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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
Poet Henry Howard Brownwell, Abraham Lincoln, War Lyrics and Other Poems (1866), Washington, DC – May 1863
“Close round him, hearts of pride!
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
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.
3 Ibid, 23.