Gettysburg and the End of the War, Part 3 – Lincoln’s Assassination
This is the third in a three-part series which focuses on reactions in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the end of the Civil War’s Eastern Theater. Part 1 more fully explained this series and detailed the town’s response to the fall of Richmond. Part 2 covered responses to the surrender at Appomattox.
Robert D. Carson was only five years old in July 1863, when two massive armies converged upon his hometown at Gettysburg. The boy resided on York Street with his parents, Mary and Thomas Carson, the latter having been employed as a clerk at the Bank of Gettysburg.
Just before the battle’s 50th anniversary in 1913, Robbie Carson was interviewed by the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph. He spoke of his uncle, Lt. Charles Hunt of the Fifth Maine Light Artillery, who was wounded on July 1, 1863, and subsequently treated at the Carsons’ home. He detailed his mother’s philanthropic work making bandages for ailing soldiers, and his father’s role in viewing the fighting from the roof of attorney David Wills’s famous house on the town’s central Diamond, before Mr. Carson “and a number of other men” were “driven” away by “the rebel fire.”
“I, too, with another boy of my own age, was watching the battle from an upper back window in the direction of the rebel firing line and could see the puffs of smoke from the cannon,” Carson testified. According to the now-grown man, “Although I was five years old I remember I asked my mother if I could not be a drummer boy, as if there were not some as young as I.” For three days, a “torrent of shells” forced Carson and his family to remain “in constant fear,” particularly when a bullet passed through a window “and struck the wall over the cradle in which my infant sister was lying asleep.”
Four-and-a-half months after the battle, “I heard Lincoln make his immortal Dedicatory Speech at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19th, 1863,” Carson claimed. “I...sat on the stonewall to Lincoln’s left as he spoke, and a little back of the platform. I well remember both seeing and hearing him but have no recollection of what he said.”
Seventeen months later, Carson recalled another story pertaining to Abraham Lincoln, likely magnified emotionally by his personal connection to having seen and heard the 16th president speak. On April 15, 1865, “at breakfast time[,] I was in the side yard, my mother and brother were in the dining room; my father came in from the front of the house and told my mother the sad news,” Carson stated. “Almost immediately afterwards I came in through the side door and saw at once that something had happened. My mother was crying but she turned to me and said: ‘Robbie. Lincoln is shot.’”
Carson’s experience was indicative of a reality in Gettysburg that was not true of many other locations during the Civil War—in Pennsylvania or across America: The 2,400 residents of the Adams County seat had welcomed Lincoln to its environs for a two-day expedition amid their borough’s darkest hour. On November 18 and 19, 1863, its children interacted with him, and, like Carson, developed a lasting lifetime memory. Likewise, then-11-year-old Elizabeth White later noted of her conversation with Lincoln, “He picked me up on his knee and patted my head,” saying, “‘We are all glad that this battle is over, aren’t we?’”
It was uniquely Gettysburg’s honor to say that Abraham Lincoln disembarked at its train station, walked its streets, lodged in one of its homes (the Wills house, where Robert Carson’s father observed combat), toured its battlefield, visited its farms and educational campuses, sat in its Presbyterian Church, and spoke to its citizenry. It was also distinctly at Gettysburg that Lincoln explained the cause, course, and looming consequences of the conflict through his most celebrated address, thus eternally linking the man and that moment with this crossroads and its community.
Now, after Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and died the following morning, Gettysburg mourned with all its might. This was perhaps best physically exemplified by its weekly newspapers being bordered by thick black edges—historically, a common tactic to depict sorrow in print journalism.
“The news of the death of President Lincoln, by assassination, was received here on Saturday morning, between 8 and 9 o’clock,” reported the Gettysburg Compiler on Monday, April 17. “That it shocked, appalled all—such as no piece of intelligence ever before did—is but using a weak expression as to its effect.”
