With Firmness in the Right – Lincoln and the Jews

December 13, 2017
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March 2015 - June 2015
August 2015 - November 2015


In 1858, when Abraham Lincoln emerged onto the national stage, Jews made up less than one-half of one percent of the American population. Many Americans of that time did not know Jews personally, yet Lincoln did, and these relationships stood out amid the stereotyping and anti-Semitism of mid-19th-century America.

In his second inaugural address, toward the end of a bloody, four-year-long civil war, Lincoln urged the American people to move forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” The statement encapsulated the view of a man who strove for tolerance and inclusivity. True reconciliation, however, required not only compassion, but also a strong moral conviction: one must act, the famous address continued, “with firmness in the right.” That principled commitment distinctly characterized Lincoln’s efforts to protect liberty for all, including Jews, and to advocate against the tide of discrimination.

Through historical documents, including many original writings by Lincoln and his Jewish contemporaries shown publicly for the first time, this exhibition brings to light the little-known relationship between Lincoln and the Jews. The bonds Lincoln formed with Jewish individuals during his lifetime, and the interventions he made as president on behalf of all Jews, reflected his deepest values and helped promote Jewish equality in the United States.

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Raised on the Old Testament

Raised on the Old Testament

“That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general. . . .” – Abraham Lincoln, Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity, July 31, 1846

Abraham Lincoln regularly referenced the Bible throughout his life—in writing, public speaking and conversation—quoting the Old Testament about three times more often than he did the New. In Lincoln’s strict Baptist Calvinist home, life was lived by the “Bible alone.” Many of Lincoln’s ancestors, Calvinists who came from England and settled in Hingham, Massachusetts, had Old Testament names: Abraham, Amos, Benjamin, Isaac, Jeremiah, Josiah, Levi, Mordecai, Samuel and Solomon. Unlike most 19th–century Americans, the Lincolns and members of their church strongly believed in predestination, that one’s fate was determined by God alone; they opposed missionizing and had no interest in converting Jews to Christianity.

Lincoln's Famous Inscription on a Photograph to Mrs. Lucy Speed:
Lincoln's Famous Inscription on a Photograph to Mrs. Lucy Speed: "From Whose Pious Hand I Accepted the Present of an Oxford Bible Twenty Years Ago." Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Lincoln inscribed these words on a photograph to Mrs. Lucy Speed: “From Whose Pious Hand I Accepted the Present of an Oxford Bible Twenty Years Ago.” In 1841, the mother of Lincoln’s good friend, Joshua Speed, gave Lincoln a Bible to help him get over a broken engagement to Mary Todd. The gift so impressed Lincoln that two decades later he remembered it in this unusual and personal inscription.

A Growing Minority

“Denied citizenship in most of Christendom. . . they have bent all their energies to . . . the accumulation of money. . . . [Yet] The Jew here has the same privileges, social, religious, and political, that any other class enjoys.” – Editorial, “The Jews, as Citizens,”Washington Sentinel, Washington D.C., May 21, 1854

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, about 150,000 Jews lived in the U.S., a tiny fraction of the total population of 31 million.

In Europe, economic dislocation, political discontent, even famine, as well as restrictions on Jewish freedom to marry, travel and work, spurred a wave of emigration in the 19th–century. During the colonial period, Jews had settled mostly on the Atlantic coast, in the trade–centered ports of New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah and Charleston. Now new immigrant Jews began to follow the farmers and miners moving west, on the rising tide of America’s unparalleled expansion and new forms of transportation. First as peddlers—a traditional role in Europe—then as clothiers and merchants, Jews brought necessities to their customers. They established communities from Cincinnati to San Francisco, where they hoped to find acceptance and religious freedom as well as economic success.

