- Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination proved to be a pivot point in American history. John Wilkes Booth either fired one of the last rounds of the American Civil War or defined “the first volley of the war that came after Appomattox—a war on black freedom and equality” (274). In Mourning Lincoln, Martha Hodes sets out to explore the “raw reactions” Americans experienced in the wake of this cataclysm (9). Delving into nearly one thousand diaries and personal accounts, she succeeds brilliantly in reconstructing the cacophony of voices reflecting on the first presidential assassination. Drawing on sources that illuminate the perspectives of Yankee victors, defeated Confederates, and African Americans (North and South), Hodes argues persuasively that “this end of war moment was less a time of unity and closure and much more a time of ongoing dissension” (10). This was no time for healing, no time for reaching across racial and party lines, and no magnanimous moment for reconciliation between the conquerors and the conquered. Rather, the realization of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination revealed the diversity of Americans’ feelings about their president as well as their divergent views about the Civil War itself (161).
Martha Hodes anchors her narrative in two exceptionally rich primary sources. Albert and Sarah Browne of Salem, Massachusetts, provide the insights of free laborite northerners who embraced fully the cause of abolition. Patriarch of a merchant family, with personal ties to the Forten family of Philadelphia and to antislavery leaders [End Page 97] in the North, Albert Browne served for a time as a Union Treasury agent in the occupied South. During his work in Florida, he may well have been within very close proximity to Rodney Dorman of Tallahassee. In an amazing bit of historical detective work, Hodes traced a previously unidentified and many-paged diary to the hand of Dorman, a lawyer and slaveholder. As invading Union troops torched his home and office, he turned to his diary to spew out rage on the North and take glee in Lincoln’s death. Whereas the Brownes wrestled with why God had taken Abraham Lincoln from the Union at the zenith of its triumph, Dorman knew divine retribution when he saw it. The Browne and Dorman sources percolate throughout Hodes’s nimble narrative, but they never eclipse the hundreds of other witnesses she calls forth.
The book treats especially well the perspectives of African Americans at the moment of Lincoln’s death. Some wanted to be turned loose to take up a new war against the remnants of the Confederacy, thus avenging their murdered president. Lincoln had been their “best friend,” and his loss cast doubt on the staying power of emancipation (139–40). Others, led by Frederick Douglass, worked to turn Lincoln’s memory to seal the accomplishment of freedom. For all of his flaws, Douglass claimed, Lincoln was “the black man’s President: the first to show any respect to their rights as men” (246). Hodes highlights in moving detail the ways Lincoln’s death sent shockwaves through the nation, in particular, among African Americans who viewed with authentic fear the rise of Andrew Johnson and the easy pardons he bestowed on ex-Confederates less than one month after Lincoln’s burial. For African Americans, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln left the gate ajar for the return of slavery, for which many white southerners prayed in earnest (249).
As she unravels them in Mourning Lincoln, Hodes is careful to set the stories of individuals in a wider political and social context. She shows how Lincoln’s murder whipsawed the North at the moment of its military triumph and, too, magnified the concerns of some white southerners. The former now were chastened in their victory while the latter worried that Andrew Johnson might bring the hammer down on the planter class. Perhaps, some white southerners reasoned, Lincoln had been their “best friend” too. Hodes also discovered that those who heard of Lincoln’s death claimed the news of the calamity had literally “stopped the world...