Holy Week 1865
When Lee surrendered and Lincoln died
Holy Week is a reflective time for people of many faiths, and Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are marked by tens of millions around the world. However, Holy Week in 1865 was a defining period in American history.
On Palm Sunday, April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, signaling the death knell for the Confederate cause that wilted away in the coming weeks. Five days later, on Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln was mortally wounded in his box at Ford’s Theater by assassin John Wilkes Booth, and died the next morning.
This year the calendar days of the week for April 9-15 will correspond to those for 1865, beginning with Palm Sunday on April 9, the same as Appomattox. It is only the sixth time for this occurrence since 1865, happening only in 1876, 1911, 1922, 1933 and 2006.
The timing of Lincoln’s death has drawn parallels to Jesus Christ, and it has been claimed that only Christ has been the subject of more books than the 16th president. However, the extent of Lincoln’s Christian devotion has been one of the most intensely debated topics among Lincoln scholars for decades.
Lincoln’s Christianity – or lack thereof – was an issue in his successful 1846 congressional race against Methodist Rev. Peter Cartwright. His own law partner, William Herndon, even declared that Lincoln was an infidel. Many of Herndon’s various claims about Lincoln have since been debunked.
It is accepted by many writers that Lincoln underwent a religious transformation after the death of his second son, four-year-old Eddie, in 1850. Still, Lincoln was never an official member of any church in his lifetime.
Clearly, however, Lincoln was a believer. His words are peppered with Christian phrases and alliterations, and some of his greatest orations, such as the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, have been cited by scholars for their religious reference.
On the opposite side were men like Lee, a deeply religious individual who frequently credited his military successes and setbacks to a higher power. His reports and verbal declarations often contained references to “a merciful God,” “the blessings of God” and “the Giver.”
Lee biographer Michael Fellman wrote in 2000 that Lee “transparently and warmly believed in the existence of a literal heaven, a far better place to which all Christians would go” and that “death was no void but a permanent home.”
As Lee was about to ride to Appomattox Court House for the surrender on Palm Sunday, he told a subordinate that “as good Christian men…we must consider only the effect which our action (to continue or surrender) will have upon the country at large.”
Lee’s devotion was reflective of the period, as Christianity was a greater part of life for many Americans in the mid-19th century than now. Though less than half of Americans were members of a church in that era, as many as four out of five attended services regularly. Christian phrases and prose were also common in writing and everyday vernacular.
The evening of Maundy Thursday, April 13, was remembered for the “grand illumination” of candles and lanterns in nearly every house and business in Washington, D.C. The illumination was less for religious observance and more as part of a day-long city holiday celebrating the Union victory. The New York Times described the spectacle as “general and brilliant, utterly beyond anything ever before attempted here.”
Two days before, on April 11, Lincoln delivered a speech by candelight from a second-story White House window. In that appearance, he laid the groundwork for African-American citizenship, much to the dismay of Booth, in the audience below. Many scholars believe Booth made the decision at that moment to kill the president.
Many in 1865 noted the congruity of Lincoln’s death to Holy Week. In a funeral address at Lincoln’s Springfield burial in May, Bishop Matthew Simpson said that Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday, “the saddest day in the whole calendar for the Christian Church, henceforth in this country was made sadder, if possible, by the memory of our nation’s loss…so filled with grief was every Christian heart that even all the joyous thought of Easter Sunday failed to remove the crushing sorrow.”
For those of the Jewish faith, April 14, 1865, was the fifth night of Passover. Their services on the seventh and eighth days were also tinged with Lincoln reference. Many rabbis likened Lincoln to an American Moses.
Elsewhere in the world, particularly among some European populations, there was shock that Lincoln would attend a theater performance on Good Friday, a practice apparently not done in those societies.
When Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on Saturday morning, April 15, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton stared at Lincoln’s lifeless body and uttered the words “now he belongs to the angels.” It was only later that Stanton changed the final word to “ages,” believing it would read better in history. Stanton’s edited words have become synonymous with Lincoln’s assassination, and are engraved above the memorial room at the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.