The news of Lincoln’s murder was the item of first importance in the New York Irish-American, the largest of the city’s immigrant newspapers. The April 22, 1865 issue of the weekly newspaper described the grief of New York:
Seldom has any community experienced a shock more sudden and severe, or…more stunning, than that which our people received…when the tidings which had been flashed along the electric wire during the night were disseminated through the medium of the press, and it became known to all that the President of the United States had fallen by the hand of an assassin. 1
The paper said that in New York “a more general and sincere manifestation of mourning has never been witnessed.” New Yorkers mourned both because of the “merits of the man” and because of the “respect due to the high office he filled.” They also mourned because for the first time the chief magistrate of the free republic had been murdered to “glut the vengeance of faction.”2
On April 18, 1865 Lincoln lay in state in the East Room of the White House.
Just six months earlier, however, Lincoln’s merits had eluded the newspaper’s editors. On election eve in November of 1864, the newspaper urged its readers to block Lincoln’s re-election:
we…urge upon all our readers…the paramount duty that devolves on them to do all that lies in their power, as citizens, exercising the privileges of the franchise to save their country from the dangers with which it is menaced, should the present administration, unfortunately succeed, through force or fraud in securing a second term of office. 3
On April 19, tens of thousands of people escorted President Lincoln’s body down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.
A week after the election, the editor mourned that “The party of Mr. Lincoln have triumphed and another term of office, with its spoils…, is secured to him and them.” The editor wondered at “what frauds upon the electoral franchise were committed” to secure Lincoln’s victory.4
The New York Irish American reflected the views of many of New York’s Irish who opposed Lincoln’s policies, particularly the imposition of the draft and the Emancipation Proclamation. Although many had been War Democrats, supporting the suppression of the Confederacy, dissatisfaction with the president had mounted in the last two years of the war. This opposition had fueled the July 1863 Draft Riots and the Irish vote against Lincoln in the 1864 elections. 5
Now, the president’s death following his triumph in the war threw many Irish New Yorkers into genuine mourning. But for others, for his most vocal critics, grief may have been a self-protective mask. The president had now become a martyr, and anyone who had opposed him was seen by Republican partisans as an accomplice to assassination.6
The danger to dissidents was real. The New York Times reported that when “a German” said the president should have been killed four years earlier, he was arrested and held on $1,000 bail. Two other New York men were arrested for expressing joy at the death of Lincoln and received six months in prison.7
As much as the Irish American wanted to get right with Lincoln, those planning the Lincoln Funeral Train taking the president’s body from Washington to Springfield, Illinois worried that the Irish would disrupt the ceremonies when Lincoln’s corpse was passing through New York. An anonymous letter published later in the New York Tribune claimed that “some of the Irish societies” warned that they would not march in the funeral procession “if a place in the procession was assigned to the colored men.”8
Racial discrimination, political protest, and an Irish boycott were not what the men planning the Funeral Train wanted associated with Lincoln’s memory. Immigrant communities along the route, as well as the Republican leadership in Washington, would be tested during the greatest outpouring of grief in the nation’s history.9
Lincoln’s body lay in state in a United States Capitol decked in black crepe and flying the flag at half mast.
Video: Historian Michael Burlingame Speaks on Lincoln’s Funeral After Unitarian Services in Springfield. Ill.
1. New York Irish American April 22, 1865
2. New York Irish American April 22, 1865
3. New York Irish American Nov. 5 1864
4. New York Irish American Nov. 19, 1864
5. Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes published by Yale University Press (2015); Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History by Richard Wightman Fox published by W. W. Norton & Company (2015)
6. Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes published by Yale University Press (2015); Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History by Richard Wightman Fox published by W. W. Norton & Company (2015)
7. New York Times 4/19/1865 p. 2
8. “The Right to Mourn”: Thursday, April 27, 1865 New York Tribune (New York, NY) Volume: XXV Issue: 7506 Page: 4
9. Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes published by Yale University Press (2015); Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History by Richard Wightman Fox published by W. W. Norton & Company (2015)
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.