Despite the Democratic paper’s political differences with the Republican Lincoln (particularly after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and redefined the war as a conquest to end slavery), the Compiler recognized the dreadful nature of the occasion for most Americans. “Every face gave evidence of the occurrence of some terrible calamity,” conservative editor Henry Stahle detected of his Gettysburg constituency. “The bells were at once tolled, and places of business closed. The flag in the diamond was raised at half-mast, and throughout the town the flags were draped in mourning.”
The Compiler was “startled...by the intelligence,” remarking, “An event so appalling has never before occurred in our history, and that it should have fallen upon the country at a time when the prospect for the restoration of peace and order was so bright and heart-cheering, lent additional weight to the afflicting visitation.” After the fall of the Confederacy’s capital at Richmond, Virginia, and the surrender of its principal army at Appomattox Court House, “President Lincoln has shown recently so manifest a desire and intention to act with magnanimity and moderation in adjusting our difficulties...,” the Compiler conceded; “and that he should have been removed, at such a juncture, is regarded by all reflecting men as the greatest misfortune that could have befallen the nation.”
Although it was not the norm, in its April 18 edition, Gettysburg’s leading Republican periodical, the Adams Sentinel, agreed with the rival Compiler in its editorials on “the terrible tragedy which has startled the Nation—the murder of President LINCOLN, and the attempted assassination of Secretary [of State William] SEWARD.”
“Although several days have now passed since the first shock occasioned by its sudden announcement, we have not yet been able to recover sufficient composure to contemplate it with the calmness necessary to measure its significance, or speculate upon probable consequences,” the Sentinel opined. “In the presence of a crime so essentially Satanic and Heaven-daring—a calamity so overwhelming and so appalling—the heart sinks crushed and bleeding.”
So much had changed for the worse in only a few days’ time. During the previous fortnight, “the loyal hearts of the American people beat high with patriotic exultation...,” the Sentinel proudly noted. “In every city, and village, and hamlet of the loyal North, the banner of the Republic was thrown proudly to the breeze.” Two weeks earlier, on April 4, the paper ran a headline which exclaimed, “Glorious News! PETERSBURG & RICHMOND CAPTURED!” followed on April 11 by, “Glorious Victory! BRIGHT SKIES! Lee Surrendered AND HIS WHOLE ARMY!” Now, on April 18, an equally boldened banner lamented, “MURDER OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, & MURDEROUS ASSAULT ON Secretary Seward & Family.”
Suddenly, “the treasonable conspiracy which, for four years, had deluged the land with blood” reared its ugly head again, and “all at once...the voice of joy is hushed, mourners go about the streets, and the heart of the nation lies crushed beneath a calamity so utterly overwhelming, as to blanch every check, and make the stoutest heart quail with dread,” the Sentinel articulated. As such, “in the presence of a crime so astounding..., we have no heart to attempt either the language of a eulogy, or to speculate on the possible consequences of this terrible tragedy,” the progressive paper continued.
“This awful event, when the news of it reached us on Saturday morning, threw over our town a gloom which has never been equalled [sic],” penned editor Robert Harper, who hosted William Seward in his home when Lincoln stayed at the neighboring Wills house in November 1863. “The dreadful deed was so shocking to every heart...that but one feeling prevailed, of deep and painful sorrow,” Harper’s column explained. “All places of business were closed at once, the bells tolled, and flags draped in mourning.”
Both the Compiler and Sentinel reported that on April 15, Burgess (Mayor) E.G. McCreary convened a well-attended meeting to determine an official collective response to honor Lincoln’s passing. Following “a deserved tribute to the memory of the deceased” by Congressman Edward McPherson and “some appropriate remarks” from David McConaughy, director of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, seven local elected officials, newsmen, and business leaders unanimously adopted a memorial resolution.
Collectively, said the document, “the citizens of Gettysburg in Town Meeting” resolved, “That as a mark of respect to the Office and the Man, this meeting recommend that the business places of the town remain closed for the residue of the day, and that every citizen be requested to wear crape upon his left arm for the space of thirty days.” Additionally, the resolution allowed for a nine-man “Committee of Arrangement to take all the necessary steps for more formal and appropriate actions, in the future.” The group “convened immediately after,” said the Compiler, “when it was resolved that the proper authorities be requested to have the Court House, churches and public buildings of the town draped in mourning” and “to request all business places to be closed during the burial of the late President,” which eventually occurred on May 4.