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Lincoln Wins the Presidency & Civil War Looms

"...one of my most valued friends." Courtesy: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Lincoln Wins the Presidency & Civil War Looms


Political Allies: Lincoln and Jonas

Abraham Lincoln began practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, in the late 1830s. In his travels representing clients, he met Jews, whose population in the state was only approaching 3,000. In all likelihood the first Jew Lincoln came to know well was Abraham Jonas, a lawyer and early political supporter of Lincoln, from Quincy, Illinois, whom Lincoln met in 1843. Although Jonas was not an observant Jew, there was no mistaking his Jewish identity. His law practice was housed below the Congregation B’nai Abraham, which his family had helped to found. Jonas, his partner Henry Asbury and Lincoln were part of a circle of attorneys who often opposed each other on trial and then socialized after court adjourned. In 1856, Jonas and Lincoln joined the fledgling Republican Party after the Whig Party collapsed over disagreements regarding the extension of slavery. Soon after Lincoln was defeated by Stephen A. Douglas in the Illinois Senatorial race of 1858, Jonas began promoting him for the presidency.

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Lincoln-Douglas Debates Book, Inscribed by Lincoln. Abraham Jonas was one of the organizers of the Debates. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

"As you are one of my most valued friends . . . "

Less than two months after his loss to Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln was pulled back into politics, thanks, in no small part, to Abraham Jonas. This time, the office under discussion was the presidency. In April 1860, one month before the national convention, Lincoln published a transcript of his debates with Douglas, which clarified his position on slavery and catapulted him to political prominence. At the same time, Lincoln wrote to Jonas conveying his appreciation of their friendship.

Replying to Jonas’s request for a copy of the Lincoln–Douglas Debates book, Lincoln promised him one of his gratis copies, and at the same time acknowledged the importance of their relationship. Jonas was the only recorded person whom Lincoln ever directly called “one of my most valued friends.” Jonas had helped organize the debate in his home town of Quincy and received his inscribed copy of the book soon after it was published in April, 1860.

Abraham Lincoln to Abraham Jonas, October 21, 1856. Shapell Legacy Partnership

“I am here at court and find myself so ‘hobbled’ with a particular case, that I can not leave.” – Abraham Lincoln to Abraham Jonas, October 21, 1856.

Lincoln, in this letter, regretfully canceled a campaign speech for Republican candidate John C. Frémont, telling Abraham Jonas that he was “hobbled” by a particular case. Always fond of wordplay, Lincoln was referring implicitly to his stepbrother’s crippled or “hobbled” son, who had been accused of stealing and needed Lincoln’s intervention. For Lincoln to have confided this personal situation to Jonas reveals their close, nuanced relationship.

“Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” - Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union Address, New York City, February 27, 1860

After winning the Republican nomination, Lincoln, still relatively unknown, began building national support. Here, he sought help from a former opponent, the abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. Lincoln referred to himself as a humble candidate. Perhaps he even saw himself as an outsider like the Germans and Jews he befriended. Echoing the thundering concept of “right makes might,” from his Cooper Union address, he saluted Clay’s “unwavering purpose to stand for the right.”

Campaigning With Jewish Support

As Lincoln gained political prominence, he attracted more Jewish supporters. They worked on his behalf in New York City, which had the largest Jewish population in the nation, and where Lincoln made his transformative speech at Cooper Union. Other Jews supported him at the Republican Convention in Chicago in May 1860. Lincoln won the nomination there, with Jonas playing a major role behind the scenes, and then went on to win the presidential election in November. A month later, President-elect Lincoln received a timely warning from Jonas about an assassination plot. As Southern states quickly began seceding, Lincoln acknowledged that he was living through “troub’lous times,” employing a phrase from the Book of Daniel.

Some of the Jews who supported Lincoln for president were attracted to his politics, having fought for similar values in the European revolutions of 1848. The majority of Jews, however, probably did not favor Lincoln’s candidacy. Fear of war, the threatened loss of commercial ties to the South and in some cases their outright support for slavery led many Jews to back other candidates in the 1860 election. The Jewish community, like the nation as a whole, was a house divided.

