Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
As is fitting for our most eloquent president, Lincoln’s death, and life, have inspired a torrent of writing. The memorializing began at the moment of Lincoln’s death, when his friend and Secretary of State, Edward Stanton, famously said, “Now he belongs to the ages” (or, as some others heard it, “Now he belongs to the angels”). Walt Whitman was inspired by Lincoln’s assassination to write two of his most famous poems: “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain! (1865-1866). More recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin has continued Lincoln’s apotheosis with Team of Rivals (2006), a book that changed my admiration for Lincoln into unabashed hero-worship. As of 2012, the count of books about Lincoln was already at 15,000, and the pace has picked up considerably in the three sesquicentennial years since. Indeed, according to Paul Tetrault, Director of Ford’s Theater, more ink has been spilled about Lincoln than any other figure in world history, save for Jesus Christ.
But of the 1,691 items cataloged under “Abraham Lincoln” in the N-YHS library, the ones that speak most poignantly to me today are wordless. Take, for example, these locks of Lincoln’s hair.
Removed after Lincoln’s death, the hair was sent by his son Robert to Gustavus Vasa Fox, who served as Lincoln’s assistant secretary of the Navy and enjoyed a close relationship with the president. Although viewed today as odd or even creepy, saving locks of a deceased loved one’s hair, and even wearing it as jewelry, was a common form of Victorian mourning. Outdated as the custom may be, its emotional impact is, for me, as strong as ever: holding these locks of Lincoln’s hair, thinking of Robert enclosing them in an envelope, one feels an intimate connection to the living man, and a powerful sense of loss and regret over his death.
In a similar vein, N-YHS also holds a small piece of the waistcoat Abraham Lincoln was wearing on the night of the assassination. It was sent to N-YHS on October 5, 1865, by Maunsell Bradhurst Field, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Lincoln Administration, who was present at Lincoln’s deathbed. Field’s accompanying letter identifies it as “a portion of a larger piece presented to me 24 hours after the [assassination] by Mr. Lincoln’s body-servant.” The remaining portions, Field writes, he gave to “history souvenir hunters.” However callously it may have been distributed, to touch this fabric now, imagining its removal from the dying President’s body, conjures up the drama and anguish of the assassination night more directly than even the most vivid written or visual account.
A less dramatic memento, but for me no less touching, is this piece of crepe I discovered just a few weeks ago, in the recently donated Ludington Family Papers.
Buried among a pile of letters and other documents, this material was folded around a business card and carefully wrapped in age-foxed paper, identifying the contents as a “piece of crape [the 19th century spelling of crepe] Charles wore after the assassination of President Lincoln.” Charles Ludington, partner in the dry-goods store Lathrop and Ludington (later Lathrop, Ludington & Co.), assisted in raising regiments and rendered other patriotic services to the Union during the Civil War. It was common for men to wear black armbands as a symbol of mourning in the Victorian era, as can be seen in a number of early photographs. But this carefully preserved example of the fabric itself evokes the grief of its wearer with an immediacy no image can match. It reminded me of saved scraps of flags and cards from the spontaneous memorials that sprang up after 9/11, which capture the mood that pervaded the city in the attack’s aftermath more vividly than any photograph.
Charles Ludington also saved a program for the “Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln,” an oration given by George Bancroft in Union Square on April 25, 1865. Printed for the Citizens Committee, of which Ludington was a member, the program’s frontispiece is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which has bled through to the adjoining page, as if to illustrate Lincoln’s spirit leaving his body.
N-YHS holds many other rare and valuable records relating to Lincoln and his legacy, but these tangible mementos of his assassination recall his spirit, for me, “far above our poor power to add or detract.” As Doris Kearns Goodwin commented about the chair in which Lincoln was sitting when he was shot, which will be on the stage with her when she delivers a sesquicentennial address at the Ford Museum,”There’s an intimacy to it that catapults you back in time. And hopefully along with that, you’re not just thinking of the death but the life that made it worthwhile.”