150 years ago this morning, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, America suffered one of its greatest national tragedies. In the early hours of April 15th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died in the Petersen House across the street from Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. The night before, while viewing Our American Cousin from his box seat, Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. The president was taken to the red-brick townhome of William A. Petersen, a German tailor, where he spent his final hours before passing away in the early morning of the 15th.
Mourning of Lincoln’s death began almost immediately. In Milwaukee, for instance, the mayor proclaimed “that all the dwellings and business places of our City forthwith be clad in mourning, as a token of the deep and common sorrow that prevails; and that the people, abstaining from all excitement improper for such solemn occasion, postpone their ordinary business duties to-day, and that in all the Churches to-morrow such services be performed as will duly express the great and general grief.” In Buffalo, NY, it was reported that once the news had spread, “from the dwelling of the humblest colored family to the mansion of the most opulent citizen, fluttered the half-mast flag, and there were few localities where some manifestations of sorrow were not apparent.” As the Civil War drew to its end, grief over the loss of Lincoln cut across racial lines. Martin R. Delaney, a high-ranking black officer in the United States Colored Troops, wrote a letter to the Anglo-African paper in New York. He described Lincoln’s assassination as “a calamity such as the world never before witnessed” and he recommended that a massive monument be built, one that would be made possible by the contributions of all black people in the United States. For blacks across the North and South, the untimely death of Lincoln, the President whom Delaney described as “the Father of American Liberty,” was deeply saddening.
When Lincoln passed away that April morning, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reportedly remarked, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Indeed, Lincoln entered history as one of America’s greatest presidents, with the memorial in Washington D.C. serving as just one reminder of his tireless work for the Union. Now, 150 years after his death, his legacy remains as we work to honor his pledge that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”