The Nation Reacts to Lincoln’s Death

April 15, 1865 – Northerners mourned the loss of Abraham Lincoln while rumors quickly spread that the assassination attempts had been plotted by a desperate Confederate government.

Almost immediately after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln and Lewis Paine stabbed William H. Seward, Washington officials accused high-ranking Confederates of orchestrating the attacks. As such, northern sentiment quickly turned from sorrow to rage against the South. Francis Lieber, the political scientist who had developed the codes of ethics that Federal armies were supposed to follow, wrote a frantic letter to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“My God! That even this should befall us! It is Slavery, Slavery! Can I do anything? Dispose, my friend, wholly of me, if there be aught I can help to do. The draft ought to go on again, or volunteers be called, to sweep, literally to sweep the South. No coquetting! Drive the fiends from our soil and let Grant be a stern uncompromising man of the sword, and the sword alone, until the masses in the States rise against their own fiends, and hang them or drive them out, and until the masses offer themselves, re-revolutionized, back to the Union, freed from slavery and assassins and secret society… The murder of poor, good Lincoln is no isolated fact. It is all, all one fiendish barbarism.”

Prominent northerners quickly joined Lieber in calling for Federal forces to destroy the South once and for all. In Boston, Reverend W.S. Studley called for hanging Confederates in his Sunday service, adding, “In dealing with traitors, Andrew Johnson’s little finger will be thicker than Abraham Lincoln’s loins. If the old president chastised them with whips, the new president will chastise them with scorpions.”

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit:

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton halted southbound passenger trains from Washington, prohibited boats from crossing the Potomac to Virginia, posted guards outside the homes of cabinet members, mobilized the fire brigade, and closed Ford’s Theatre. He also issued a declaration alleging that Jefferson Davis and other high-ranking Confederate officials had sanctioned Lincoln’s assassination.

Stanton authorized Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to use “adequate force and vigilance” against “the large number of Rebel officers and privates, prisoners of war, and Rebel refugees and deserters that are among us.” Stanton added, “I feel it my duty to ask you to consider yourself specially charged with all matters pertaining to the security and defense of this national capital.”

Grant ordered Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding Federal occupation forces in Richmond, to arrest Mayor Joseph Mayo and high-ranking Confederate John A. Campbell, who had worked with Lincoln to help bring Virginia back into the Union. Ord balked at the order, writing, “The two citizens I have seen. They are old, nearly helpless, and I think incapable of harm.”

Ord stated that Campbell and Robert Hunter, another Confederate working with Federal authorities, had recently asked him “to send them to Washington to see the President. Would they have done so, if guilty?” Grant answered: “On reflection I will withdraw my dispatch of this date directing the arrest of Campbell, Mayo and others so far as it may be regarded as an order, and leave it in the light of a suggestion, to be executed only so far as you may judge the good of the service demands.”

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, a corps commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and now a prisoner of war at Fort Warren, Massachusetts, spoke for most clear-minded southerners in a letter to Grant:

“You will appreciate, I am sure, the sentiment which prompts me to drop you these lines. Of all the misfortunes which could befall the Southern people, or any Southern man, by far the greatest, in my judgment, would be the prevalence of the idea that they could entertain any other than feelings of unqualified abhorrence and indignation for the assassination of the President of the United States and the attempt to assassinate the Secretary of State. No language can adequately express the shock produced upon myself, in common with all the other general officers confined here with me, by the occurrence of this appalling crime, and by the seeming tendency in the public mind to connect the South and Southern men with it. Need we say that we are not assassins, nor the allies of assassins, be they from the North or from the South, and that coming as we do from most of the states of the South we would be ashamed of our own people were we not assured that they will reprobate this crime.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln was mourned throughout the North. Church bells tolled, and ministers compared the late president to Jesus Christ in their Easter sermons. Even Lincoln’s political opponents acknowledged that his death was a national tragedy. As the nation grieved, officials prepared an elaborate funeral to bid a final farewell to Abraham Lincoln.



Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 475, 478; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 559; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 677-78; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

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