Lincoln’s Last Speech

April 11, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln tempered the massive celebrations over Robert E. Lee’s surrender with a serious speech delivered less than a week before his death.

President Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

President Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lincoln had received word of Lee’s surrender when he returned to Washington from Virginia on the night of April 9. Celebrations quickly erupted throughout the North; cannon salutes boomed in most major cities as people gathered to cheer, laugh, and weep together. The next morning, Federals launched a 500-gun salute in Washington, and all government departments closed to celebrate.[1]

Thousands of joyous citizens assembled at the White House to serenade Lincoln throughout the day. The crowd cheered wildly when Lincoln’s son Tad unfurled a captured Confederate flag from a second-story window. Lincoln himself finally appeared from the second floor, and the people shouted, “Speech! Speech!” Noticing the bands among the crowd, Lincoln said:[2]

I have always thought “Dixie” one of the best tunes I ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I presented the question to the Attorney General and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is now our lawful prize. I now request the band to favor me with its performance.[3]

After playing “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle,” Lincoln proposed “three good hearty cheers for General Grant and all under his command,” then “three more cheers for our gallant navy.” When the crowd called again for a speech, Lincoln waved them off:

Everything I say, you know, goes into print. If I make a mistake it doesn’t merely affect me nor you, but the country. I therefore ought at least to try not to make mistakes. If, then, a general demonstration be made tomorrow evening, and it is agreeable, I will endeavor to say something and not make a mistake without at least trying carefully to avoid it.[4]

As brass bands played and skyrockets screeched, thousands of people thronged the White House on the evening of April 11 in anticipation of Lincoln’s speech. He appeared on a second floor balcony just above the north entrance, with a reporter holding a candle so Lincoln could read his manuscript. Lincoln began in a celebratory tone, but the speech soon turned serious as he once more denied the Confederacy’s existence and spoke of reconciliation and restoring the southern states to the U.S. (i.e., reconstruction).[5]

Using legalistic language, Lincoln cited Louisiana as an example of effective reconstruction under the plan he had introduced in December 1863. Lincoln also publicly supported granting black men the right to vote for the first time, if the right “were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”[6]

As Lincoln continued, the cheerful mood of the crowd slowly turned into confusion and discomfort. Most people had been too happy to consider what lay ahead, and this sobering speech left them disappointed. Among those in the audience was prominent actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate who fumed, “That is the last speech he will make.”[7]

—–

[1] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 19044-19064; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 726

[2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 20136-20146; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 726; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 672

[3] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 20137-20159; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 382-83

[4] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 20137-20159

[5] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/last.htm; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 55-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 672-73; White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 58777-58780

[6] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 55-57; White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 58777-58780

[7] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/last.htm; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 20166-20186; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 672-73; White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 58777-58780

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3 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Last Speech

  1. […] Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech to a joyous crowd from a second floor window in the White House. His legalistic explanation of what could be expected […]

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  2. […] Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech to a joyous crowd from a second floor window in the White House. His legalistic explanation of what could be expected […]

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  3. […] by Wade, held a caucus within eight hours of Lincoln’s death. They expressed dissatisfaction with Lincoln’s last speech on April 11 because of its conciliatory tone. Julian complained that “aside from his known tenderness to the […]

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