It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Englishman Charles Dickens wrote that in 1859, just two years before England’s former colonies began a long and bloody civil war. I wonder if that quote came to the minds of any Americans during the week of April 9-15, 1865. Depending on what perspective one had about the state of national politics, that one week entailed both a triumphant victory and a crushing defeat.
On Sunday April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered, signaling the beginning of the end for the Confederacy and the Civil War. On Friday April 14, President Lincoln, who had been determined to keep the country together, was assassinated, dying the next morning.
In the process of digitizing a collection of newspaper clippings that had little to do with either the Civil War or Lincoln, we ran across what must’ve been a treasured copy of the New York Herald from April 15, 1865. We thought we’d share some clippings from it.
The Death of a President
Beyond the details of the tragedy, perhaps the most interesting thing about this news story is the insight it gives us on how newspaper reporting was done in the middle of the nineteenth century. Much of the news is presented as “dispatches,” first-person observations sent by telegraph or messenger. As with modern news stories, newer information was often tacked on to older information, to give a sense of how things have developed.
The April 15 edition repeated the earliest dispatches from Washington, from the night before:
Just after midnight, more news began coming in. At first, there was no talk of the president’s fate, as no one had apparently heard the doctor’s prognosis. Instead, the focus is on the crime’s perpetrators, and on the city waiting and fearing:
When the news did come in, it wasn’t good, as evidenced in the reactions of those at Lincoln’s bedside:
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, a dispatch came from Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who was on hand at the scene:
By 7:30 a.m., the Herald was able to pronounce that the assassination had ultimately been successful:
This was just the beginning of the story, fleshed out in editions to come.
The End of a War
The Dickens quote above comes from his novel A Tale of Two Cities, the cities in question being London and Paris. But the two cities most in the minds of Herald readers were likely the fractured country’s two capitals: Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, just over 100 miles apart.
It’s also where our two stories meet, in a way. During the week before the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and the assassination, Lincoln toured the newly fallen Confederate stronghold himself. He must’ve felt that the war’s end was near.
News from Richmond was slow to come to the Herald — it was apparently gleaned almost entirely second-hand, from southern newspapers — so some of what was reported in the April 15 edition stretched back to before the surrender.
News from April 5, the day after the fall of Richmond, brings the “first rebel account of how the city was abandoned”:
“We have no doubt that a considerable portion of the brave city has been laid in ashes and a number of its people insulted, outraged, robbed, and massacred.”
From that same day came report of a plea by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Viewing the situation in hindsight, the Herald editors were able to label it “Jeff. Davis’ last proclamation.” It was one that called on southerners’ “unconquered and unconquerable hearts”:
“It is for us, my countrymen, to show by our bearing under reverses how wretched has been the self-deception of those who have believed us less able to endure misfortune with fortitude than to encounter dangers with courage.”
In a dispatch from April 11, the fall of Richmond was reported in greater detail, including the response of the Union army and the continued advance of Confederate General Johnston, who did not give up until a few days after this edition was published:
Johnston’s refusal to back down is also mentioned here, with the report of April 14:
The following are all second-hand reports from southern newspapers on April 13. They include details of the surrender as well as an exhortation to southerners — taken from a Richmond newspaper — to “dismiss rancor from their hearts” and make peace:
And they did make peace. Was one of the costs of that peace the death of the wartime President? We’ll never quite know the answer to that question. What we do know is this tale of two cities gripped the nation, making it one of the most eventful and momentous weeks of newspaper reporting the country has ever seen.
It just goes to show how much a single item from an archive can tell you!