Grieving over the loss of their commander in chief, Union soldiers worried that reconciliation might be hard to achieve.
Officers and men of the Army of the Potomac formed ranks for dress parade on the evening of April 15, 1865. Less than a week before, on Palm Sunday, their redoubtable foe, the Army of Northern Virginia, had surrendered. At the time, the Federals celebrated the news by shouting and throwing their hats, knapsacks and canteens into the air. “In fact,” recalled one of them, “I never seen a crazier set of fellows anywhere before or since.” Now, on this evening before Easter, their mood remained jubilant, knowing that each passing day brought home, family and friends nearer.
Once again they aligned their ranks and listened to officers read orders and share information. As the officers read an announcement, the words lashed the ranks as if they were a well-aimed volley fired at point-blank range—President Abraham Lincoln was dead, fatally “A silent gloom fell upon us like a pall,” wrote Sergeant Samuel Clear of the 116th Pennsylvania. “No one spoke or moved. Our sorrow was so great that we could scarcely realize what had happened.” It was as “if we each lost a near and dear friend at home.”
Elsewhere across the dying Confederacy, Union soldiers heard the stunning news that same day or within a few days. In North Carolina, where Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army still confronted General Joseph E. Johnston’s Rebels, a Federal private noted in his diary, “The whole army though flushed with victory is cast down with sorrow and gloom.” Sergeant Rice C. Bull, also with Sherman, recalled, “President Lincoln was the idol of the men in the service, everyone reverenced him and they could not have felt greater grief had they heard of the death of some near relative.” West of the Mississippi River, a cavalry sergeant lamented, “The nation has lost one whose place cannot be filled.” Speaking for thousands of comrades, a black soldier in a U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiment stated, “We have looked to him as our earthly pilot to guide us.”
The president’s death was so unexpected, so inexplicable with victory at hand that a brooding silence initially prevailed in the armies. A soldier with Sherman described his regiment’s camp as “a mournful chapel.” Some of Sherman’s troops were on the roads when they heard the news. “The remainder of the march to Raleigh was made in almost complete silence,” recounted Bull. “When remarks were made, they were curses against the murderers of the President.” A member of the Army of the Potomac wrote: “What a death like stillness came over the army that night not a stir in all the camp nor a sound save the whipperwill in the tree tops. Seamed as if all our hardship and Sufering had been for nothing.” Lincoln’s death, thought a captain, “seems to paralyze every one.”
A veteran cavalryman later recounted: “For the second time in my army experience, the first was after the reception of the news of the battle of Bull Run, I saw men, even unemotional Americans, shed tears over a public misfortune.” They circled campfires, seemingly “stupefied,” rarely speaking and then in muted voices. “Every soldier felt,” added the trooper, “that he had lost a dear friend in the lamented chief magistrate, whose heart always beat with joy at their successes in the field, and sorrowed with the truest sorrow over their reverses and misfortunes.”
As the shock subsided during the next few days, a burning anger ignited. Newspapers brought the details of John Wilkes Booth’s act, further stoking the soldiers’ fury. Voices clamored for retribution. Captain Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island confided to his diary: “The soldiers feel that the leaders of the rebellion are responsible, and I fear that if Lee’s army had not surrendered they would have fared hard at our hands.…The soldiers are wild with rage to think that this great and good man who did so much for our land should be stricken down in the hour of victory.”
Sherman’s veterans swore that if Johnston’s Confederates continued the struggle in North Carolina, “the battle cry will be ‘Lincoln’ and woe to the rebel that falls into our hands.” A lieutenant claimed that his men only wanted an “opportunity to avenge his death upon the vile traitors.” They resolved that if the enemy offered battle, they would take no prisoners.
Sherman cautioned his officers “to watch the soldiers closely and to prevent any violent retaliation by them.” He wrote in his memoirs, “Mr. Lincoln was peculiarly endeared to the soldiers, and I feared that some foolish woman or man in Raleigh might say something that would madden our men, that a fate worse than that of Columbia would befall the place.” (A significant fire destroyed a considerable section of Columbia, S.C., after Sherman’s army occupied the town.)
Sherman’s army was, in the words of an infantryman, “crazy for vengeance.” A mob of soldiers gathered to ransack Raleigh before dispersing when confronted by a row of artillery pieces. Guards encircled the camps for days to prevent any rampage. In South Carolina, officers managed to restrain USCT regiments from looting and burning buildings.
Southern civilians and Confederate prisoners who openly expressed approval of the assassination faced merciless retaliation. Union soldiers reportedly killed civilians in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C., for such public outbursts. In Virginia, when a captive remarked that Lincoln should have been shot years before, a group of Federals lynched him from a tree. At a hospital in the Old Dominion, a wounded Rebel voiced his pleasure over Booth’s deed and was nearly pummeled to death by other patients. When Rebel prisoners at Fort Delaware cheered the news, the commandant instructed the guards to shoot them if they did it again.
