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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Honoring Lincoln in Death

On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln became the last casualty of the Civil War. While attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinated him. This tragedy took place on Good Friday. In Christian tradition, Jesus Christ died as a martyr on Good Friday. A martyr is someone who sacrifices himself or herself for other people. Some Americans after the Civil War saw Lincoln's death as a sacrifice for the nation and compared it to Christ's divine death.

Shortly after his death, Lincoln’s life became part of American legend. Some would say that process began with his two-week funeral ride. Millions of people flocked to see Lincoln one last time on his way from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois. Famous writers and ordinary citizens wrote poems in honor of the president. Artists took up their brushes to capture Lincoln drifting towards heaven in George Washington’s embrace. This type of image is referred to as, “Lincoln’s Apotheosis” an elevation to divine status.

The following quotes from famous historical figures illustrate how revered Lincoln became after his assassination:

Henry Ward Beecher, Pastor, Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church – April 1865

“And now the martyr is moving in triumphal march, mightier than when alive. The nation rises up at every stage of his coming, Cities and states are his pallbearers, and the cannon beats the hours with solemn progression. Dead – dead – dead – he yet speaketh… Four years ago, O Illinois, we took from your midst an untried man…, we return him to you a might conqueror.  Not thine anymore, but the Nation’s; not ours, but the world’s. Give him place, ye prairies.”1

George Bancroft, Historian, Funeral Oration in New York City’s Union Square – April 1865

“In sorrow by the bier we stand
            Amid the awe that hushes all,
And speak the anguish of a land
            That shook with horror at thy fall.”2

Poet Henry Howard Brownwell, Abraham Lincoln, War Lyrics and Other Poems (1866), Washington, DC – May 1863

“Close round him, hearts of pride!
Press near him, side by side, –
         Our Father is not alone!
For the Holy Right he died,
And Christ, the Crucified
            Waits to welcome his own.”3

Sculptors designed statues to honor Lincoln’s memory within a few years of his death. The themes ranged from Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, to the boy Lincoln, to the respected statesman, and Commander-in-Chief. More than 225 statues honor Lincoln. This is more than any other figure in American history. People can find the story of Lincoln, the man and the myth, all around them.

Questions for Reading 1

1. On what day did President Lincoln die? How did this influence how the country remembered him?

2. In what ways are all of these reflections about the life of Abraham Lincoln similar? How would you describe these reflections? Do you see a pattern in what parts of the country these writings come from? Why does geography make a difference?

3. What does “Lincoln’s Apotheosis refer to? What other famous historical figure is part of this image? Why do you think he is there? What are the various portrayals of Lincoln? Who else has received as many memorials (including statues) as Lincoln?

4. Can you think of any other public figures in the 19th and 20th centuries who have been memorialized because they were killed for their beliefs? How has society remembered those people? Are certain people remembered more than others? Why might that be?

Reading 1 was adapted from Merrill D. Peterson's, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

1 Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 18.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid, 23.


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