just at this time, may be over-ruled to our great good. … We shall appreciate him at last.”

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Jonathan W. White, an associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University, will publish two books this fall—To Address You as My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln and My Work Among the Freedmen: The Civil War and Reconstruction Letters of Harriet M. Buss—and one next winter: A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House.


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