Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. exactly 150 years ago. As Americans did throughout the country, Princetonians immediately went into mourning. The loss was more profound given that the nation had emerged from a devastating Civil War less than a week before.
Princeton’s ties to Lincoln are reflected in various collections in Princeton University Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. On his train trip to his inauguration in 1861, Lincoln made many stops in the Midwest and Northeast, where he often spoke to crowds. On February 21, more than 20,000 supporters received him in Trenton. William Stewart Cross Webster and Alexander Taggart McGill, Jr., both of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) Class of 1864, were among the throngs. In a letter to his mother a few days later, Webster expressed disappointment that he was unable to hear Lincoln over the roar of the crowd: “This was our sight of Abraham Lincoln: We saw great Lincoln plain; it can never be forgotten, the bowing very graciously right and left. In a few minutes Mr. L. appeared on the platform and said a few words. His manner was pleasant and a vein of humor pervaded his whole face. I was unlucky enough to hear nothing he said.” (Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104), Box 125)
Shortly after his reelection in 1864, the Board of Trustees voted to confer an honorary Doctorate of Law upon Lincoln. Lincoln was unable to attend Princeton’s Commencement, but wrote to College President John Maclean to thank Princeton for its honor “in this time of public trial.”
Civil War exhibition reveals sectional fissures within college and town.
“Your True Friend and Enemy”: Princeton and the Civil War, a new exhibition at Princeton University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, examines life at the college and within the town of Princeton against the backdrop of the War Between the States. Through the eyes of students, faculty, and townspeople—including women and African Americans—the exhibition provides a local view of this watershed event in American history. It opens on September 17, 2012, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, after which President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
“Each case features something related to Abraham Lincoln,” said Dan Linke, the head of the Mudd Manuscript Library and one of the four exhibition curators. “We have student accounts of his pre-inaugural speech in Trenton and then his funeral train, as well as an alumnus soldier’s diary noting the assassination. Perhaps the most significant item is the three-page handwritten letter sent by Lincoln to the college president accepting an honorary degree. It is one of the University’s treasured possessions and what a former dean called ‘among the title deeds to our Americanism.’”
Letters and documents drawn from the University Archives at the Mudd Manuscript Library and from other units of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, as well as the Historical Society of Princeton, demonstrate how sectional differences affected student life and how the bonds of friendship transcended the national conflict. The exhibition also illuminates how Princetonians and the university have commemorated the war and preserved the memory of fallen student and alumni soldiers.
Mudd Library staff members Christie Lutz, Brenda Tindal, and Kristen Turner also curated the exhibition. “This exhibit shows how both local communities—the College of New Jersey and Princeton—grappled with the impact of the Civil War and responded to the crisis in a variety of ways.” said Turner. “The story is more nuanced and complicated than you may remember from your history books.”
“Your True Friend and Enemy”: Princeton and the Civil War is free and open to the public in the Wiess Lounge at the Mudd Manuscript Library, 65 Olden Street, until June 1, 2013. The exhibition is open from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. An open house will be held at Mudd Library from 10 a.m. until noon on Saturday, October 20, 2012. A behind-the-scenes tour will start at 10:30 a.m.
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