Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I Found it in Special Collections: A Mount Holyoke Alumna's Account of President Lincoln's Assasination

On April 15, 1865, Antoinette D. Bacon (Class of 1866) was returning to South Hadley in a public carriage when she learned a shocking piece of news: Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. That same day, Antoinette began a letter to her brother Alonzo, explaining the confusion and grief the news had caused. “Pen can never express the feelings of the Northern people at this sad news,” she wrote, “What is to become of us!”

When Lincoln was assassinated, the Civil War had been going on for four years. The feelings of anger and shock that Antoinette conveys in her letter are underscored by a sense of weariness. “The war,” she worried, “is farther from its close than we have thought.” In reality, the war had effectively ended six days before, when General Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. A month after Antoinette wrote her letter, Confederate President Jefferson Davis officially surrendered, bringing the victory that she had hoped for. In the moment however, the outlook was bleak and Antoinette could not see past the terrible events that had occurred.

"The Saddest Day," a miniature edition of Antoinette's letter published by Skyefield Press

The day before, she had celebrated Good Friday at the home of her friend, Mrs. Hawks. The holiday had ushered in a general feeling of jubilation and hope that the war might soon come to an end. When reports of the assassination began to spread however, hope was replaced by confusion and despair. Antoinette’s letter provides a remarkable glimpse into how the news was received by the public. The reports she heard on April 15 were incomplete. In addition to Lincoln, many believed that an assassination attempt directed towards Secretary of State William H. Seward had been successful. When she completed her letter two days later this fear was alleviated, however her anger towards the perpetrators of the crime and the southern “rebs” who took such delight in the event remained. “Today,” she wrote, “has been I believe the very saddest day this nation ever saw.”

Antoinette realized the significance of the events that were happening around her. Despite the sadness and confusion brought on by the President’s death, she looked forward to a brighter future for the nation. As she wrote,

“Ways are often opened where we least expect it. These are wonderful days. God is leading us as a nation and as individuals & we must follow where he marks out our path. See what a great man our President became out of a mere rail splitter. He had not many advantages but his name now stands next to Washington’s on the pages of history—or will.”

Her prediction that Lincoln would be remembered among the great American presidents was correct. Countless authors have told his story and he has become an integral part of American history.

In a smaller way, Antoinette’s story has also been preserved for posterity. After graduating Mount Holyoke in 1866, Antoinette went on to teach among freed slaves for the American Missionary Association. She taught for one year in Washington, NC and another year in Port Royal, SC.

Another copy of "The Saddest Day" including a replica envelope addressed to Antoinette's brother, Alonzo

In 1991, Skyefield Press found Antoinette’s letter among a stack of old papers in an antique shop and transformed it into a miniature artist book. Two copies of the book, entitled The Saddest Day, can be found at the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

No comments:

Post a Comment