Later in 1865, Dr. Martin Luther Stoever produced a reflection on Lincoln’s untimely murder from his unique professional vantage point. Stoever was Pennsylvania (now Gettysburg) College’s first-ever history professor, in addition to being an instructor of Latin and literature. Having witnessed firsthand the humanitarian work of the U.S. Christian Commission after the battle in 1863, Stoever signed up to lead Gettysburg’s local chapter, and during his college’s summer 1864 break, he traveled to the trenches and represented the organization as an aide during the Siege of Petersburg.
In the monthly Lutheran magazine, the Evangelical Quarterly Review, Stoever authored a 22-page obituary in honor of Lincoln. Above all other accomplishments, it was the Emancipation Proclamation that most impressed Stoever, who wrote, “This great, inauspicious act, on which the glory of his administration rests, and which will be prominent when all other events shall be forgotten, gave freedom to a race, and liberated four millions of enslaved immortal beings from the chains and degradation of human bondage. This is his lasting memorial.”
As for what he experienced when news of Lincoln’s demise reached Gettysburg, Stoever confessed, “No death ever produced a sensation so profound, and so general....It was a day of the deepest gloom.”
“Business is suspended, trade pauses, public buildings and private dwellings are closed, the streets darkened; flags are flying at half-mast, and funeral emblems are everywhere displayed,” Stoever bemoaned. “Anguish and terror are depicted in every countenance, strong men clasp one another’s hands in silence, or bury their heads and weep. Men of all political parties and shades of opinion, representations of all religious creeds,...all classes,...mourn with an unaffected and sacred grief.”
The new U.S. commander-in-chief, Andrew Johnson, set aside a “day of Humiliation and Prayer because of the assassination of President Lincoln,” scheduled for June 1, 1865. In Gettysburg, the event “was observed...by a general cessation of business, and attendance upon the religious services recommended by the President,” reported the Adams Sentinel on June 6. In the Presbyterian Church, at the intersection of Baltimore and High streets, the Rev. D.T. Carnahan delivered a sermon in the same house of worship that Lincoln attended in November 1863.
“Every good citizen...feels that the death of President Lincoln is not only a great national loss, but a personal bereavement,” grieved Pastor Carnahan. “His large, generous, honest heart ever beat responsive to the interests of all the inhabitants of the land and indicated the deepest concern in their welfare. Their good was his aim and heart’s desire; and their happiness his happiness. For his country he lived, and for his country...he died.”
The eulogy “was a well-considered, interesting, and eloquent tribute to the private virtues and public services of the great and good man, whose death is mourned not only by America, but by the civilized world,” the Sentinel editorialized. “We understand that it is to be printed in pamphlet form, and will be issued in about two weeks.” Indeed, it was subsequently published.
In addition to tributes to Lincoln by Gettysburgians in the spring and summer of 1865, prominent figures from elsewhere had in mind the town’s intimate connection, as well.
In Boston, Massachusetts, Sen. Charles Sumner extoled the Gettysburg Address in his Lincoln eulogy, surmising it now had more meaning due to Lincoln’s death. “That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg, and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act...,” said Sumner. “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are always more than battles.”
One veteran of many battles, including Gettysburg, addressed Lincoln’s loss on July 4, 1865, the first Independence Day after the culmination of the Civil War. The occasion was the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Monument cornerstone in Soldiers’ National Cemetery, south of Gettysburg. It was this same burial ground which Lincoln consecrated in his own right. The former combatant—and present speaker—was the one-armed eventual Medal of Honor recipient, Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who commanded the Eleventh Corps in the Union army at Gettysburg two years earlier.
In his Fourth of July oration, Howard largely spoke of the service of common soldiers, but spent a few lines speaking about Lincoln’s legacy, citing the Gettysburg Address in the process.