Abraham Lincoln sent Kauffman his autograph on Christmas Eve, 1861. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Abraham Lincoln Sends his Autograph as a Favor to a Jewish Political Supporter, Sigismund Kaufmann

On Christmas Eve, 1861, Lincoln provided an autograph requested by his friend and fellow attorney, Sigismund Kaufmann.

Sigismund Kaufmann, a Republican elector, was a German–Jewish lawyer and influential New Yorker who cast his vote for Lincoln. Although not an elector, Lewis Dembitz, a lawyer from Kentucky, was a delegate at the 1860 Republican National Convention and also served as a member of the Convention’s order of business committee. German–Jewish Moritz Pinner, originally a delegate from Missouri to the Convention, chose to resign his post when his state decided to vote as a bloc for Edward Bates and not for Lincoln.

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"Union is Dissolved!" - South Carolina Proclaims it has Dissolved its Bonds to the United States and Becomes First State to Secede. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

The Path To War

In December 1860, one month after Lincoln was elected president, Southern states began to secede from the Union. In April 1861, six weeks after he was inaugurated, Confederate forces fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, igniting the four–year, bloody and brutal Civil War.

People learned about the first act of secession from this newspaper handbill on December 20, 1860. One secessionist later sent a copy to Lincoln himself. South Carolina was the first state to declare itself independent of the United States. Other Southern states soon followed—eleven in all by the war’s beginning. They banded together under the banner of the Confederate States of America.

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Abraham Lincoln and Abraham Jonas

Abraham Lincoln and Abraham Jonas

The relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Abraham Jonas went beyond a political and ideological alliance. Their loyalty, mutual respect and friendship were remarkable in mid–19th–century America, where Jonas was a member of a tiny non–Christian minority looked down upon by many. During his presidency, Lincoln appointed Jonas to the sought–after federal position of postmaster of Quincy, Illinois.

Like many families during the Civil War, Jonas’s was divided, with all but one of his sons fighting on the Confederate side. But the bond between the two Abrahams withstood this test. From the White House, Lincoln continued to inquire after Jonas’s children and even intervened on their behalf.

Benjamin Jonas

Abraham Jonas’s son Benjamin became a lawyer in New Orleans. Despite his Southern sympathies, he reached out to Lincoln in 1857 as “an old friend of my father” to defend a young black Springfield man, John Shelby, jailed in New Orleans for defying curfew. Lincoln dispatched his own funds to Benjamin to free Shelby, keeping the whole affair quiet. Both lawyers waived their fees. Benjamin became a U.S. Senator from Louisiana in 1879.

Edward Jonas

“I was only thirteen years old. . . [and while] my father was speaking. . . I suddenly felt a tickling behind my ear. Thinking it a bug or fly I slapped vigorously, but upon its being repeated, I. . . turned and caught the fly. It was Mr. Lincoln with a straw in his hand. He made it all right by catching me up with his long arm, drawing [me] to his side and talking. . . very entertainingly until his turn came to address the assemblage.” – Edward Jonas, 1917

Edward Jonas, the youngest Jonas son, was the only one to enlist in the Union army. He later recalled meeting Lincoln on the campaign trail in 1858, an encounter that revealed Lincoln’s playful and relaxed relationship with the Jonas boys.

Lincoln's Parole of Charles Jonas to See His Dying Father, Abraham Jonas. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Charles Jonas

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Charles Jonas, the eldest son, became a Confederate prisoner of war on Johnson’s Island, Ohio in 1864. As Abraham Jonas lay dying, Lincoln issued this compassionate order allowing Charles a three–week parole to return to Illinois and visit the deathbed. He made it back just in time to see his father alive. The order reveals Lincoln’s concern for his old friend, Abraham Jonas, and his family.

Appointment of Abraham Jonas as Postmaster. Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Postmaster Appointments

Abraham Jonas was the first Jew whom President Lincoln appointed to a patronage position. Postmastering, a job Lincoln himself had held in New Salem, Illinois, before being admitted to the bar in Springfield, was coveted by politicians because it facilitated contacts with fellow citizens. Upon Jonas’s death, Lincoln appointed Louisa Jonas, Abraham’s widow, to succeed her husband in the post. It was another sign of his respect for the Jonas family.

