A mourning ribbon for President Lincoln with his portrait, birth and death dates in the center. Surrounding the portrait are small American flags. Hanging from the bottom are blue and hello ribbons and two decorative tassels.
Ford’s Theatre Collection.

Mourning Lincoln Through Images

4 min read

Editor’s Note: This month we take a look at primary sources from our Remembering Lincoln partners at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. The museum is proud to showcase some of its memorial Lincolniana, drawn from a collection that contains a wide array of materials including ribbons, pins, lithographs, broadsides, sheet music and novelty items.

Almost immediately after President Abraham Lincoln’s death, illustrators went to work depicting his last moments in the Petersen House. Some of the most moving pieces in the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum collection are the lithographs they produced.

The varying roster of people in the Petersen House bedroom is a testament to the personal connection that many felt with the sad events of the day. The themes pervading these images are anguish and grief. Looking at the lithographs Death of Lincoln and Last Moments of Lincoln we see two different and equally inaccurate depictions of Lincoln’s last moments.

The Dying Moments of President Lincoln by Albert Berghaus.

We know that the Petersen House bedroom where Lincoln ultimately died was a tiny room. Although there were many people with Lincoln in the Petersen House—including over a dozen physicians, most members of his Cabinet, the First Lady and Lincoln’s son Robert—historians agree that a very small number of people were in the room at any one time. Although they are often depicted as present, both First Lady Mary Lincoln and Robert Lincoln were not in the room when the president died—the First Lady was escorted out by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and remained in the front parlor.

Yet when we look at the crowd depicted in the lithographs, the room becomes large enough to hold a veritable litany of onlookers. Death of Lincoln shows 16 people in the room, while Last Moments has so many people stuffed into the frame that they fade into silhouettes. These images are two of many, created in the first few years after the assassination that insert people into the scene.

These images are examples of an era of “I was there” images and stories. Newspapers began telling stories of people who claimed to be in the Theatre or in the area when the assassination occurred.  It was a way for a shocked nation to mourn and a way to express the personal sorrow people felt. People wanted to have a personal connection to the event. The sale of Lincoln relics was big business and things like pieces of the birth cabin, locks of Lincoln’s hair, items from the coffin and funeral, and other personal artifacts were big ticket items.  The explosion of memorabilia that appeared in the wake of the assassination shows how personally Americans took Lincoln’s death.

When scouring the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum’s photograph collection for images that help tell the story of the country’s reaction to the Lincoln assassination, we came across some unexpected images. Perhaps some of the most stunning are Alexander Gardner’s famous photographs of the execution of the conspirators on July 7, 1865, following a controversial military tribunal. These photographs (below) were reproduced in newspapers around the United States and the world and serve as a stark reminder of how the fervor for revenge and justice can sweep up an angry nation.

Library of Congress photo of the Lincoln assassination conspirators on the platform just before being hanged in Washington, D.C., in spring 1865.
Adjusting the ropes for hanging the conspirators of the assassination of President Lincoln, July 1865. Library of Congress image: Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-cwpb-04229.

Most striking is the treatment of Mary Surratt, one of the four conspirators sentenced to death. Although she is about to be executed, the military authorities seemed to treat her with the same courtesy they would afford any lady of the time. They shielded her from the hot sun with a parasol and afforded her the extra protection of tying down her skirts to avoid any unseemly display of skin.

Ribbons, badges and memorial photos were quickly produced and collected by Americans in mourning. The Museum has uploaded a number of examples with some of the tell-tale symbols of mourning including laurel/floral wreaths, black bars or angels. A Nation’s Loss is a mourning ribbon that incorporated many of these mourning elements, including the black bars and the angel motif. Ribbons like this and the ribbon reading “A Father Slain” were worn during the funeral ceremonies that took place along the Lincoln funeral train route and/or in the months following Lincoln’s death. They were kept as a reminder of that sad day.

colorful mourning ribbon and badge featuring an engraving of his face from one of Lincoln's funeral train stops.
One of the mourning badges in the National Park Service’s Ford’s Theatre Collection. Photo by Carol Highsmith.

Over time, mourning gave way to a celebration of Lincoln’s life, but in those first few years after the assassination, there was a steady stream of memorial materials including a glass dining-ware pattern called Drape Glass, toys such as the Parlor Monuments to the Illustrious Dead (which included images of American heroes like George Washington and Bible verses), collectables and keepsakes.

As the traditional mourning period passed, generally two months according to European custom, Lincoln became more an icon than a man. His image became a representation of the ideals he embodied and a symbol of freedom and hope. His image also became an easy way to sell almost anything, from sugar cubes to cars.

Michelle Ganz is the archivist and special collections librarian at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. She holds a Master’s degree in Information Resources and Library Science from the University of Arizona and a BA in Medieval Literature from the Ohio State University. In her spare time, Michelle loves reading, cooking and attempting to bake.

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Michelle Ganz was the archivist and special collections librarian at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.


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