Sunday, October 27, 2019

Gettysburg Newspapers Mourn a President and Debate Reconstruction

The news of the death of President Lincoln, by assassination, was received here on 
Saturday morning, between 8 and 9 o'clock. That it shocked, appalled all--such as 
no piece of intelligence ever before did--is but using a weak expression as to its effect. 
Every face gave evidence of the occurrence of some terrible calamity.

The weekly edition of The Compiler went to press late on Monday, April 17, 1865. The editor of Gettysburg's Democratic newspaper apologized for the delay, explaining to subscribers that he desired to include all the latest particulars of the shocking news of the President's assassination. The news moved at an astonishing pace in April of 1865. Since the start of the month, Richmond and Petersburg had fallen, the largest rebel army had surrendered, and an actor had murdered the President of the United States. The brutal war was swiftly coming to an end, but the daunting and unprecedented task of reconstruction now stood before the nation. Gettysburg's dueling partisan newspapers attempted to make sense of it all.

The news of Lincoln's death brought a measure of unity to Gettysburg. Both the Republican Adams Sentinel and The Compiler described a town in mourning. "This awful event," the Sentinel recorded on April 18th, "...threw over our town a gloom which has never been equaled. The dreaded deed was so shocking to every heart, even of those who had been his friends, and as also his opponents, that but one feeling prevailed, of deep and painful sorrow." All businesses shuttered their doors, and flags draped in mourning soon covered the town. Bells tolled to announce the shocking tragedy.

Yet a survey of these newspapers in the spring of 1865 reveals that rebel surrenders and the assassination of the President did nothing but paper over Gettysburg's obvious political divisions. Alongside notes about Lincoln's funeral, and exciting news about the progress of the United States army, the Compiler and Sentinel continued to lock horns in partisan battles. As during the war, slavery and racism drove these divisions among white Gettysburgians. By April of 1865, Congress had sealed the fate of slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment. The rights of African Americans and the status of four million newly freed-slaves now hung in the balance. For Democrats, "the Union as it was" reemerged as the rallying cry. The Compiler reported just ten days after Lincoln's death:
If the Abolitionists are in earnest in their professions of attachment to the Union, why not allow[?] to have it as our fathers made it? Why these talked of negro-equality experiments and other equally repulsive and unnatural schemes? The old Union was good enough for the men of 1783--why not for those of 1865? Reasonable men should want no more.
Later in the same issue, the editor commented, "When the war is fully over...the people will begin to reflect, and estimate what Abolitionism has cost the country. The result will stagger many who give the subject no thought now."

Republicans had successfully argued for the end of slavery as a war measure. Yet in the coming years, one central question of Reconstruction tested the nation: would white Americans accept full political and social equality for African Americans. The battlelines formed even as northern states celebrated the end of the war and mourned Lincoln. What political power could African Americans expect to gain? What political power could the defeated white plantation class that brought on the war expect to retain? These questions shaped competing memories of the war before the smoke cleared from its last battlefields. On May 9th, the Sentinel scoffed at the veneration of Robert E. Lee in a passage that could have just as well been written in 2019:
It is disgusting to observe the indications of a mawkish spirit which has appeared in certain quarters to regard some of the rebel leaders, and hold them up as great and admirable men.... In what respect is Robert E. Lee better than the cause of treason, murder and arson which he served? He was probably its ablest instrument, but in every respect he was as bad as any of his associates. Educated at the expense of the United States, he rebelled against, and used the very qualifcations which he had received from them to work their destruction.... It is a most weak, false, perverted sentiment which attaches to traitors the qualities and virtues which belong to honest and honorable men.... The memories of tens of thousands of our brethren who fill untimely graves forbid it. The melancholy procession of widows and orphans made so by this rebellion protest against it. Towns destroyed by fire--devastated fields, and ruined works of public improvement, bear witness to the guilt of treason. Shall the men who wrought all this evil be exalted in public estimation while their crimes cry aloud for punishment? We think the ghosts of all that fell from the day on which Massachusetts men were massacred in Baltimore, until Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, exclaim against it.
These competing Gettysburg newspapers highlighted the challenge Republicans faced as they looked toward the reconstruction of the nation. Though a semblance of unity existed among white northerners to support the war effort and reunite the country, that unity did not extend to guaranteeing freedom and equality for black Americans. Though the fighting between field armies on battlefields came to an end in April 1865, the war over the central issues at stake raged on.

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