Syracuse mourns President Abraham Lincoln after his assassination
One hundred and seventy-seven years ago, the citizens of this entire republic made the calendar arguably the most historic week in the history of this country.
The almost unimaginable manic week endured by the American people began on April 9, 1865. That evening the newspapers of central New York and throughout that weary, war-torn country broke the remarkable news of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant. at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia.
President Abraham Lincoln was barely a month into his second term.
In his brief and conciliatory inaugural address a few weeks earlier, he had made it clear that his administration would act “without malice to any and with charity to all” to bring “a just and lasting peace” to the horrific civil war.
Between that fateful moment when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and Lee’s surrender almost four years to the day later, scholars now say nearly 750,000 men died to save the union and abolish slavery.
Now that the war was over, Lincoln could shift his focus and “dress the nation’s wounds.” A rejoicing nation rejoices.
Thus the horrific and shocking news reported in the evening edition of the “Syracuse Daily Courier and Union” on April 15, 1865 was made all the more surreal.
The president had been shot by an assassin’s bullet during the previous evening’s performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, and died that morning in the house across the street.
WW Green, Editor of the “Daily Courier and Union” and longtime critic of Lincoln, echoed the sentiments of the martyred President and urged his readers to disavow “the spirit of malignity and vengeance” and to “pay Mr. Lincoln the last sad tribute due to the Chief Magistrate of the Republic”.
Over the next few days, Syracuse readers followed the rapidly developing story as the local Western Union office buzzed with activity day and night. These malign sentiments, however, were directed at the president’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, an intermediate stage actor and younger brother of Edwin Booth, the Daniel Day Lewis of his day.
As the story goes, Booth was the leader of a ragtag group of conspirators who sought to avenge the Confederacy by decapitating Lincoln’s cabinet in a series of assassinations on the evening of April 14. Yet readers of the “Daily Courier and Union,” like the rest of their countrymen, did not yet know the scope of the plot.
What was reported on April 17 is that former New York State Governor, Senator and Lincoln Secretary of State William Henry Seward lay ‘near death’ at his home, a victim of a vicious stab. (Seward’s son Augustus was also injured in the attack).
Seward was stabbed in the face and neck with a Bowie knife by fellow conspirator Lewis Powell. In an almost miraculous coincidence, Seward’s life was saved by a splint that doctors had used to fix a broken jaw a few weeks earlier, resulting from a car accident.
What the American people did not know was that in addition to Lincoln and Seward, Booth had commissioned another conspirator, George Atzerodt, to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson.
Unlike Booth and Powell, however, Atzerodt never led his attack. Instead, he got drunk and aborted the mission, eventually passing out in a DC hotel room.
Unfortunately for the United States, John Wilkes Booth did not pass out due to intoxication.
The dashing actor perfectly played his self-appointed role in this national tragedy. Around 10 p.m. that Good Friday, Booth headed to the President’s box at Ford’s Theater. Finding him unattended, he snuck into the private box where the Lincolns and their guests were enjoying the popular comedy starring British actress Laura Keene.
Booth knew the room. He locked the door from the inside and waited for a big reaction from the crowd, then he shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Deringer pistol.
Always the performer, Booth jumped out of the box and onto the stage. According to reports printed in Syracuse, Booth caught his spur in the curtain and fell onto the stage, breaking his leg; he stood up and shouted, “The South is avenged” before, incredibly, escaping. Amid the confusion, Keene walked over to the box and cradled the dying president’s head in his lap.
The “terrors of assassination” have been described in incredible and fascinating detail for readers of the “Daily Courier and Union”.
Beneath the call for a public meeting to discuss Syracuse’s official response was a harrowing, minute-by-minute account of the president’s final hours that included his pulse and breathing. The last entry read, “7:21 a.m.: Death.”
At the time, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who stood beside the bed where Lincoln died, reportedly said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” It was according to one of the titles, “The darkest day since the rebellion”.
Here in Syracuse, as in many other cities across the country, deep national grief took the cathartic form of a mock funeral for the martyred president, a sad tribute indeed.
Mayor Stewart announced that all schools, churches and businesses would close on April 19, for a citywide procession to coincide with Lincoln’s funeral at the White House. From sunrise, cannons fired from the armory every half hour, while thousands of people went to their churches to prepare to join the funeral procession, which began at 12:30 p.m.
Each of the city’s neighborhoods chose porters, including former mayor and future congressman EW Leavenworth and local brewing magnate Jacob Pfhol, to follow the “sleek and beautiful” hearse, drawn by six gray horses.
Various military regiments, firefighters, members of the Municipal Council and all the civil societies of the city parade in procession to the sound of church bells and funeral songs. From Hanover Square, the assembled multitudes moved through Clinton Square, crossing the Erie Canal at Clinton Street.
They continued to James, past houses and buildings draped in black crepe and streamers, to Lock Street (State Street) to Genesee Street on their return to Hanover Square at a quarter past three.
In the center of the square stood a large platform “tastefully decorated” with black and white flags and fabric, around which had gathered what Mr Green called the “largest, smartest appearing… assembly ever summoned to this city”.
After some remarks from Mayor Stewart and a prayer, former Republican Congressman Charles B. Sedgwick, a man who worked with the ousted president many times over the years, delivered a scholarly eulogy that spoke with enthusiasm of the virtues of Lincoln, who only a week ago, full of life and hope, he labored with a joyful heart for the public welfare, and the dark clouds of rebellion and betrayal, which during all his administration had lowered, were just beginning to rise.
In the end, the war forced upon it, “led by the rebels with characteristic cruelty” to maintain slavery, had resulted in its destruction.
The deputy. Mr Sedgwick continued to sing the praises of his late friend’s administration, while giving voice to some of the man’s critics, of whom there had been many.
“His friends”, he continued, “have sometimes conceded that he hesitated, hesitated” in particular around the “crown of his administration, the proclamation of emancipation”.
The former congressman disagreed.
“Perseverance, not hesitation, was the distinguishing quality of his mind.” Sedgwick continued, “He is gone, but he left us the rich heritage of a redeemed, regenerated and free country.”
More important than that, Sedgwick told this crowd of mourners in a town that had been a great central depot on the Underground Railroad, was the eradication of slavery.
Coming to his exhilarating conclusion, Sedgwick said: “The great stain on our national character, the great source of strife and discord among our people, by their courage and bravery, has been blotted out and removed. His name has become historic.
In an incredible coincidence, on the evening of April 26, Lincoln’s body passed through Syracuse on the return trip to Springfield, Illinois.
Earlier in the morning, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, had been trapped in a tobacco barn in Port Royal, Virginia, about 75 miles south of Washington. Hérold surrendered. To force Booth out, the barn was set on fire. In the confusion, Booth was shot by U.S. Army Sergeant Boston Corbett of the 16th NY Calvary.
He died shortly after seven in the morning