The reverence for the slain president grew in coming days. On April 19, a horse-drawn hearse carried Lincoln’s body to the Capitol, where it lay in state in the Rotunda, under the nearly finished dome. The funeral procession imitated George Washington’s, sixty-five years earlier. A riderless horse, symbolizing the missing leader, followed the hearse. Thousands lined the streets, and the presence of African American soldiers was overwhelming. This might have been the largest multiracial crowd ever assembled, to that time, in the nation’s capital or any other American city. Booth’s nightmare of mass race mixing had ironically come to fruition because of his violent act.
“O Captain! my Captain!” wrote the poet Walt Whitman, describing how the martyred president’s demise cast a long shadow across the nation.
Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, within days of one another, opened new uncertainties about the future of the country. As in any other period of prolonged and repeated suffering, citizens felt a disorienting mix of dread and anxiety, as well as relief and hope. What was happening, and what would it mean? Millions of Americans held tight to Lincoln’s paternal, religious image (“Father Abraham”) as an anchor of stability.
Whitman closed his poem with Lincoln’s body symbolizing both the hope and dread of the moment:
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Confederate critics were moved by Lincoln’s death, but in a different way. They did not share the same grief as Whitman in Lincoln’s departure. He was their enemy, not their captain. He was not their president; that was Jefferson Davis. If Lincoln symbolized lost innocence and renewed promise for his followers, he embodied abolitionist degeneracy and Yankee tyranny for his adversaries. His assassination did not temper bitter and vindictive feelings. “Lincoln was a man of low, vulgar instincts,” the Texas Republican reminded its large reading audience shortly after his funeral.
The Union displays of fealty to Lincoln only reinforced the revulsion toward his image in the South. If anything, the public outpouring for the president in the North made him and his followers more threatening to Confederate critics. The Texas Republican condemned Lincoln’s supporters for “exulting over the supposed prostrate condition of the South.” The crowds mourning the president appeared dangerously poised to punish the region his assassin defended.
Lincoln’s inclusive democratic vision appeared more popular, and threatening, to opponents than ever. Expressions of sympathy for Lincoln, therefore, became highly dangerous political acts in the former Confederacy. One newspaper in the capital of South Carolina, burned during Union occupation, warned that Lincoln’s death could create a “pretext,” “eagerly seized upon by thousands at the North, to whom the sudden suspension of hostilities is a serious loss.”
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