There were men, however, within the ranks of Union armies who also welcomed Lincoln’s passage. “The damndest best news I had heard for some time,” professed one soldier. “I’m glad the son of a bitch is dead,” exclaimed another. A third man declared, “I am glad of it, g—damn him; he ought to have been killed long ago.” Some of them justified their feelings by condemning Lincoln for emancipation and by blaming him for the war’s dead. “It is no worse for Lincoln to be killed than any other man,” one trooper wrote.
If a soldier foolishly stated aloud his approval of Booth’s act, he jeopardized his freedom, even his life. Court-martial boards convened and sentenced guilty individuals to months or even years in prison. A member of a veteran reserve unit received a death sentence, but pleas of clemency from his family and his good record spared him from a firing squad. Men in a Maine regiment nearly drowned one of their own before the victim freed himself. When he complained to his colonel, the officer shot back, “They served you right, only it is a damned shame they didn’t drown you.”
Only a scant minority of men in the blue-uniformed commands harbored satisfaction at Lincoln’s death, and evidently most of them kept silent about it. The majority of officers and men grieved for the slain president. “Every man felt that he had lost a dear personal friend,” said a private. It was as Sergeant Samuel Clear described, “What a hold Old Honest Abe Lincoln had on the hearts of the soldiers of the army could only be told by the way they showed their mourning for him.”
“No man, not even Grant himself, possesses the entire love of the army as did President Lincoln,” argued a veteran. “We mourn him not only as a President but as a man, for we had learned to love him.” Six months earlier, they had cast their votes in overwhelming numbers for his reelection. He had been steadfast in his devotion to the cause, unwavering in his commitment to ultimate victory and unswerving in his support of the men who bore the sacrifices.
Lincoln had been with them from the start through the conflict’s final days. When the first batch of raw recruits arrived in Washington in April 1861, he welcomed them, stood on the rear portico of the White House as they paraded past, and then visited their camps. He possessed the common touch, perhaps more so than any other American president. In the tall, ungainly Lincoln, the soldiers seemed to see themselves—men of humble origins summoned forth to answer a nation’s crisis.
Over time, the troops developed a deep and abiding affection for their commander in chief. Although thousands of them opposed his emancipation of slaves, the enlistment of black volunteers, the draft and the removal of popular generals, they retained their devotion to him. Officers and men of the Army of the Potomac observed him personally as he visited their camps and joined in reviews. They commented on his awkwardness on horseback—“His long legs were well clasped around the body of his horse,” a lieutenant wrote of Lincoln at one review, “his hair and coat tails horizontal. He looked as though he was determined to go through if it killed him but he would be almighty glad when it was over.”
They also saw the deepening lines in his face and the sadness in his eyes. He appeared to bear all the burdens on his shoulders with a weariness too deep to touch. When Lincoln visited the army in the spring of 1863 before the Chancellorsville campaign, a soldier commented upon seeing him that he looked “so cadaverous, or so like one lately from the tomb.” His appearance elicited sympathy from the troops, or as Private William Wiley of the 70th New York put it, “I really pitied him, and today I have a greater love and respect for him than I ever had before.” They had begun to call him “Father Abraham.”
Above all, perhaps, Lincoln’s leniency and kindness bound the men to him. He commuted the sentences of scores of deserters. He spent countless hours in hospitals, visiting with the patients. A story circulated that as the wounded from the Second Battle of Bull Run spilled over onto the White House lawn, Lincoln, bending his long frame, used a ladle to give each unfortunate man a drink from a pail of water. “Abe’s heart was ’most too large,” thought a soldier.
Thus when the news came of Lincoln’s death, the grief was genuine. Officially, Sherman and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, issued proclamations to be read to the troops. Meade ordered flags to be hung at half-mast and draped in black. Soldiers wore mourning bands on their uniform sleeves. Commanders had minute guns fired—cannons fired at one-minute intervals—in honor of the fallen president, and brigades held memorial services.
In their own individual ways, the men dealt with their sorrow and tried to understand Booth’s senseless act of murder. Religious soldiers attributed it to God’s will, if not to His punishment for making “Lincoln a god.” Many of them saw the assassination as a conspiracy plotted by Confederate officials and cursed them for it. They shed tears and gathered in small bands to find common meaning. Days passed, and still “we cannot realize yet that he is dead,” Captain Rhodes noted in his diary on April 19.
Like Rhodes, many of them put their feelings on paper, leaving a record of their pain at the time—of their attachment to Lincoln. Through their letters and diaries, they conveyed the abiding bond that had grown between them and him. Their words resound, even today, with the magnitude of the loss they felt at Lincoln’s death.
The rank and file of Sherman’s army and other Western armies, whom Lincoln never visited, expressed views similar to those of their Eastern comrades. “I don’t think we know how much we did think of him until then,” attested one private. A cavalry sergeant stationed in Missouri declared, “The nation has lost one whose place cannot be filled.”
