Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Martha Hodes's "Mourning Lincoln"

Martha Hodes is Professor of History at New York University and the author of The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century and White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South.

Hodes applied the “Page 99 Test” to her recent book, Mourning Lincoln, and reported the following:
Page 99 begins with the word “grief.” It’s the last word of the last sentence on page 98, and a perfect lead-in to the story told in Mourning Lincoln--but only part of that story. Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., five days after Union victory, and the sorrow was profound among African Americans. Page 99 captures those feelings:
Everywhere, children cried audibly and grown-ups wept bitterly. Some cried all night, others just felt numb. One woman described herself as “nearly deranged” with grief. Black soldiers were utterly bereft. Edgar Dinsmore of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts felt “a loss irreparable.” One man compared the circumstances to a horrific scene he had witnessed as a slave: a mother whipped forty lashes for weeping when white people took away her children. The violence had traumatized him, “but not half so much as the death of President Lincoln,” he confessed. Some white officers in black regiments felt the sense of loss magnified. “Oh how Sad, How Melancholy,” James Moore wrote to his wife. Such intense sorrow overcame him that it seemed “an impossibility to rally from it.”
But Mourning Lincoln tells a more complicated story, too. We often think of the assassination as a moment of universal and collective grief. Yet by moving beyond headlines, sermons, and public condolences, by encompassing North and South, Union and Confederate, black and white, men and women, soldiers and civilians, the book reveals a much wider array of responses. The nation’s first presidential assassination, coming as it did at the end of a four-year civil war, also prompted fear, fury, and glee. While mourners wept, the vanquished Confederates expressed satisfaction at Lincoln’s death, as did the president’s northern antagonists.

On page 99, as in other parts of the book, the experiences of Lincoln’s black mourners are centered.
African Americans claimed for themselves a special place in the outpouring of sorrow, and the prayers and sermons of Easter Sunday magnified Lincoln’s role as the Great Emancipator. A New Orleans minister asserted that his people felt “deeper sorrow for the friend of the colored man,” and black clergymen in the North allowed that their people felt the loss “more keenly” and “more than all others.” Journalists singled out the “dusky-skinned men of our own race” as the “chief—the truest mourners,” and black soldiers maintained that “as a people none could deplore his loss more than we.” Frederick Douglass, speaking extemporaneously in Rochester on Saturday, told the overflowing crowd that he felt the loss “as a personal as well as national calamity” because of “the race to which I belong.”
In fact, African Americans skillfully invoked Lincoln to further their post-war quest for equality, fashioning the martyred president into a radical who, had he lived, would have enacted voting rights for black men.

Page 99 comes in the chapter called “God,” focusing on how the bereaved struggled with the mysteries of divine will, asking why God would take Lincoln away just at the moment of victory. The last full sentence paints a portrait of a weeping world.
From the moment the news arrived, Lincoln’s mourners cried as they recorded their emotions, smudging the ink in their journals and letters.
To Lincoln’s mourners, their sorrow felt universal, even though they knew it was not--and Lincoln’s black mourners understood this most acutely. Mourning Lincoln ultimately demonstrates how clashing visions of the nation’s future reverberated through Reconstruction and far beyond--indeed, into the present day.
Learn more about the book and author at Martha Hodes's author website.

Cover story: Mourning Lincoln.

--Marshal Zeringue