The 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is being commemorated this year. Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865, is offering performances, exhibits, panels, tours, and an all-night candlelight vigil. At the Surratt House Museum in Maryland, dedicated to Mary Surratt, the one woman among Booth’s conspirators, visitors can take a tour of the assassin’s escape route. In Springfield, Illinois, the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train Coalition will reenact the president’s hometown funeral. Elsewhere, historical societies, libraries, museums, book festivals, and schools are all paying heightened attention to Lincoln.
Doctors pronounced Lincoln dead at 7:22 a.m. on Saturday, April 15. Like Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11 for later generations, those who lived through that moment would forever remember where they had been when word came. Take Sarah Browne, a white abolitionist from Salem, Massachusetts who carefully documented the scene. The news reached Boston almost immediately through the telegraph wires, and Sarah was at the breakfast table with her children when a knock came at the door. In her diary, she preserved the words she heard: “There is very bad news, Sarah, this morning. President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre last evening.” Sarah also recorded her own reaction. “What a shock!” she wrote, “like a thunder clap it came and no words could express enough of horror and grief at this unparalleled outrage.” In the days afterward, out on the streets of Salem, she gazed at the stricken faces around her. “Each one looks as if bereft of some dear friend,” she wrote to her husband, Albert, who was working for the Union Army down South. After Sarah attended local funeral services, she described an occasion “which can never be forgotten.”
Sarah Browne thought and wrote about Lincoln a great deal over the next weeks and months, capturing her sorrow and anger in the pages of her pocket-sized journal and the letters she sent to Albert. She copied down details about the crime at Ford’s Theatre and described the mourning drapery that shrouded the streets of her New England town. She recounted sermons, vilified the vanquished Confederates, and fervently eulogized the late president.
Why, then, did this inveterate chronicler have nothing to say about Lincoln on the subsequent anniversaries of that traumatic day of shock, horror, and grief? In part, Sarah Browne’s ensuing silence can be explained by the fact that there wasn’t much public commemoration to elicit reflection. In 1866, the Salem Register noted the lowered flags on the Boston State House and the early adjournment of the state legislature. Washington honored Lincoln that year, though the ceremony took place on his birthday, rather than on the anniversary of his death. The 10-year anniversary of the assassination, in 1875, was observed largely in Illinois, and the following year saw major ceremonies only in the nation’s capital. Two years after that, on February 12, 1878, Sarah noted Lincoln’s birthday in her diary, likely prompted by news of a ceremony in Congress dedicating a painting of Lincoln. Yet when she attended a Salem lecture by the abolitionist Wendell Phillips on February 12, 1879, she made no mention of the reason for the occasion.
If Sarah Browne had read every word of the Boston Journal on April 14, 1880, she would have found a notice proclaiming, “To-day is the fifteenth anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln.” That reminder appeared halfway down a column entitled “Current Notes,” the 11th of 22 notices that comprised a mixture of news and anecdotes (it followed an item about professional rat killers and preceded one about Chinese immigration). The next year, Sarah might have come upon the Boston Daily Advertiser’s more substantial remembrance, entitled “A Mournful Anniversary.” In 1885, the year Sarah died, the Boston Journal ran 10 lines under the heading, “The Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination,” with the observation that the federal government “takes no notice of the anniversary of the death.” (The 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909 at long last saw nationwide commemoration, as did the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 1915.)
But lack of public commemoration during Sarah Browne’s lifetime was not the only reason she paid so little attention to anniversaries of Abraham Lincoln’s death or, for that matter, his birthday.
In mid-May 1865, Sarah had written a long letter to her husband, in which she praised God for Union victory and lamented the war’s widows and orphans. After she signed off, she added one more thought: “We are living over each day anniversaries which touch our lives and our souls. A year ago a year ago—.” She was at a loss to complete that sentence. The fact was, when the knock came at Sarah Browne’s door on the morning of April 15, 1865, she was already deeply in mourning. Less than a year before, on June 2, 1864, her 22-year-old daughter Nellie had died. Earlier that year, the family had gone to visit Albert at his Union army headquarters in the South Carolina Sea Islands, and it was there that Nellie became ill, likely with typhoid fever. A week later, she was gone. “The sad task is over, amid tears and agony,” Sarah wrote in her diary, pleading with God to sustain the family as they prepared to return north with Nellie’s body. That’s what Sarah meant when she wrote to Albert in May 1865 about the daily re-living of “anniversaries which touch our lives and our souls.” Sarah’s plural “anniversaries” were the successive dates of Nellie’s demise: the day she fell ill, the day she died, the day of her funeral, all of which had come to pass “a year ago.”
