Lincoln’s Last Speech

April 11, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln delivered a serious speech about restoring the Union that dampened the joyous celebrations over Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

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Lincoln returned to the White House after his extended stay at City Point, where late on the 9th he received word that Lee had surrendered. The next morning, Federals launched a 500-gun salute in Washington, and all government departments closed to celebrate. A newspaper correspondent reported:

“From one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other the air seemed to burn with the bright hues of the flag… Almost by magic the streets were crowded with hosts of people, talking, laughing, hurrahing and shouting in the fullness of their joy. Men embraced one another, ‘treated’ one another, made up old quarrels, renewed old friendships, marched arm-in-arm singing.”

These celebrations quickly spread throughout the North. A witness noted that on Wall Street in New York City, “men embraced and hugged each other, kissed each other, retreated into doorways to dry their eyes and came out again to flourish their hats and hurrah… They sang ‘Old Hundred,’ the Doxology, ‘John Brown,’ and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’… over and over, with a massive roar from the crowd and a unanimous wave of hats at the end of each repetition.”

Thousands of jubilant citizens gathered around the White House, filling the north portico and nearby sidewalks and streets as they serenaded Lincoln throughout the day. The crowd cheered wildly when Lincoln’s son Tad unfurled a captured Confederate flag from a second-story window. The president himself finally appeared on a balcony, and the people shouted, “Speech! Speech!”

Lincoln announced that he would be delivering a formal speech the next day, and therefore, “I shall have nothing to say if you dribble it all out of me before.” Acknowledging the bands in the crowd, Lincoln added:

“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.”

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.”

That night, candles and lanterns burned in nearly every window in Washington. The celebrations carried over to the next night, as brass bands played and skyrockets screeched. Thousands of people returned to the north portico of the White House in anticipation of Lincoln’s victory speech. The president appeared on a second floor balcony just above the north entrance, with a candle in one hand and a prepared manuscript in the other.

Lincoln began, “We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained.”

As he struggled to hold the candle while turning pages, Lincoln called over correspondent Noah Brooks, who was in the room. Brooks held the candle from behind the curtain, and Lincoln dropped the pages as he read from them. Tad collected them at his father’s feet, out of the audience’s sight.

The tone of the speech soon turned serious as Lincoln announced that reuniting North and South was “fraught with great difficulty.” Once again denying the Confederacy’s existence, Lincoln said that unlike conquering another nation, “There is no authorized organ for us to treat with.” The president then declared:

“We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier, to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these states have even been out of the Union, than with it.”

Speaking as a lawyer, 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.”

Lincoln hailed Louisiana’s new pro-Union government for “giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man.” Lincoln rhetorically asked whether black soldiers would “not attain it (suffrage) sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them?”

The president concluded: “In the present ‘situation’ as the phrase goes, it may be my duty to make some new announcement to the people of the South. I am considering, and shall not fail to act, when satisfied that action will be proper.”

By the end of this speech, the cheerful mood of the crowd had turned into confusion and discomfort. Most people had been too happy to consider what lay ahead, and this sobering dissertation left them disappointed. Among those in the audience was prominent actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer. When Lincoln suggested black suffrage, Booth fumed, “That means nigger citizenship.”

Booth and a band of accomplices had previously plotted to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom in exchange for Confederate independence. But with Lee’s surrender, independence was now impossible, and Booth quickly changed his plan from kidnap to murder. He said to his companions, “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”



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