After John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, the Union went into deep mourning for the president who had led them through the Civil War. Many viewed Lincoln's death as a martyrdom, especially those in the North. But how did Confederates react to Lincoln's assassination? The short answer: It's complicated.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln occurred about a week after General Robert E. Lee's surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Though the war technically did not end yet - as conflict still raged in the Western Theater of the Civil War - for all intents and purposes, it was over when General Lee conceded. Lincoln's assassination at the hands of a Confederate sympathizer created a deep wound in a nation on the cusp of peace and reunion. In the North, many eulogized Lincoln as the Union's fallen leader. Millions of mourners paid their respects as his body was taken on a nationwide funeral tour.
Some may celebrate Lincoln as one of the best presidents in US history, but not all Civil War-era Americans - especially those living south of the Mason-Dixon line - endorsed him. Some Confederate leaders after the Civil War respectfully honored Lincoln, while others scorned the slain statesman; the same goes for everyday Southerners. From celebratory toasts to anxious expressions of grief, Confederate reactions to Lincoln's death varied wildly.
Certain Confederates reacted with joy. Abraham Lincoln, the man who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation and led the Union war effort to deny Southern secession, appeared like an enemy. South Carolina diarist Emma LeConte's happiness at the news mirrored what some Southerners felt: "Hurrah! Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated! It may be abstractly wrong to be so jubilant, but I just can’t help it. After all the heaviness and gloom... This blow to our enemies comes like a gleam of light."
It was personal and political: The assassination not only ended Lincoln's life; it also deprived the Union of its leader.
Public mourning for Lincoln reached epic proportions, as many in the South, eager to perform their roles as peaceable members of the reunited nation, played along. They might have felt afraid that by not participating in public mourning, they would mark themselves as rebels in the wake of the war and invite punishment.
Claimed one Louisiana resident, "For the more violently 'Secesh' the inmates, the more thankful they are for Lincoln's death, the more profusely the houses are decked with the emblems of woe."
Lincoln had desired peaceful Reconstruction and believed that hostilities between the North and South would and should end when the war did. Many Southerners worried about what his death meant politically for the South after Andrew Johnson became president. In many ways, Lincoln's death translated to bad news for the South - they had lost a potential Reconstruction ally in Lincoln.
The First Lady of the Confederacy Varina Davis believed that Johnson was a "bitter enemy." She said Lincoln was a "kindly man" and that his assassination would have "most unfortunate" results for Southerners. Her husband Jefferson Davis agreed, predicting how Lincoln's death all but guaranteed Reconstruction would be hard on the South. He said, "I fear it will be disastrous for our people."
Communication in 1865 was much better than it was 20 years before, but news of Lincoln's death traveled slowly. Without irrefutable confirmation, Northerners and Southerners alike assumed his assassination was only a rumor. In addition, the South had limited means of receiving communication. As an act of war, the Union Army had destroyed telegraph lines to the Southern states, and Confederates abandoned newspaper offices when Union armies attacked, leaving them unattended. Consequently, news trickled slowly to many corners of the Confederacy.
Diarist Elizabeth Frances Andrews outright dismissed the rumors: "We had heard so many absurd rumors that at first we were all inclined to regard this as a jest. Somebody laughed and asked if the people of Camack [in Georgia] didn't know that April Fools' Day was past."