Historians now put the Civil War death toll somewhere around 750,000. In proportion to today’s population, that would equal more than seven million lives lost. Mourners in the 19th century tried hard to submit to God’s will. That was difficult enough in the face of Lincoln’s assassination—why, after all, would God take the president away at the very moment of victory?—but acceptance proved infinitely more difficult when it came to the loss of a loved one. True, the bereaved could try to soothe the agony of absent fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers by looking to Union victory, but many also had to cope with losses, like Nellie Browne’s death, that related less directly to the battlefield.
President Andrew Johnson proclaimed June 1, 1865 an occasion of national prayer for his predecessor. “What a day it will be!—the whole country showing its sorrow,” Sarah Browne wrote to her husband, with Lincoln “cut rudely down in the midst of his great work.” On that day, Albert Browne wrote home from the South. “I cannot sleep, but have arisen and throw open the blinds of my chamber,” he began. “I know full well that at this very moment our hearts and feelings are in accord, that we are each calling to mind the dear departed one.” Albert was writing not about President Lincoln, of course, but about Nellie. “’Tis a year tomor’w since she left us,” he continued, trying to be grateful that God had permitted him “to be the father of this angel child.” Sarah’s feelings were indeed in accord with her husband’s. To her diary, she confided, “I open my arms and drive back the phantom of mental agony but Oh! God I cannot drive away the feeling of loneliness.”
There are gaps in the run of Sarah Browne’s diaries, housed at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, but she clearly visited her daughter’s grave in Salem’s Harmony Grove cemetery with some frequency, including on the anniversaries of Nellie’s death. On June 2, 1869, Sarah wrote, “our agony—our Gethsemane—five years ago,” adding, “Oh! God! Can I look back upon that scene?” On the same date the following year, she revealed that, “Each one of the closing days of our darling’s precious life has been lived over again.” Away from home, Albert wrote to Sarah, “Can we ever forget this day, this very hour! six years since, when our darling Nellie left us?”
The first record of an acknowledgment of her daughter’s birthday comes in Sarah’s 1875 diary. “Our darling Nellie’s birthday!” she wrote on July 9, 11 years after the death. In subsequent years, more often than not, Sarah continued to note the occasion. “Our sweet, darling Nellie’s birthday!” she wrote in a typical entry, adding reassurances about God’s will, or Nellie’s existence as an angel, or her earthly spiritual presence (“I feel her touch & kiss her dear hand” or “How clearly her beautiful face beams upon us now!”). Unsurprisingly, though, Sarah never reconciled herself to the loss. “Oh! the agony of that surrender!” she wrote on June 2, 1881. The next year, she recorded how she had spent the anniversary of Nellie’s death in the company of two of her other children: “How Alice Ned & myself live over the Past!” That year, Nellie would have turned 41.
In 2015, historians and a wider public are remembering the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln as an opportunity to learn more about the past and its resonances.
We will more vividly understand that past if we pay heed to the simultaneous personal losses of those who lived through the momentous events of April 1865. Indeed, even as African Americans asserted that Lincoln’s death proved more devastating for them than for white people, the wartime loss of loved ones nonetheless overshadowed the loss of Lincoln, on the level of immediate emotion. The spare Philadelphia diary of Emilie Davis, for one, reveals a young black woman appalled by the assassination; yet the day Emilie buried her Union-veteran brother was the worst day of her life.
Sarah Browne’s neglect of Lincoln, compared with the ceaseless remembrance of her daughter, did not lessen her desolation over the assassination or her grasp of its significance for the nation’s history—in later years, Sarah wrote with dismay about President Andrew Johnson’s racist policies and the escalating white-on-black violence in the South. Like all of Lincoln’s mourners, Sarah Browne found the assassination unfathomable. Yet it was the death of her daughter that, for the rest of her life, proved unbearable.