Monday, April 27, 2015

Flashback, April 1865: Thousands Bid ‘Bye to Honest Abe in NYC

For two straight days, in the city where he made one of his crucial pre-election speeches—the same metropolis that, three years later, rioted over the draft in the war he waged against slavery—hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers paid their final respects as the funeral train of the Abraham Lincoln made its long, sad journey.

In 1860, Lincoln delivered a speech at Cooper Union that solidified his credentials as a credible candidate for the Republican nomination for President against favorite son Sen. William H. Seward. While in the city, on the same day as his speech, he had also had his photo taken by Mathew Brady, in firm if ironic recognition that his admittedly homely appearance, as part of his campaign, needed to take this step in image creation.

But the city, never really a stronghold of GOP sentiment, had voted for his Democratic opponent that fall in the Presidential race, and again in his reelection campaign four years later. Worse, in July 1863, in one of the greatest non-battlefield crises of the Civil War, poverty-stricken Irish and Irish-Americans, unable to buy a substitute for themselves or another family member, had reacted to the appalling death toll at the Battle of Gettysburg with the worst riot in American history.

It was all so much different on April 24-25, 1865, when 10 days of grieving over his assassination culminated in hundreds of thousands turning out for ceremonies honoring the President. The ferryboat Jersey City moved across the Hudson River with the coffin.

When it disembarked in New York and began its move toward City Hall, it was said, men uniformly doffed their caps and women burst into tears. It was hard to tell how much the atmosphere resulted from the German choral singers keening a funeral ode from the first book of Horace; how much from the ugly new reality of American Presidents who would require protection from assassins’ bullets; and how much from a sudden, awestruck realization that, in the simultaneous destruction of slavery and preservation of the Union, Lincoln had accomplished something that few could have foreseen before the war.

It was, all told, an astonishing turn of events, and perhaps with no irony more supreme than the change in attitude of George Templeton Strong, whose decades-long diary serves as a fascinating barometer of Gotham’s conventional wisdom in the decades immediately preceding and following the Civil War.

In mid-September 1862, this conservative attorney and public-minded citizen wrote of the President, when the prospects for victory looked dark: “This honest old codger was the last to fall, but he has fallen. Nobody believes in him any more. I do not, though I still maintain him. I cannot bear to admit the country has no man to believe in, and that honest Abe Lincoln is not the style of goods we want just now. But it is impossible to resist the conviction that he is unequal to his place."

Over the next two and a half years, however, Lincoln rose in Strong’s estimation. By the time he set down his thoughts on the President three days after the assassination—and just before he himself was to go to Washington for the President’s funeral—the diarist had quite forgotten his own former dismissal of Lincoln, though not other people’s:

“What a place this man, whom his friends have been patronizing for four years as a well-meaning, sagacious, kind-hearted, ignorant, old codger, had won for himself in the hearts of the people! What a place he will fill in history! I foresaw most clearly that he would be ranked high as the Great Emancipator twenty years hence, but I did not suppose his death would instantly reveal — even to Copperhead newspaper editors — the nobleness and the glory of his part in this great contest. It reminds one of the last line of Blanco White's great sonnet, 'If Light can thus deceive, where not Life?' Death has suddenly opened the eyes of the people (and I think of the word) to the fact that a hero has been holding high place among them for four years, closely watched and studied, but despite and rejected by a third of this community, and only tolerated by the other two-thirds."

Strong had shown scant sympathy for Irish and German immigrants who, unlike his class, could not buy their way out of the draft during the war. Many in that group, to be sure, had shown little sympathy for abolitionism, associating it with the forces that had made them cannon fodder during the recent fighting. 

But now they, too, turned out in force for Lincoln: Irish firemen were among the thousands in the parade down Broadway, on the 24th, in the President’s honor, along with Germans, Italians, ministers of all denominations, as well as bakers, cigarmakers, Freemasons, glee club members, and temperance activists.

Whites were represented overwhelmingly in the parade. They were, in fact, overrepresented in comparison with the originally planned composition of the tribute. According to Adam Goodheart’s article on the funeral train, in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic, as many as 5,000 African-American freedmen had intended to come out for their liberator from slavery. 

But several days before the parade, a decree by aldermen stated that blacks would not be allowed in the procession. Even a telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton granting permission, along with a number of sympathetic whites marching side by side, had not been enough to reverse the impact of the initial decree, as only several hundred freedmen marched. The demonstration of naked Northern racism signaled that in the coming Reconstruction era, the support of whites in assisting freedmen's adjustment to a turbulent, even violent postwar world would, at best, be grudging.

The procession appears not only to have affected marchers, but at least one onlooker: six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt. In the image accompanying this post, the future President is believed to be looking out the open window in the building to the left with younger brother Elliott.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss’ account traces our knowledge of the event to TR’s widow, who had been his childhood friend at the time. Edith Carow Roosevelt recalled after his death that she had been with him and his brother. As she watched, the three-year-old girl, upset by “all the black drapings” around her, had burst into tears.  While she was steered into another room, her future husband and kid brother were left to take in the spectacle below.

TR, uncharacteristically, left no written record of his impressions. Perhaps it brought up associations he would have preferred to forget in later years—the same way he never referred, for the rest of his life, to the deaths, within 24 hours of each other, of his first wife and mother. 

As an adult, Roosevelt was effusive in praising his Republican predecessor in the White House. In his Autobiography, he contrasted the view of the Presidency he took—what he called the “Lincoln-Jackson” expansive view—with the “narrowly legalistic” Buchanan-Taft “school.”

But the Roosevelt household, like pre-assassination New York and the nation as a whole, had been at best ambivalent and at worst sharply divided in its feelings about the war and the President who conducted it. TRs father, while a stalwart supporter of Lincoln, felt constrained by the southern sympathies of his wife ("an unreconstructed rebel,"in the younger Roosevelt's phrase) to stay on the sidelines when it came to donning a uniform in the fight. As a result, he paid a substitute to take his place in the draft. In adulthood, young TR felt so embarrassed by his father’s decision to remain out of the fighting that he could not enlist fast enough when the Spanish-American War broke out.

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