Artist: Jay Hambidge
Commentary by Matthew Mason
Associate Professor of History
This work captures well the shock that Lincoln’s assassination produced in Americans. The murder of a president was unprecedented in American history; although there had been an attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson, the fact that it failed meant it did not really resonate in the American memory. In context of the winding up of the Civil War, Booth’s killing of the president seemed an especially vile Confederate war crime. Many Union soldiers still in the field talked darkly of avenging his murder on Southern civilians or Confederate prisoners that fell into their hands. Meanwhile, many white Southerners worried that it would provoke such actions and further poison attempts at a reunion favorable to their interests and political standing.
Lincoln’s death in this context intensified what one historian has called the “vicarious war” whereby civilians on the Union home front felt the war’s impact to an unusual degree. Lincoln had long symbolized how personally Northern noncombatants had taken the war—he had articulated its aims better than any, had gone out to visit the army, had aged considerably during the war, had awaited word of the news of battles by telegram, etc.— much as other Northern civilians had read newspapers assiduously, had dreams about battle, etc. To have this emblem of home front sufferings die as the war was ending only increased the impact of his death. Thus, the fact that he had died on Good Friday was not lost on contemporaries, and the comparisons to Christ multiplied.
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