Ex-Confederates Learn of Lincoln’s Assassination

Reminders of defeat could be found throughout Virginia, from the burned-down business district of Richmond to the leveled countryside of the Shenandoah Valley and northern Virginia.  A London Times correspondent reported that “the once fertile fields,” between Winchester and Martinsburg, “are lying barren, for their owners have lost all their means, their negroes having fled and their horses and money having been carried off.”  As if the physical destruction were not enough, he went on to note that the “graves are scattered by the roadside.”  This reporter would have had just as much to report had he traveled east over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the area between Manassas and Alexandria.  The constant movement of armies along with the two major battles near Manassas left miles of entrenchments, scores of naked chimneys, and few trees standing; one observer described the area south of Alexandria along the railroad as a “prairie.”

While the physical manifestations of war painted a bleak picture of the immediate future, news of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14 presented ex-Confederates with the possibility of more severe retribution from the federal government as well as more immediate threats amongst a saddened and vengeful Union army.  Edgar Warfield learned of Lincoln’s assassination while waiting for a steamship in Richmond for the final leg of his journey to Alexandria.  He stood amongst a large crowd of white and black (“but mostly black”) Union soldiers: “A feeling of uneasiness crept over us as we momentarily expected something unpleasant to happen.”  The passion & excitement of the crowds,” in Washington, D.C., according to Edward P. Alexander, “were so great that anyone on the street, recognised merely as a Confederate, would have been instantly mobbed & lynched.”  News filtered throughout Virginia slowly and was filled with rumor.  Not until April 20 did Samuel Howard learn Lincoln had “been shot & killed his son wounded, and Seward desperately wonded [sic].”  Although William Grove’s diary entry of April 15 includes a note indicating Lincoln had been shot and “Seward mortally wounded” as late as April 25 he was contemplating more recent news that both Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley had been assassinated.  It is almost impossible to find an accurate account of events in Washington among returning soldiers.  This is not surprising given the state of communications in the immediate postwar period.  It is important, however, to understand that Lincoln’s assassination was an ongoing event for these men, the scale of which could not be properly understood.  In the most extreme cases men walked home under the impression that the president, vice-president, secretary of state, and highest ranking general had all fallen victim to Booth’s conspiracy; simply stated, for these individuals there was no federal government.

Although many white Southerners agreed that Lincoln’s actions since 1861 were best understood as those of a “tyrant” they remained ambivalent about his murder.  John Dooley observed that “people don’t know whether to rejoice or to be sad.”  “And the reason,” Dooley went on to state, “appears to be that they are not sure whether it be better for the South that Abraham should be king, or some Successor.”  For those with access to more reliable news, that successor would be Andrew Johnson.  A farmer in Nelson County expressed grave concern for the future of the South with Johnson assuming the presidency:

We had hopes that such terms would be offered us as would not degrade or absolutely ruin us, but a sad blow has been given to their expectations by the wicked and cruel assassination of Mr Lincoln on the 14th April by a man named Jno Wilkes Booth.  Son of the famous actor and himself an actor it is said by profession.  On the same night an attempt was made to assassinate Seward also, but he is said to be recovering from his wounds.  Booth has since been pursued and killed!  What awful tragedies has this war produced!  and what frightful scenes may yet be in store for us.  Should Andrew Johnson pursue a harsh and oppressive policy.  Johnson is a Southern man a Tenesseean [sic] by birth but a renegade a low vindictive demagogue from whose foul passions and hatred of gentleman the South has every thing to fear.  The awful sacrifices of the South to result only in subjugation are frightful to think of oceans of blood and millions of treasures.  Wide spread ruin every where.  Emancipation of course is the first step which carries ruin with it to many myself among the number.

This farmer gave voice to the hopes of many by speculating that, “Providence has some wise and beneficent purpose which will be revealed in his own good time.”

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