“The bells are tolling mournfully, Strong men weep in the streets. The grief is wide-spread …. This is indeed a day of gloom.”
— The Washington Star, April 15, 1865
When the door to the Peterson House, across the street from Ford’s Theater in Washington, swung open on the morning of April 15, 1865, the gathered crowd witnessed a simple, flag-draped coffin emerge. Accompanied by a small guard of cavalry, the coffin, carrying the body of the slain president, was placed on a horse-drawn hearse. As the procession took its first steps, the body of Abraham Lincoln began a journey that would not end until it reached Springfield, Illinois weeks later. On that spring morning, who Abraham Lincoln was in the hearts and minds of his countrymen — and the collective assessment of his life we share 150 years later — also began a journey, a journey of transformation.
In the days and weeks that followed the assassination, orators spoke from both the centers of American power and the smallest of rural pulpits. The funeral train that bore his body reversed the journey president-elect Lincoln had taken only four years earlier. Who Abraham Lincoln was and what he would become in the American mind was altered, not just by the events of that Good Friday, but also by the impact of the just-concluded Civil War, by the 700,000 dead Americans and the carnage delivered to the doorsteps of huge number of American families. Ironically, the last act of John Wilkes Booth would lead a tired and beaten nation to look upon life and death in new and different ways.
In the days that followed the assassination, as ritual eclipsed reality, a resurrection of a different form began that Easter weekend, moving across the broken land much as Lincoln’s funeral train swept up the East Coast — through the Hudson Valley — and into the interior of the nation.
On Saturday April 15, at 7:22 a.m., Abraham Lincoln drew his last breath. The telegraph, which had dramatically changed the speed at which information traveled in 19th-century America and, ironically, which Lincoln had come to rely on to press the war against the Confederacy, distributed the shocking news across the land. Following arrival of the news in Kingston, according to the Kingston Democratic Journal “… All the places of business were closed and several church bells tolled for one hour. Numerous public and private buildings were draped with emblems of mourning while all classes united in expressions of sorrow.”
In the village of Rondout (Kingston and Rondout had not yet merged), the arrival of the news from Washington was greeted similarly. “The intelligence on Saturday morning put a stop to all business,” reported the Rondout Courier. “The stores and warehouses generally were closed by common consent and, to most of our citizens, that Saturday was what it was pronounced by one of our most extensive and energetic men of [merit], ‘the longest day of his life.’ All seemed in a stupor under the sudden blow; anxious for but dreading further news, not knowing what the day would bring forth.”
That same evening, as the fuller nature of Booth’s plot became known and as the impact of the assassination began to reveal itself, local residents, who, with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox only days earlier had felt the promise of peace, came together in Rondout and Kingston. Gathered at the courthouse in Kingston, William B. Wright, who had been selected as president of the evening’s meeting, offered what perspective he could.
“My friends,” he began, “I can hardly trust myself to speak even briefly of the terrible situation that has brought us together. The people are in sorrow. Their magistrate has fallen by the assassin’s hands and that magistrate, the loved, the generous, the magnanimous, Lincoln, whom all even the most embittered partisan, in times gone by, were now learning to venerate and love! And at such a juncture too, when the hopes of the country rested upon him — when joy and gladness pervaded the land — when all were cheerfully looking forward to a speedily vindicated government, a restored union and nationality, and a proud triumph of the constitution and the laws.”
In Rondout, a meeting came together in what was then known as Washington Hall. According to the Rondout Courier, “The meeting was a large one despite the storm, and marked by a sober earnestness that was never seen at a public gathering before.”
With news that the president’s funeral would be held in Washington the following Wednesday, those gathered undertook planning for the observances to be held. After passing a motion calling for the closing of all businesses on the day of the funeral, those assembled further resolved, “That we will unite in the due public expression of that sorrow, which fills all hearts on this sad event, by the emblems of mourning and public observance adopted by the American people.”
By Sunday, many of the local churches, including the Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist, were displaying emblems of mourning and offering services that were “in wisdom with the deep sorrow of the hour.” On instructions from the archbishop, Roman Catholic churches in the area offered mass at numerous intervals throughout the day.
In Rondout, the Baptist church also held what was described as a “union meeting,” during which “solemn prayer and services were joined in by a dense crowd of our people.” Later that day, beginning at 2 p.m., the echo of minute guns could be heard throughout the area, while church bells also began to peal, tolling until 4 p.m.
What took place in the hours and days that followed the news of Lincoln’s death was matched in towns and cities across the North. As the Courier noted, “Rondout, we dare say, was only like every village of the land.” As the immediate shock of Lincoln’s death began to ebb, a different sense of loss seemed to take root in those same towns and villages. For many, who he was in death gave new meaning to what he had been in life. The transformation of Abraham Lincoln was under way.
In many respects, the degree of feeling for the slain president, as expressed and experienced in the days following the assassination, was in the minds of some historians “out of all proportion to what people actually believed about Lincoln” prior to his death. In Ulster County, Abraham Lincoln had actually lost the 1864 election to George McClellan by a vote of 7768 to 6900. By comparison, he had outpolled Stephen Douglas in 1860 by approximately 500 votes. People had tired of a war that dragged on far too long and continued to visit death upon their homes. And, though the war was ending, many, more bent on revenge than reconciliation, were unhappy with the seemingly modest terms the president had outlined for reentry into the Union by the Southern states.