Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Cover story: "Mourning Lincoln"

Martha Hodes is Professor of History at New York University and the author of The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century and White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South.

Hodes’s latest book is Mourning Lincoln. Here the author explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
A white woman in a star-spangled dress and a black man in striped drawers, both covering their eyes: these two figures are part of the black-and-white image that graces the cover of Mourning Lincoln. The lithograph was drawn soon after the assassination in April 1865. The Civil War had just ended, and five days later John Wilkes Booth went to Ford’s Theatre to fire a single shot into the back of Lincoln’s head.

The imposing tombstone at the center bears a profile of the president, along with the words, “TO ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE BEST BELOVED OF THE NATION.” Leaning on the grave is the figure of Columbia, or “Lady Liberty,” a symbol of Union patriotism, one hand covering her eyes with black mourning cloth. Her other hand holds a sword, a symbol of valor in combat and of martyrdom. Behind the grave stands the man, also covering his eyes in grief. His scant clothing symbolizes recent enslavement, and in the distance you can see battlefield cannon and corpses.

Atop the tombstone are gathered a set of objects. A funerary urn is draped with a length of black “crape,” the ubiquitous mourning cloth of the nineteenth century (Lady Liberty shields her eyes with a corner of it). An American flag is draped by the urn, and three owls stand attentive, symbols of wisdom, but also of death.

On the ground, you can see a rolled paper labeled “Emancipation Act,” the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln signed on January 1, 1863, deeply influenced as he was by black and white abolitionists and by the enslaved men and women who had been running to freedom since the war began. Just so, the broken shackles of a slave lie nearby. A slain dragon (only partially visible on the book’s cover) marks an allegorical reference to the martyred Roman soldier St. George, symbolizing Christian triumph over evil. Before you open the cover, find the angel hovering above the monument, holding a palm frond. Lincoln died on Saturday morning, April 15, and the next day was Easter Sunday. He had been shot on Good Friday, and his mourners compared him to Jesus.

The cover image represents the sorrow of the bereaved, but it also alludes to the politics of Lincoln’s assassination by centering slavery and emancipation. Mourning Lincoln takes readers far beyond a static portrait of a grieving nation, into hundreds of diaries, letters, and other personal writings, encompassing North and South, Union and Confederate, black and white, men and women, soldiers and civilians.

Not everyone considered Lincoln “the best beloved of the nation”--Confederates celebrated his murder, even as they worried that the slain executive would have been their best ally in the war’s aftermath, and Lincoln’s northern enemies laughed and cheered when they heard the news. But African Americans claimed Lincoln as their ally too, fashioning the martyred president into a radical who would have ensured not only freedom, but also equality and citizenship. Mourning Lincoln explores the manifold responses to the nation’s first presidential assassination in the hours, days, and weeks afterward, illuminating the roots of long-lasting conflicts and clashes over black freedom and equality.
Learn more about the book and author at Martha Hodes's author website.

--Marshal Zeringue