Civil War Profiles — April 14: Requiem for a day of ‘horror & grief’

Date Published: 
April 14, 2017

On April 18, 1865, the New York Times reported that abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher had delivered an “eloquent and impressive” oration at Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 14, 1863, in commemoration of the American flag once again flying from its mast. The surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and his army at Appomattox, Va., on April 9 had heartened the hearts of Union supporters that the war would soon end.


Just one day later, however, the crushing news arrived in Delaware of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination the previous night at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. As documented in the April 1961 issue of “Delaware History,” upon learning of this traumatic event, Anna M. Ferris, a staunch Unionist and abolitionist Quaker who supported President Lincoln and the Republican Party, sat down with her diary at home in Wilmington to pour forth her sorrow:

“April 15: We laid down last night with a sense of peace & happiness long unknown. We awoke this morning to a consciousness of horror & grief never known before! It is really dreadful to write the words that express such a horrible crime — the President has been assassinated!”

“Four years from the day the first shot was fired at Sumter, another in which seems concentrated all the hate, wickedness & guilt of slavery & the Rebellion, has taken from us the head of the Nation, but not we trust until his ‘eyes had seen its salvation.’”

Overwhelmed by the news of Lincoln’s death, Anna put down her pen until the next day. That Sunday, she gathered herself together to record these thoughts:

“April 16: Such a Sabbath our country never saw! Not any other, since the death of the first born brought death into every house, & grief into every heart. No man since Washington has ever received so universal a feeling of personal affection as Lincoln, & his death under any circumstance, even as a dispensation of Providence, would have created a universal sorrow, but mingled with the horror & fear of the wicked act, & the wrath it excites, the state of feeling is scarcely to be endured.”

“We shall have no more speeches overflowing with the milk of human kindness & breathing ‘Charity to all.’ We shall still ‘conquer a peace,’ but I am afraid we shall lose its crowning triumph, of mercy & forgiveness. There was only one heart large enough & warm enough to obey the divine command to love its enemies, & waited & longed for the opportunity to do good to those that hated & persecuted him.”

“‘The good President,’ struck down by an assassin, while in the very act of inaugurating a policy so benign that his enemies could ask for nothing more, seems an incredible atrocity & we wonder whether love & mercy still reign in Heaven, while such unprovoked wickedness walks the earth.”

Anna attended a religious service on the 19th, apparently at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington, where Bishop Alfred Lee presided. She wrote that Bishop Lee delivered “in fitting & simple words a beautiful tribute to the life & character of the President.”

Also at noon on the 19th, “his body was borne from the White house to the Capitol, & funeral services held at all the churches in the country at the same time. A feeling of solemnity very unusual on such occasion, or on any occasion, prevailed, & loud sorrow filled all hearts.”

“So universal & heartfelt a tribute of grief was never paid before, & in it the feeling of indignation & rage melted away, so that we could comprehend the prayer of divine love, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’”

Few people have been honored with such a poignant requiem that emanated from this distressed woman’s anguish. These private thoughts remain a silent epitaph to the country’s most beloved president.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, or contact him directly at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.