Contemporary Responses to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 brought an emotional climax to the painful and protracted national conflict of the Civil War. At first, however, the assassination suggested that the war had not ended. The Confederates had formally surrendered at Appomattox Court House five days before, but Lincoln’s killing seemed to many Northerners to signal the inability of the South to admit defeat.
Lincoln’s Death on Easter Weekend
Shot on Good Friday and dying the next morning, Lincoln became the focus of Easter sermons around the nation. Some of those preaching were abolitionists and unionists earlier frustrated by Lincoln’s forgiving attitude toward the South. Now they compared Lincoln’s assassination to the killing of Jesus Christ, who had prayed from the cross on behalf of those who crucified him. The Reverend Amory Dwight Mayo of Cincinnati, for example, preached that the assassination demonstrated the utter depravity of the slaveholders, who
. . . began by the blasphemy of God in the systematic degradation of his image, man to a brute . . . . Yet . . . we said . . . these gentlemen and gentlewomen are our brothers and sisters, our associates in Church, in State, and society; they are dreadfully wrong, and are now doing wrong to their bondmen, but they will hear the voice of our reason, our science, our religion; they will repent, and at last be reconciled, and at last do justice to their own enslaved, to us, to themselves, and to their country. And so we went on in our sin and our blindness, strengthening their hands, and arming them with new weapons of power, forgiving them faster than they could harm us. . . .
And soon enough they began to shed the blood of our own proud race, and to do to us all the dreadful things they had done to our weaker brother. . . .
Wicked men upon earth always go on unto the last result, and that result is to slay their truest friends, and quench their blind rage in the blood of the noblest who would die to save them.
Some ministers urged that Americans follow Lincoln’s Christlike example of forgiveness, forbearing to blame the South as a whole for the action of one assassin. Yet others, Mayo among them, called for harsh measures against those who had traitorously seceded and now, they presumed, approved of the assassin’s deed.