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A Moral Stand Against Prejudice

A Moral Stand Against Prejudice

“How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people?” – Abraham Lincoln to Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855

Times of national crisis almost always heighten prejudice and discrimination, as people blame convenient scapegoats. During the Civil War, bigotry and distrust of minorities—Jews, African Americans and Catholics—were all too common. In the military, Antisemitism was casual, yet virulent and omnipresent. Union generals Benjamin F. Butler, George B. McClellan, William T. Sherman and others wore their Antisemitism without shame. General Ulysses S. Grant went so far as to ban Jews from the vast area under his command: his order against “Jews as a class” was the most notorious official act of Antisemitism in American history. As soon as Lincoln learned of the order, he countermanded it. The president also made two other wartime interventions on behalf of Jews: he approved legislation expanding the military chaplaincy to include them, and he appointed an Orthodox Jew as “Assistant Quarter–master with the rank of Captain,” declaring that “we have not yet appointed a Hebrew.”

Antisemitic Generals

When faced with Antisemitism, Lincoln chose either to ignore it or to counteract it where he could. Many in his cabinet, and much of his high command, including Generals Grant, Butler, Sherman, and McClellan, were virulent anti–Semites. These letters from Generals Sherman and Butler illustrate how they saw Jews at this time. General McClellan also expressed his anti–Semitic prejudice: during an ocean journey in 1875, he wrote, “we have lots of Germans and Jews on board but fortunately there are enough Christian gentiles to make it pleasant for us… &… enable us to be quite independent of the sons of Jacob.”

Less Than Six Weeks Before General Orders No. 11, William T. Sherman Vents Anti-Semitic Prejudice. Shapell Manuscript Collection.
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“A great deal of smuggling is going on in the Holly Springs Army,” General Sherman noted in early November 1862, “but this is mostly by Union men and Jews instigated by a sense of gain.” This pervasive prejudice was part of the momentum building up to Grant’s General Orders No. 11 six weeks later.

General Benjamin Butler: the Jews "Betrayed Their Savior... & Also Have Betrayed Us." Shapell Manuscript Collection

Union Major General Butler, Military Governor of New Orleans, was infamous for his anti–Semitism. Writing of arrested smugglers on October 23, 1862, he claimed “They are Jews who betrayed their Savior; & also have betrayed us.”

“We Have Not Yet Appointed A Hebrew”

Just as Antisemitism in the military seemed to be reaching its peak, Lincoln moved to support Jews and vouch for their loyalty. C. M. Levy, a known Orthodox Jew in New York, applied for the position of quartermaster—responsible for army housing, transportation, clothing and supplies. On November 4, 1862, Lincoln noted to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “we have not yet appointed a Hebrew,” and described Levy as “a capable and faithful man.” (The word “faithful” was typical Lincoln wordplay, here carrying a respectful double meaning.) Lincoln appointed Levy Assistant Quartermaster. Some fifty other Jews likewise served as quartermasters for the Union.

Theater Playbill of "Gamea, or The Jewish Mother" March 28, 1864. Courtesy: Newsbank.

Lincoln at the Theater: Jewish Themes

The Lincolns were frequent theatergoers. Between 1864 and 1865, they saw at least four performances of Jewish–themed plays, including Gamea, or The Jewish Mother (twice in the same week) and Leah, the Forsaken. Gamea concerned a kidnapped Jewish child raised as a Christian. It was inspired by the 1859 Mortara Affair in Italy, in which a Jewish child had been torn from his home by order of the Pope. President Buchanan’s administration exacerbated the situation by remaining notably silent at the time, having been concerned that foreign governments might link the Affair to American slavery, which also turned a blind eye to the kidnapping of children. Leah concerned 18th–century Austrian persecution of Jews. It depicted raw Antisemitism, like that expressed by some of Lincoln’s generals, in the hope that viewers would sympathize with Leah and recoil from her oppressors. But it also carried a universal theme dear to the Lincolns: the evils of prejudice.

