In "Mourning Lincoln," historian Martha Hodes provides a staggering wealth of research detailing the psyche of the American people in the moments, days, weeks and months following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In examining the collective citizenry of the United States in 1865, she has unearthed and assembled bountiful and weighty evidence to denounce the idea that Americans were by any means a monolith when it came to their widespread reactions to the president's shocking and untimely death.
In her engrossing narrative, Hodes covers every subset of the population's reactions to Lincoln's murder, ranging from mournful northern abolitionists to vindictive southern secessionists, and virtually everyone in between. At the heart of her chronicle is the story of average Americans and their personal responses to hearing and reacting to the Lincoln assassination, and how, for many who lost family members on Civil War battlefields far from home, the phenomena surrounding Lincoln's death and funereal activities served as a "substitute for the rituals of more intimate losses." Without their beloved leader, and without their loved ones killed throughout four years of war, Lincoln's mourners had to find a way to cope as individuals and as a nation, and "think concretely about reconstructing the nation without slavery--and without President Lincoln either."
Perhaps most noteworthy of all, a fair amount of Hodes' book is devoted to telling the story of recently freed slaves, who were in many cases those most touched by the death of their Great Emancipator. It was Lincoln's assassination, argues Hodes, which allowed for a postwar South in which former Confederates (many of whom, Hodes asserts, would have disavowed the prerequisite "former," being that they refused to acknowledge the dismemberment of the Confederacy and the destruction of their failed nation-state) resorted to "unchecked violence for the sake of restoring the world they had never stopped fighting to get back." This, writes Hodes, forced most African Americans throughout the South into "conditions akin to slavery" during the newfound "regime of white supremacy." In that sense, Hodes maintains that the most striking result of Lincoln's death was that it served not as the last casualty of the Civil War, but rather as "the first volley in...a war on black freedom and equality"--a conflict which "still ebbs and flows in American history" to this day.
As counterintuitive as it seems, if there is any element of Hodes’ effort that is lacking, it is that there may simply be too many historical examples contained within a fairly limited space (there are thousands of sources quoted within about 270 pages of text). The amount of research presented is immensely respectable--but at the same time the sheer number of firsthand accounts quoted in the narrative in many cases leads to unnecessary complexity, and more often than not, monotony. Time and again, Hodes makes her point clear by offering a thesis at the outset of a paragraph or section of the book, and follows it up with a half-dozen (or more) contemporary accounts which essentially echo one another--sometimes almost literally word for word. This is not to say that firsthand accounts are not valuable--they are the most cherished and imperative piece of any historical work, Hodes’ included--but here they can be cumbersome and oftentimes add unnecessary length to sections and chapters which could have been more concise.
In all, “Mourning Lincoln” is a treasure which details a period in history about which much has been written, though not in this light. In utilizing intimate, contemporary firsthand entries to give a historical voice to everyday men and women--black and white, from both North and South--Martha Hodes has written an eloquent and illuminating description of a momentous, though apparently misunderstood, epoch in the American story.