“While Mr. Lincoln’s name is so near and dear to us, and the memory of his work and sacrifice so fresh, I deem it not inappropriate to repeat his own words...,” Howard reflected, before quoting the entirety of the Gettysburg Address. “The civil war is ended; the test is complete. He, Abraham Lincoln never forgot his own dedication till the work was finished. He did display even increased devotion if it were possible.”
“How very much of grateful recollection clusters around the name of Abraham Lincoln,” Howard believed, “as we pronounce it here among the dead who have died that their nation might not perish from the earth! These grounds have already been consecrated, and are doubly sacred from the memory of our brethren who lie here, and from the association with...Mr. Lincoln.”
As he spoke to an audience which likely contained members who were present for Lincoln’s legendary address, Howard connected the ground, the conflict, the people, and the consequences.
Lincoln’s body is “now resting beneath the sod” as a casualty of war, General Howard remarked, but his “spirit is still living, and unmistakably animating every true American heart this day.”
This concludes the “Gettysburg and the End of the War” series.
 “Boy of Gettysburg Recalls Great Fray,” Philadelphia Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia, PA), June 30, 1913, clipping at Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, PA, Civilian Files, C-Fo.  “Ohio Woman ‘Veteran’ of Gettysburg Fight,” North American (Philadelphia, PA), June 29, 1913, clipping at Adams County Historical Society, Civilian Files, W-We.  Credit is due to historian John Rudy for influencing the author with this realization, beginning at his lecture, “Suffering And Calamity Will Be Overruled: Pennsylvania College and the Civil War,” Adams County Historical Society, United Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg, PA, April 7, 2015.  “ASSASSINATION OF THE PRESIDENT,” Gettysburg Compiler (Gettysburg, PA), April 17, 1865, 2.  “ASSASSINATION OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!” Gettysburg Compiler, April 17, 1865, 2.
 “MURDER OF THE PRESIDENT,” Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, PA), April 18, 1865, 2.  “Glorious News!” Adams Sentinel, April 4, 1865, 3; “BRIGHT SKIES!” Adams Sentinel, April 11, 1865, 2; “MURDER OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN,” Adams Sentinel, April 18, 1865, 2.  “MURDER OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN,” Adams Sentinel, April 18, 1865, 2.  “The Murder of the President,” Adams Sentinel, April 18, 1865, 2.  “TOWN MEETING,” Gettysburg Compiler, April 17, 1865, 2; “The Murder of the President,” Adams Sentinel, April 18, 1865, 2.  Michael J. Birkner and David Crumplar, Gettysburg College: The Campus History Series (Charleston, SC; Chicago; Portsmouth, NH; and San Francisco, CA: Arcadia Publishing, 2006), 18; John M. Rudy, “Martin L. Stoever: Moving His Abolition Needle,” The Cupola: Scholarship at Gettysburg College (Gettysburg, PA), Oct. 13, 2013.  Martin Luther Stoever, “Abraham Lincoln,” in The Evangelical Quarterly Review, edited by M.L. Stoever (Gettysburg, PA: Aughinbaugh & Wible, 1865), vol. 16, 408-409.  Stoever, “Abraham Lincoln,” in The Evangelical Quarterly Review, vol. 16, 404-405.  Adams Sentinel, June 6, 1865, 2.  D.T. Carnahan, Oration on the Death of Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President of the United States, Delivered before the Citizens of Gettysburg, Pa., June 1, 1865 (Gettysburg, PA: Aughinbaugh & Wible, 1865), 7-8.  Adams Sentinel, June 6, 1865, 2.  Charles Sumner, Promises of the Declaration of Independence. Eulogy on Abraham Lincoln, Delivered Before the Municipal Authorities of the City of Boston, June 1, 1865 (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1865), 40.  “Oration of Major-General O.O. Howard,” July 4, 1865, in John Russell Bartlett, The Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. With the Proceedings at Its Consecration; at the Laying of the Corner-Stone of the Monument, and at Its Dedication (Providence, RI: Providence Press Company for the Board of Commissioners of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, 1874), 67-68.