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Jews in the Civil War

Jews in the Civil War

“Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”  – Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

The Civil War was the central arena in which Lincoln came into contact with many more Jews and they with him. As newly arrived immigrants, Jews tended to be patriotic in order to integrate into society. As soldiers, they were generally loyal to their states, North and South. The Jewish soldiers who joined the Union military were influenced, in part, by Lincoln’s values. Many earned distinguished records of service, particularly at the Battle of Gettysburg. There were a number of largely Jewish regiments, and Jewish soldiers on both sides strove to maintain their Jewish identity and practice their religious rituals in the field. In one grisly instance, the war also demonstrated religious pluralism as Catholic, Protestant and Jewish deserters alike were executed while a priest, minister and rabbi looked on.

Ellis C. Strouss, a Jewish soldier for the Union army, miraculously survived the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War, Gettyburg. In this letter to his mother, he listed the many missing, wounded and fallen boys in his regiment. Nevertheless, he felt the Union would ultimately be victorious.

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Alexander Hart's Civil War Sword and Scabbard Presented upon his Promotion to Captain. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Alexander Hart, a Jew from New Orleans, served with the 5th Louisiana Regiment of the Confederate Army, and received this sword on February 22, 1862. He was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, later captured and paroled, and eventually took the Oath of Allegiance to the Union following the Confederacy’s surrender. Alexander Hart’s Civil War Sword and Scabbard Presented upon his Promotion to Captain.

Executions at Beverly Ford

“ . . . the troops were massed on the side of a hill about one mile from Beverly Ford, the graves of the condemned men were dug under a tree on the rise of ground opposite a small stream running between the troops and the place of execution . . .” – James Clossen to his mother, September 3, 1863

On August 29, 1863, 25,000 soldiers assembled at Beverly Ford, Virginia, to witness the execution of five soldiers convicted of deserting. They were “bounty jumpers,” who were paid to enlist as substitutes for draftees and who then deserted, only to repeat the process. Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore lobbied Lincoln in person to commute the sentence of George Kuhne, a Jewish soldier. But Lincoln had already deferred the decision to General George Meade, and the executions proceeded. Each man was accompanied by a clergyman of his own faith. The executions did not deter future desertions, but they did provide an important example of religious pluralism in the military: the faiths of soldiers and their clergy would be granted proper respect.

Courtesy: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Lincoln responded to the appeal of the soldiers condemned to death by allowing General Meade, in the face of the “flagrant cases,” to proceed as he deemed fit.

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly for September 26, 1863 Showing Five Union Soldiers, Including a Jew, Executed for Desertion. Shapell Manuscript Collection.
Illustration from Harper’s Weekly for September 26, 1863 Showing Five Union Soldiers, Including a Jew, Executed for Desertion. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

The Jewish prisoner, along with Rabbi Benjamin Szold, occupied the right–most position and marched out first, for Judaism was recognized as being “the most ancient of religious creeds.”

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Issachar Zacharie

Issachar Zacharie

“My chiropodist is a Jew, and he has so many times ‘put me on my feet’ that I would have no objection to giving his countrymen ‘a leg up.’ ” – Abraham Lincoln, reputedly to Henry Wentworth Monk, March 1863

As President, Lincoln became closely connected to Dr. Issachar Zacharie, an eccentric, English–born, Jewish chiropodist (podiatrist) with a controversial reputation. Beyond the relief that he brought to the President’s chronically painful feet, Zacharie served as Lincoln’s emissary to the influential Jewish community of New Orleans. Zacharie claimed he tracked troop movements and transports, collected other intelligence, assisted local Jews and sought to win support for the Union. Lincoln and Zacharie corresponded for nearly two and a half years, and at times were closeted away for hours in discussions at the White House. Zacharie was also responsible for freeing several Jewish Confederate captives, and he campaigned hard for Lincoln’s re–election, especially among Jewish voters. Lincoln interceded frequently for Zacharie, especially where the doctor’s family was concerned, as demonstrated in his remarkable letter “About Jews” of early 1865.

