In recent weeks, historical sites and societies throughout the country have been marking the 151st anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln. In the Harry T. Peters America on Stone Collection there are numerous prints pertaining to the Civil War, including several on the assassination, death, and commemoration of Abraham Lincoln. The lithographs selected below are just a few examples of how the country used visual print culture to absorb, personalize, and make sense of a national tragedy.
Just weeks before his death, Lincoln's features had been mocked by his political adversaries. After the assassination his visage was cherished. According to Page Smith, author of Trial by Fire, some contemporary sources mentioned that his face was "calm and striking." After Lincoln's death, demand for images of the late president dramatically increased, though prints and lithographs of Lincoln were readily available. In the North, many families had hung Lincoln's portrait in prominent spots in their homes during the war. After his death, these portraits were draped in black cloth, as if the families were mourning the death of a family member.
Lincoln's assassination drew almost instant analogies, as in the print above, in which John Wilkes Booth is compared to the murderous Macbeth in Shakespeare's tragedy. Others saw religious connections. It did not go unnoticed that Lincoln's assassination took place on Good Friday. That Easter Sunday, dark mourning crepe replaced vibrant flowers, and clergymen across the country began to compare Lincoln's assassination to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In fact, Booth became known as a "second Judas" for having betrayed the nation and killing a man some believed to be favored by God.
Because access to the dying president was limited, there are only a few accounts of his final hours. While as many as 55 people visited the Lincoln's bedside, not all were present at any given time. The bedroom was only 9.5 feet wide by 17 feet long, so it would have been impossible to fit a crowd of 16 adult males and a child around the bed, an artistic license taken in several contemporary depictions. This exaggerated use of space was common in lithography. Though photography existed in the period, photographs were not reproduced in newspapers to report stories. The use of lithographs allowed for audiences to sometimes gain more insight into an event, even if the depictions were overdramatized.
Images like the one above demonstrate how commemorative memorial prints were produced to capture and capitalize on the nation's grief. Symbols of Lincoln's great accomplishments surround his headstone. A weeping figure of Liberty drapes herself over the stone memorial, as the slain dragon representing the rebellion of the Civil War lies at its base. In the years after his death, linking symbols to his name and death was necessary to ensure that Lincoln's legacy and sacrifice were not forgotten.
Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 was a contentious act in the politically divided North. The president's supporters likened him to a new Moses, and between 1863 and 1864 there was a dramatic increase in the production of prints related to the Emancipation Proclamation, which would have found a ready place in many Republican households. After his assassination in 1865, calligraphy prints, such as the one above, were widely circulated, as they literally infused the words of emancipation with the image of Abraham Lincoln. The legacy becomes the man.
Sarah Crosswy is a graduate of the College of Wooster and a volunteer in the Division of Home and Community Life. She previously interned with curator Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs and is currently assisting in cataloging the Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection, a recent acquisition.