Campus News

NYU professor discusses reactions to Lincoln’s death in Gregory Lecture

Throughout her 25 years of teaching about the Civil War, Martha Hodes, a professor of history at New York University, always had a few lines about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in her lectures. After 9/11, however, she began to look at that historical event in a new light.

“9/11 made me think about how people responded to transformative events in everyday life,” said Hodes, who gave the 2015 Gregory Distinguished Lecture in the Chapel Oct. 15.

Hodes said in her lecture, “Mourning Lincoln: The Assassination and the Aftermath of the Civil War,” that she wanted to understand a catastrophic event on a human scale, which prompted her to begin reading through letters and diaries written by Northerners and Confederates in the “hours and days after Lincoln’s assassination.”

Similar to how the world was grieving and in shock after 9/11, many of the public records after Lincoln’s death presented a nation in mourning, Hodes said, but individual feelings and reactions varied.

Among African-Americans, there was a feeling of trepidation, an unease about how this change would affect their newly found freedom.

For some Confederates, those fighting and those supporting the troops, their recent defeats and surrender overshadowed the president’s death.

“Many white Southerners seemed to barely register the assassination,” Hodes said, showing scanned copies of journals and other accounts.

While the assassination wasn’t at the forefront of their thoughts, some Confederates did revel in it. Others spoke of a foreboding future without the president because, according to Hodes, many Confederates felt Lincoln would have been “liberal in his mercy.”

Hodes said that most Lincoln mourners placed the blame for his death on the institution of slavery.

She quoted one source who wrote that “Lincoln had been sacrificed to slavery.”

During her research, Hodes was fascinated by how people from both sides of the Civil War continued to record information about daily life, intertwining writings about lovers and business with their thoughts on the president’s assassination. This immersion in daily life allowed people to have a diversion from grief and a way forward after Union victory, Hodes said.

Designated as one of the university’s fall Signature Lectures, the Gregory Lecture is made possible by the Amanda and Greg Gregory Civil War Era Studies Support Fund.

UGA President Jere W. Morehead thanked the Gregorys, who attended the lecture, for their support of UGA’s academics and said that Hodes’ lecture was an “excellent and distinguished addition to this lecture series.”

Stephen Berry, UGA’s Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era and co-director of the Center for Virtual History, praised Hodes’ work prior to her lecture for its focus on the emotional complexity of history.