Today marks the anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth. While there is little need to recount the events of April 14-15, 1865, when Lincoln and members of his cabinet were mortally wounded, the echoes of mourning in correspondence from the days following are worthy of a look.
The above letter from J.W. McMillen is interesting in its conjunction of mourning Lincoln’s death and discussions of business. McMillen writes on April 16, 1865:
“The early morning papers of yesterday announced the assassination of our excellent President and Secretary Seward, and before Nine oclock the death of the President was announced. All business was at once suspended and the City draped in Mourning, universal grief and sadness seemed to prevail in every heart, the Governor called upon the people to meet in the State House Yard at 12 oclock to give expression to their feeling in view of the great Calamity that had befallen the Country, fully fifteen thousand people assembled, and were addressed by Democrats and Republicans, all took the ground that there could be but one party Now, and that for the Country. I firmly believe that great good will come out of this great Aflliction. I think the firing on Sumpter will not compare with the feeling that has been aroused in every heart by the cowardly assassination of Mr. Lincoln, and it will result in a more firm determination to exterminate all traitors.” Later, McMillen goes on to discuss sales of 7/30 loans and the distribution of circulars about them. “I am gratified to see the large increase in the daily subscriptions of the past week, hope it may continue.”
I have been working on the Jay Cooke papers (collection 148) this month, and within his correspondence, there is a great deal of documentation about the assassination of Lincoln because of Cooke’s prominent connections within the federal government. Cooke was called the “financier of the Civil War” because of his efforts to raise money for the Union war effort by selling government bonds. Cooke was friends with Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of the Treasury, and was entrusted with many major stabilizing efforts during Lincoln’s presidency and immediately following his death.
These two telegrams offer a glimpse into Cooke’s importance in stabilizing the financial markets, which he did with his own money after Lincoln’s death was confirmed and financial panic was beginning to grip the nation. The second telegram is authorizing Cooke to buy securities to quell the beginnings of a crash.
Cooke’s brother Henry ran Jay Cooke & Co.’s Washington business, and was also a major player in the political arena, making their operations successful into the 1870s.
Cooke’s family connections were a major aspect of his social and political life. Even personal correspondence is filled with discussions of national politics, finance, and other charged topics. In the letter below, R.N. Allen laments Lincoln’s death and the appointment of Johnson as his successor:
“…I heard the Horrible news of Mr. Lincoln’s assassination, Oh Jay what is to become of our country now surely we are not to be under the guidance of Andrew Johnson, there no way to reach Mr. Chase he is the only one now that my mind reverts to who has been in the Presidential road + who might constitutionally be reached for…” (April 17, 1865)
There is much more correspondence in the Cooke papers, including many letters from Salmon P. Chase and other prominent public figures. These papers are extremely rich in their coverage of the Civil War era, offering behind-the-scenes views of major negotiations, financial discussions of national importance, and windows into the social and intellectual lives of the men who surrounded Cooke.
The Jay Cooke papers are currently being processed, and will be unavailable to researchers until mid-May 2010. At that point, a finding aid will be available online for these materials for the first time.