On the night of April 14th, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth. The man, known as the savior of the Union and the man who freed four million slaves, died the next day. He was, as the Atlantic reports, “the last casualty of a war that cost some 750,000 American lives — more than all other American wars combined, and among the deadliest wars of its century.”
Today marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s shooting.
The events surrounding the assassination are well known. It’s a historical event that every schoolchild learns about, one that seems uniquely American, specific to our own history.
But historical documents show that the impact of Lincoln’s assassination was felt around the world, that his death was the cause of mourning worldwide, even though the man had never traveled outside of the United States, either before or during his presidency.
The New York Times published the letter written by Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, to the War Department, breaking the news of what Stanton called “the act of a desperate rebel.” His stark words showed just how dire the situation was for Lincoln, and the country.
“This evening at about 9:30 P.M., at Ford’s Theatre, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. LINCOLN, Mrs. HARRIS, and Major RATHBURN, was shot by as assassin, who suddenly entered the box and approached behind the President.”
“The assassin then leaped upon the stage, brandishing a large dagger or knife, and made his escape in the rear of the theatre.”
“The pistol ball entered the back of the President’s head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.”
Word of Lincoln’s death made its way around the world, to Canada first, and then onto Liverpool, England, where news of Lincoln’s death was sent to Ireland, and so on, marking the progress of the news in hours, first, then days, and weeks, until the whole world knew that the President of the United States of America had been assassinated.
Confusion came first — it was 1865, and news was often unreliable and slow, but the telegraphs and the steamships all carried the same news, and as acceptance settled in, letters of sympathy and sorrow from all over the world were sent to America, from France, Italy, Spain, from trade unions and legislatures. American diplomatic posts in other countries, from Brazil to Russia, were flooded as citizens of those countries wanted to offer their condolences.
But it wasn’t just organizations and governments that mourned Lincoln in foreign lands — it was the common citizen, as well. Ambassadors in various countries reported on the great outpouring of grief from citizens.
“The Spanish people have been thunderstruck. I have heard ordinary men, ignorant that an American was listening, offer to lose a right hand if only this news might not be true.”
The American ambassador in Chile relayed similar reactions.
“Strong men wandered about the streets weeping like children, and foreigners, unable even to speak our language, manifested a grief almost as deep as our own.”
So, what was it about President Lincoln that evoked such in-depth feeling? In 1865, there was no television, no radio, and, except for the consuls and ministers who traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln, he was unknown in Europe. The only accounts people had of him in other countries were from newspapers, and from stories told, word-of-mouth.
But, as the Atlantic reports, this was enough.
“In both Lincoln and the American experiment writ large, many Europeans saw an idealized view of their own aspirations. Sympathy came easily in Italy, where a war for national unification had also just been completed. ‘Abraham Lincoln was not yours only—he was also ours,’ wrote the citizens of Acireale, a small town in Sicily, ‘because he was a brother whose great mind and fearless conscience guided a people to union, and courageously uprooted slavery.'”
Abraham Lincoln may have been a quintessential American, but his tireless efforts in preserving the Union and freeing the slaves spoke to the world, earning himself the accolade of being “one of the rare men who succeeded in becoming great without ceasing to be good.”
To read a letter written by Abraham Lincoln that reveals a more personal side to the legendary man, click here.
[Image via Hulton Archive / Getty Images]