“A week unparalleled in the annals of this war”: Joy and Sorrow in April 1865

Surrender of Lee_Curr-Ives

“Surrender of Genl. Lee, at Appomattox C.H. Va. April 9th 1865” by Currier and Ives, 1865.

“Hurrah! Hurrah! ‘Sound the loud Timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea’ – Early this morning our ears were greeted with the sound of bells ringing a joyous peal – & a paper sent home by Frank announced the glad tidings that Gen. Lee had surrendered with his whole Army to Gen. Grant!” Only a day after the historic gentlemen’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, the news had reached Boston and, according to Caroline Barrett White, an upper-middle-class woman from Brookline, the “city has been given up to rejoicings all day & this evening there was to have been a great illumination—with music fireworks & such other demonstrations as are usual in a time like this.”

Like so many that day, White was eager to express her joy at the end of the most devastating war to take place on American soil. She had taken an active interest in the antislavery movement since the mid-1850s and kept a careful record of war news, government policy decisions, and her patriotic activities during the course of the conflict. (The latter consisted of everything from sewing shirts and socks for the soldiers to purchasing “some patriotic streamers” and “making some decorations of the national colors” to hang in her house.)

After four long years of worry and heartache, it’s no surprise that her victorious entry on April 10 reads as an incoherent jumble of emotions, ranging from utter joy that the war is over to a religious vindication of the evils of slavery to disappointment that she’s unable to join in the celebrations taking place just a few miles away in Boston. This last emotional swing is indicative of a motif that crops up throughout her war year entries: despite effusions of patriotic fervor and restlessness, this private woman remained mostly just that – private.

We don't know which newspaper Frank sent to Caroline, but this April 10 issue of the Boston Herald is one possibility.

We don’t know which newspaper Frank sent to Caroline, but this April 10 issue of the Boston Herald is one possibility.

Restrained by the expectations of the day—and her own belief in the correctness of those expectations (she was anti-women’s suffrage in later years)—it was in the privacy of her own home, and more specifically her diary, that she allowed herself the full expression of her political self. It is through a newspaper sent home by her husband, Frank, who is probably in the city amongst the revelry, that she learns of Appomattox. And while she allows herself a brief moment of frustration at the hindrances of her sex, she quickly rallies to focus on the monumental accomplishment of the day:

The booming of cannon & the pealing of bells, the blazing of fire works at this moment, announce that rain is no conqueror of enthusiasm – I wish I could be near to join in the general jubilation – it is stupid enough to be sitting alone in a quiet room – where only the faint echoes of a city’s burst of joy reach me – Ah!  Well!  I can be grateful to the Lord who has made bare His Arm to save this people.

Ultimately, it is the restoration of the Union and the demolition of slavery that excites White the most. Her “children will have an inheritance greatly to be desired,” for they will now “Let our starry banner wave – from sea to sea and no slave shall look upon its glorious folds – no chains shall clank beneath it – but every where, & to all people, of every color, shall it be the loved emblem of liberty.”

"Funeral car, used at the obsequies of President Lincoln, in Philadelphia, April 22d, 1865" by Jacob Haehnlen Philadelphia, 1865.

“Funeral car, used at the obsequies of President Lincoln, in Philadelphia, April 22d, 1865” by Jacob Haehnlen, Philadelphia, 1865.

Perhaps one of the most poignant aspects of reading White’s diary in retrospect, however, is the knowledge that her unbridled elation and hope for the future is to be taken away so quickly. With the “thrilling intelligence of the Fall of Petersburg and Richmond” arriving just a week earlier, the news of Lee’s surrender “crowns a week unparalleled in the annals of this war – & I doubt if a parallel could be found in all history.” Little did she know that these unparalleled events were not yet over, and when the next one came it was a devastating blow. “The darkest day I ever remember – This morning the sun rose upon a nation jubilant with victory – but it sets upon one plunged in deepest sorrow,” she wrote just five days later, on April 15. One can hardly blame her for finding the “rapidity with which events crowd upon one another…perfectly bewildering.”

Her entry detailing Lincoln’s death is interesting not just for what it says—much of it recounts the confusion of information about the condition of Secretary of State Seward and his sons, who were also attacked—but also for its physical characteristics. It spans three pages, in stark contrast to her normal entry length of about a fifth of a page, and the entire entry is outlined in a dark, bold pen line, a traditional sign of mourning. The length, emotion, and mourning border she gives to Lincoln’s assassination entry is unique in her diary, even deaths of close family and friends not receiving the same attention. Her grief and anguish is genuine, and there is nothing left for her to do but ask God, whom she had so recently thanked for guiding the country through the abolition of slavery, “When will our cup of punishments be drunk to the dregs?  Merciful Father, help us.”

White's April 15, 1865, entry detailing news of Lincoln's assassination.

White’s April 15, 1865, entry detailing news of Lincoln’s assassination.

So just as Caroline White rejoiced in her Brookline home 150 years ago on another rainy April 10, ignorant of what history had in store for the weary country next, let us also take a moment to remember and reflect.

A full transcription of the entries is available here.

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