The president first came to know Zacharie through the latter’s skill as a chiropodist. Though he added “M.D.” to his signature, Zacharie’s actual training was sketchy; he concealed his lack of education and even plagiarized a book on chiropody. But the president found something compelling in the able and flamboyant Jewish doctor. During the historic week when Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote no fewer than three testimonials for the chiropodist, lauding Zacharie’s skill in treating his feet, and—alluding to Lincoln’s own humble origins—in relieving “what plain people call backache.” Within months of their meeting, Zacharie became Lincoln’s personal and confidential agent to the Jewish community.

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Rare Copy of Issachar Zacharie's Book "Surgical and Practical Observations on the Diseases of the Human foot," Signed "By the Author." Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Zacharie’s book shared, at the very least, the exact same title of a book published abroad by another chiropodist years earlier. Chiropody, perhaps because it was scorned by many doctors, allowed entry for Jews and became a heavily Jewish profession. Zacharie rose to be its foremost American practitioner, obtaining testimonials from leading generals and politicians as early as 1846.

“Dr. Zacharie, has, with great dexterity, taken some troublesome corns from my toes - He is now treating me, and I believe with success, for what plain people call back-ache. We shall see how it will end.” - Abraham Lincoln

On September 22, 1862, the very day Lincoln announced the imminent emancipation of the Confederacy’s slaves, the president penned a second testimonial for Zacharie. The next day, Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward stated their desire that “the soldiers of our brave army may have the benefit of his surpassing skill.”

Zacharie And His Countrymen

“He might be of service, to you, first, in his peculiar profession and secondly as a means of access to his countrymen who are quite numerous in some of the localities you will probably visit.” – Abraham Lincoln to Nathaniel Banks, November 25, 1862

By 1862, the one–time Confederate state of Louisiana had been restored to Union control. Lincoln had replaced Benjamin Butler with Nathaniel Banks as commander of the Department of the Gulf. In November, Banks was collecting men and materiel for a secret mission there, taking Zacharie along at Lincoln’s recommendation “as a means of access to his countrymen.” Banks instructed Zacharie to “be on the lookout for enemy troops, supplies, ammunition, and the different organizations of which their army may be composed.” Zacharie dutifully reported back, and even hired local Jews, conveniently disguised as peddlers, to gain intelligence.

In November 1864, Lincoln won re–election by more than 400,000 votes, and large portions of the South soon began falling into Union hands. No sooner had General Sherman presented Savannah to Lincoln as a “Christmas present” than Zacharie subtly reminded Lincoln of an earlier promise to let him travel there. Zacharie’s subsequent trip south was no less mysterious than his previous missions; it also got him into trouble with the Secretary of War. But Lincoln took what would be his last, remarkable opportunity to stand up for his close Jewish friend.

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Lincoln's Last Days

Lincoln's Last Days

This morning Gen. Grant reports Petersburg evacuated; and he is confident Richmond also is. . . . I start to him in a few minutes.” – Abraham Lincoln to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, April 3, 1865

With the fall of Richmond on April 2, 1865, the carnage of four years of bitter war neared an end. Lincoln rushed to Petersburg, Virginia, to meet Grant, and hurried on to the Confederate capital. The death toll of the two sides had reached 700,000, with Confederate troops losing one out of every five soldiers. On April 5, as Richmond smoldered, Lincoln met with Confederate Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell and the prominent Richmond Jewish attorney, Gustavus A. Myers. Aboard the gunboat USS Malvern they discussed Virginia’s restoration to the Union and other terms of surrender. Myers was impressed by Lincoln’s “entire civility,” “good humor” and “sincere liberality.” The final Confederate surrender, however, came six days later at Appomattox.