Within the ranks of USCT regiments, the grief and sense of loss were particularly acute. Lincoln had been the “Great Emancipator,” the American Moses who had liberated an oppressed people. In the words of an African-American chaplain, Lincoln had “led us through this National Storm and Plant[ed] us Securely on the Platform of Liberty and Equal Political right.” An officer wrote, “Alas, the friend of the oppressed, the ‘Liberator,’ is no more!”
A white lieutenant confided to his sister: “I cannot paint to you the grief and indignation that our officers feel. With us of the U.S. Colored Army the death of Lincoln is indeed the loss of a friend. From him we received our commission—and toward him we have even looked as toward a Father.” A USCT infantryman contended: “I shed not a tear for him. He has done the work that was given him, and today sings the song of redeeming love.” A black sergeant said of Lincoln’s legacy, “Although he is taken away from us, his acts of kindness and deeds of philanthropy will live through all eternity.”
No Union soldiers, however, felt more deeply the death of Lincoln than the members of the Army of the Potomac. No Army troops had been more closely associated with the president, nor had any received more of his attention and personal visits. In their estimation, he belonged to them and they to him. He once described them as George McClellan’s “bodyguard,” but they could have been called “Lincoln’s bodyguard.” They had been organized to defend the nation’s capital, a burden Lincoln shared. He had meddled more in their affairs than in those of any other army, which caused sporadic anger and disagreements. Throughout, however, they stood with him.
When they learned of Lincoln’s death, the rank and file “all seemed stupefied by the terrible news.” In words used by many of his comrades, a Pennsylvanian asserted: “He was our best friend. God bless him.” A Vermonter, Private Wilbur Fisk, penned: “Never has sadder news been brought to us than this. It seemed as if we had lost a father. Mr. Lincoln was different from everybody; so sagacious, so straight-forward in all that he did, so apt in all he said, and withal so kindhearted and honest.”
Captain Rhodes put it simply: “All hearts are sad, and the grand old Army of the Potomac is in mourning for the nation’s loss. Lincoln was truly the soldiers’ friend and will be never forgotten by them.”
A New York artilleryman, writing a week after Lincoln’s death, confessed: “We have not yet recovered from our sorrow nor will we ever. Our hearts will always mourn for the untimely death of this great and good man.” In another letter, dated April 24, he continued: “I have never felt so sorrowful since my own father died. And the feeling which overcame my heart was akin to my first great grief.”
“This mournful calamity,” in the words of Private Fisk, also produced a foreboding uncertainty about the future among the soldiers. With the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House, they knew that the end was near. However, with Lincoln dead, they worried that the conflict could be prolonged, and a peaceful reconciliation seemed less assured. One Yankee said, “Things look darker to me than at any time since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.” Within days of the assassination, a group of officers organized the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States to protect the country from either treason or anarchy.
It bitterly angered soldiers that Lincoln had not lived to see the end of the Confederacy. “His work was nearly completed,” argued a cavalryman. “Would to God he had been able to finish it and been spared to complete his remaining days in quiet and peace— Enjoying the love and respect of the American people.” “But his deeds shall live,” believed another soldier. “Thank God he lived to see his great principles established upon the track of a fleeing foe.”
In turn, the Federals contended that with Lincoln gone, Southerners would pay a dearer price after the war. “It will go hard for them now,” averred a Northerner. “While Lincoln was President, they could expect mercy but none now.” The soldier calculated, “The blood of a hundred thousand of the cursed and hell born Rebels, and their allies could not compensate” for Lincoln’s death. Another man wrote similarly of Southerners, “They have slain Mercy and now they must abide by the sterner master, Justice.”
There were those who thought of his legacy. Fisk comforted himself by believing that Lincoln’s “spirit is still with us, and though dead, he yet speaketh.” A New Yorker asserted that the American people “love him even more, I think, than they loved the great Washington. In history their names will stand together, rivaling each other in radiant glory.”
Although Lincoln had not lived to see the fulfillment of peace, the last organized Confederate commands surrendered within weeks of the terrible act at Ford’s Theatre. Union soldiers began what Sergeant Rice Bull called the “Homeward March.” On May 23 and 24, Meade’s and Sherman’s armies held a Grand Review for tens of thousands of onlookers in Washington. As they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in ranks that filled the broad street, they passed a reviewing stand where generals and government officials watched the procession. In Lincoln’s place of honor stood his successor, Andrew Johnson.
Lieutenant Frederick Lockley of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery said as well as anyone what Lincoln’s absence on the reviewing stand meant to the men in the ranks. Writing on Easter Sunday, April 16, Lockley stated: “The president does not seem a stranger to us. Common danger and common affliction have knitted the people’s heart to his.…Particularly he was the soldier’s friend. During this fearful carnival of blood…we all knew and felt that in the President we possessed a friend…whose hand [would be] extended to avert the strife the moment it could be done without compromising our national honor.”
Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.