restricted access Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes (review)
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Reviewed by
Martha Hodes. Mourning Lincoln. New Haven: Yale UP, 2015. 408 pp. $30.00.

In this moving and important book, Martha Hodes mines the personal reactions of Americans confronting the death of Abraham Lincoln to reveal in stark, visceral detail the vast gulf dividing the country in the wake of Confederate defeat. The depth of that divide is stunning. After Appomattox, some Confederates actually thought their slaves should be returned and were furious when they were not. Meanwhile, some Americans thought that high Confederate officials should be hanged for treason and that every Southerner who participated in the war on any level should be permanently disfranchised. Lincoln’s assassination came five days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender, on Good Friday. Americans further divided over who bore the blame for Lincoln’s death: was it just the assassin and his co-conspirators? Or were all the traitorous architects of the war culpable?

Readers will find themselves transported back to 1865, where one appreciates with deepening weariness and dread the monumental task the United States government faced in attempting to reintegrate the treasonous Southern states into the union. The divisions were not only gaping but also myriad. The discord besetting America in 1865 is often cast as simply North vs. South, but as Hodes reveals, some racist U. S. soldiers, unhappy since the Emancipation Proclamation, and some Northern “copperheads”—members of the Democratic Party who also objected to Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War—joined diehard Confederates in openly celebrating Lincoln’s death. Meanwhile, African American Southerners and many black and white residents of Northern states and the far West felt shattered by grief for their President and for the suddenly murky future of their country.

Though deeply divided, nearly all the writers who appear in Hodes’s book seemed to have a keen sense of their place in history and their duty to record every detail for history. Some described the exact measurements of the room in which Lincoln died. Their stories are sometimes contradictory and many defy credibility. Some writers inserted themselves into the audience at the theatre or the death scene.

Hodes walks the reader though this sometimes-fraught evidence and conveys all the complexity of attitudes without overly complicating her story. The book’s strong structure, paired with gripping evidence and the smooth rhythm of her writing, keeps the reader centered. Hodes draws on immediate evidence of personal experiences. She avoids memoirs, which she believes can be more marred by memory and historical perspective than journals and diaries. And her focus centers on ordinary Americans, not political leaders or professional writers. The result is a highly relatable story told in crisp prose.

Hodes found an effective and affecting structure for her wide-ranging exploration of the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. While she makes excellent use of the many hundreds of letters and diaries she read in archives across the country, she employs three people as touchstones throughout the book. She returns repeatedly to Sarah and Albert Browne, an abolitionist-leaning couple living in Salem, Massachusetts, and Rodney Dorman, a seemingly unreconstructed Confederate from Jacksonville, Florida. [End Page 379]

Through their thoroughly mined journals, readers get to know these characters and also see the starkly divided country through their eyes. Hodes also breaks up the longer chapters with brief “interludes” covering topics as varied as international reactions to Lincoln’s assassination and citizens’ professions of love for Lincoln. These interludes don’t work quite as well as the reliance on the Brownes and on Dorman. Some parts of the book are familiar—the funeral, the mixed reactions to Andrew Johnson, the shifts in Reconstruction policies. Far more of it, however, is fresh and significant.

There is much to admire in Hodes’s skill as an historian. She is wonderfully adept at searching out her subjects’ voices to bring the past alive. In an example of her sensitive reading of the evidence, Hodes points out how ministers suddenly had to change their sermons on Easter Sunday, 1865. On the most important and celebratory day of the Christian liturgical year, they suddenly had to pivot—to explain the murder of President Lincoln and, at least...