Philadelphia Broadside Heralding The Fall of Richmond:
Philadelphia Broadside Heralding The Fall of Richmond: "God! Grant! Victory!" 1865. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

I Will Take Care of Myself

As Lincoln was about to board a train from City Point, Virginia, to Petersburg to meet Grant, he telegraphed Stanton his plans. Stanton telegraphed back, “Allow me respectfully to ask you to consider whether you ought to expose the nation to the consequence of any disaster to yourself in the pursuit of a treacherous and dangerous enemy. . . .” Lincoln replied that since he had already met with Grant he would proceed to Richmond: “I will take care of myself,” he confidently wrote, with what would turn out to be sad irony.

The document sealing Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House was just five days old when Lincoln was assassinated, shot by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Booth, a staunch advocate of slavery and Southern independence, had been in the crowd at Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, and at his last public speech on April 11, where Lincoln voiced his support for black suffrage. When Lincoln died, after nine hours in a coma, with Russian–born Jewish surgeon Charles Liebermann in attendance, he was the first U.S. president to be assassinated.

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Unused Ticket for Ford's Theatre, April 14, 1865 - The Night Lincoln Was Assassinated There. Shapell Manuscript Collection.

On the evening of April 14, 1865, Lincoln attended a comedy at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Sometime around 10 p.m., John Wilkes Booth slipped unnoticed into the presidential box, stood four feet from the president, and timing his actions to a punch–line so the audience’s laughter would mute the sound of his gunshot, he discharged a bullet from a single–shot derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head. Unused Ticket for Ford’s Theatre, April 14, 1865 – The Night Lincoln Was Assassinated There.

Lincoln’s Final Hours

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Dr. Stone, a Christian Southerner, attended at the president’s deathbed and autopsy, along with Dr. Liebermann, whom Stone here called “my old friend.” Stone had treated Mrs. Lincoln’s migraines, Lincoln’s abdominal discomfort, the boys’ aches and pains and Willie Lincoln’s fatal attack of typhoid fever. In this narrative, Stone recorded his rush to the stricken president’s side, and Lincoln’s final minutes, decline, death and autopsy. This page is eerily stained with human blood.

Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the fifth day of Passover, and he died the next day, on the Jewish Sabbath. Many Jews were on their way to synagogue when his death was first reported. As one Jewish acquaintance of Lincoln wrote, “it is a singular fact that it was the Israelites’ privilege . . . to be the first to offer in their places of worship, prayers for the repose of the soul of Mr. Lincoln.” The numerous eulogies that rabbis delivered that day reflected the tangible relationships and powerful bonds Lincoln had formed with Jews during his lifetime, as well as his efforts to promote Jewish equality in the U.S.

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

A Truth That Needed to be Told

“… as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…” – Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

Abraham Lincoln: The Purposes of the Almighty are Different than Our Purposes. Abraham Lincoln to Thurlow Weed. March 15, 1865. Shapell Legacy Partnership.

Lincoln’s second inaugural address gives us a remarkable glimpse into his struggle to come to terms with four brutal years of Civil War. To Lincoln, the war was God’s punishment for the sin of slavery: both the North and the South were morally complicit in long sanctioning the selling and enslavement of human beings, and judgment was borne by all. “As was said three thousand years ago,” proclaimed Lincoln, referencing the era of King David, “so still it must be said, ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ” With this obscure half–verse from Psalm 19, the president, who possessed a sharp analytical mind, here humbly gave way to powers beyond the reach of logic: he had come to believe that God’s judgements were proper, even if the truth belied any rational explanation.

Lincoln then concluded his speech on a note of reconciliation, with perhaps his single greatest utterance: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right . . . .” Ten days after his address, in a reply to a political advisor, Lincoln offered further insight into his belief that God, not men, drives events: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them,” Lincoln commented. “It is a truth,” he added, “which I thought needed to be told.”