Universal responses to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln—black and white, North and South, incredulous, gleeful or vengeful—make for grim yet engrossing reading.
With meticulous scholarship, Hodes (History/New York Univ.; The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century, 2006, etc.) presents a plethora of people’s intimate reactions to the assassination of Lincoln on April 14, 1865—Good Friday, just days after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. The country was reeling from the blood bath of the Civil War, and with 2 percent of the population mowed down, death had touched nearly every American household, North and South. The news of the first assassination of an American president—a beloved one who was looked on as a father to the torn, suffering nation—sent shock waves through the country in the spring of 1865. People scribbled their grief into diaries and letters, and Hodes uses the reactions of three protagonists as a “template for broader investigations”: a couple of white abolitionists from Salem, Massachusetts, who were horrified and stricken by the assassination; and a Jacksonville, Florida, lawyer, Rodney Dorman, whose relish in the murder of the president allowed him to vent his anger and disgust at Union occupation and black emancipation. Lincoln’s death galvanized emotions about the war and fears for the future of the nation, especially for African-Americans, who wondered whether their freedom would now be jeopardized. Was the assassination a vast Confederate plot to seize power? Yet Lincoln had been lenient toward the vanquished Southerners, and newly acceded President Andrew Johnson was notoriously ill-disposed toward the rich Southern planters. From reactions by Mary Todd Lincoln to the fiery racist Copperheads, Hodes shows the uneven responses of a nation certainly not “united in grief.”
A layered, nuanced work demonstrating the mingling of “the cataclysmic with the routine.”