For Americans in both the North and South, April 1865 was an emotional rollercoaster: incredible happiness and shock, anger and fear. Those living in Washington City (as Washington D.C. was then known) were no different---they experienced the same emotional highs and lows.
As April 1865 began, both Northerners and Southerners were tired of war. It had been a long four years since the Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter and what both sides thought would be a short war had turned into a bitter struggle with much suffering. After all, the war had claimed some 620,000 lives --- 360,000 in the North and 260,000 in the South --- more than died in all U.S. wars from the American Revolution through the Korean War. In addition to these dead, thousands had been grievously wounded, and millions of dollars in property had been destroyed or lost to war.
This explains why, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865, there were wild celebrations in every Northern state. In Washington City, a predominantly Southern town before the Civil War but now very much a Federal stronghold with many troops wearing Union blue uniforms, the night skies were filled with fireworks. There were happy crowds in the street and the future looked brighter and safer. Yes, Confederate troops were still in the field in North Carolina and Texas, but Lee's surrender meant the war was over and the Union had been preserved!
Of course, few white Southerners were cheering Lee's defeat and the end of the Confederate States of America. On the other hand, many certainly felt relief that the fighting was over and peace was at hand.
Five days later, on April 14, 1865, these feelings of jubilation and joy in the North---and in Washington City---ended abruptly when John Wilkes Booth shot and killed Abraham Lincoln while the president was watching a play in Ford's Theater. While some Northerners and the vast of majority of Southerners may have wished Lincoln ill-will, all were shocked at this coldblooded murder---it was the first assassination of an American president. Many compared Lincoln's murder to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. After all, Honest Abe had saved the Union but had now paid the ultimate sacrifice for his love of country.
Besides shock and anger, there was fear. Many were afraid that Lincoln's murder might mean that the war was not over. Many prominent men in the government, including Vice President Andrew Johnson who soon moved to the White House as the new chief executive, were absolutely convinced that Lincoln's assassination was part of a larger Confederate conspiracy to decapitate the government. The Rebels had failed militarily and Robert E. Lee had surrendered. But was President Jefferson Davis and the devilish Rebels now trying to defeat the Union off the field of battle by decapitating the Union's leadership? After all, had not Secretary of State William Seward been brutally attacked and nearly killed in his home? Union General Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to have been in Ford's Theater with the Lincolns on April 14. Was he also an intended victim? Was Lincoln's assassination the beginning of a new type of war against the Union? Was the Civil War really over or was it instead moving into a new phase---which meant more bloodshed and more suffering. No one was sure in April 1865---it might be the end of the Civil War or the start of some new struggle.
As for Washington City --- life in America's capital city --- like life in America generally --- was very different from today. It was truly a different time and a different place.
In 1860, about 31 million Americans lived in the United States, including four million enslaved African-Americans. (Compare this number with America's population today of about 310 million in the 50 states). When one realizes that the South's population was only 9.5. million---of which nearly four million were African-Americans, the demographics are startling.
Living was very different, too. The median age in 1860 was 19.4 years --- half the population was older and half was younger. (Compare that age with today, where the median age in the United States is 36.7 years). Finally, white Americans in 1860 could expect to live to be 43.6 years old; no one kept statistics for African-Americans. (Compare that to today's Americans, who can expect to live to be 77.7 years old.)
So it was a very different America -- and a very different Washington City. The city had about 75,000 inhabitants in 1860 but grew tremendously during the Civil War as the Federal government expanded. While Washington D.C. today is a highly urban environment, it was quite rural when Mary Surratt and her fellow conspirators lived nearby. While gaslight was available in the City, most of the men and women living in the City used candles for light (electricity as a power source did not yet exist). Cooking was done on a wood-burning stove and wood kept the city's residents warm in the winter. In the summer, when temperatures could reach 100 degrees---in fact Washington in the summer of 1865 did see those temperatures---it was difficult to keep cool. Some Washingtonians abandoned their homes at night to sleep outside.
For African-Americans living in Washington, life was better than in many places. First of all, many of the city's black residents were free. This was because most Southern states prohibited freed African-Americans to remain in their home states---and so many of these newly freed men and women moved to Washington City. At the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, slavery was still legal in Washington City. But about 80 percent of the black people living in the City were free. Yet, even after Lincoln abolished slavery in Washington, racism and racial prejudice remained.
Colonel Fred L. Borch (Ret.) is the Regimental Historian and Archivist for the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps - one of only two full-time legal historians in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Fred served 25 years as a military lawyer in the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps. His areas of... More