Many students read “Oh Captain, My Captain”—but often don’t realize that Walt Whitman composed that poem to capture his emotions at hearing of President Lincoln’s assassination. Whitman, already a famous poet, served as a volunteer nurse in Washington, seeing the horrors of war firsthand as he tended to wounded soldiers.
As an adult, Sarah Gooll Putnam made a living as a portraitist. One of her earliest works appears in her April 15, 1865, diary entry, when she was 13 or 14. She depicted the look on her face when she learned of Lincoln’s death from her father in Boston.
Mary Henry literally observed Washington from a castle. The daughter of the Smithsonian’s Secretary, Joseph Henry, Mary kept a diary during the Civil War. She succinctly captured how Washingtonians moved from joy at the end of the war to mourning the slain president.
At the close of the Dakota War of 1862, Lincoln suspended, but did not commute, the death sentences of all but 38 condemned Dakota soldiers. On December 26, 1862, the 38 lost their lives in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. Federal troops transported the spared Dakota soldiers out of state. When Moses Many Lightning Face, imprisoned near Davenport, Iowa, learned of Lincoln’s assassination, he wondered what would happen next.
Johannes Oertel lived an eclectic life. Born in Bavaria (now part of Germany), he immigrated to the United States in 1848. He worked as an artist and became an Episcopal minister in 1867. His 1865 diary demonstrates his religiosity.
As a child, Mary Sheehan settled in Virginia City, Montana, with her family. That mining boomtown had originally been named Varina, for the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, because of the strong Confederate sympathies of its inhabitants. So it is perhaps not a surprise that Sheehan reported dancing among children as they learned of Lincoln’s assassination.
A free African-American woman in Philadelphia, Davis recorded her experiences in a diary between 1863 and 1865. This diary is a valuable resource for understanding the lives of free African Americans in the North during this time. Davis’s recollections of the Lincoln funeral in Philadelphia tell of both official and unofficial events.
Matias Romero represented Mexico’s Liberal government in the United States, seeking aid for his cause’s fight against Mexican monarchists supported by French invaders. Romero’s letters to Mexico’s leaders show his expectations for the course of U.S. policy toward his country under President Andrew Johnson.
The Avery family owned Petite Anse Island plantation in southwestern Louisiana, which included a salt mine. Dudley Avery, son of plantation owner Daniel D. Avery, served as a soldier in the Confederate Army. He eventually returned to the family's plantation, where he was when he learned of the Lincoln assassination. In a letter to his father, Dudley Avery feared that President Andrew Johnson would take a harsh stance toward former rebels, and expressed his belief in Lincoln’s magnanimity. Avery’s brother-in-law later developed Tabasco sauce at the plantation.
A U.S. Patent Office examiner, Taft kept a diary during his time living in Washington during the Civil War. His son, Charles Sabin Taft, was among the doctors who attended the wounded president. Taft’s diary provides one of the most compelling firsthand accounts of the scene in Washington after the assassination.