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.”
Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John Maclean, December 27, 1864. Abraham Lincoln Collection (C0094), Box 3, Folder 4.
John Van Duyn, Class of 1862, was visiting Washington at the time of Lincoln’s assassination. Van Duyn graduated from Princeton at the age of 18, joined the Union Army as a medical cadet, and earned his medical degree at 21. By the time the war ended, he had the rank of Major and was a full Army surgeon. In 1865, he kept a pocket diary. The pages about his trip to Washington contain references to Lincoln’s assassination. The diary is held in the Manuscripts Division of Rare Books and Special Collections in Firestone Library and may be requested through the library catalog.
When the news of Lincoln’s death reached Princeton, flags were flown at half-staff, bells tolled, and the chapel was draped in mourning. Maclean preached a memorial sermon the following Sunday. Afterward, Edward Wilder Haines, junior at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) (Class of 1866), pasted this memorial ribbon in his scrapbook, similar in design and style to others worn around the country.
On April 21, 1865, the train carrying Lincoln’s body left Washington bound for Springfield, Illinois. John Calvin Paulison, another member of the Class of 1866, went to New York to see the train when it stopped there and pay his respects to the fallen president. He wrote to his sister on May 6, 1865:
I went first to J. City & there waited a short time to see the funeral train come in: the tender or pilot engine came in ahead of the funeral train about ten minutes. I got on top of this & so had a good view of the train; after it passed over to N.Y. I crossed too, not however until having been somewhat squeezed by the crowd among which I mingled; a good prelude to what to came afterward in N.Y.! I [went] directly to the City . . . & [took a] position on top of the East gate of the Park where I could overlook the whole procession escorted by the Seventh regiment. . . . after the body was carried into the Hall the crowd passed out of the Park to the East entrance gate of the Hall, jamming up, pushing and crowding to get as near the gate as possible. . . . Never have I been in such a jam & I do not care of being in another such as one. I was sometimes in doubt whether I should get out or not alive. Every now & then a lady or child would be carried out having fainted. At last I succeeded in getting hold of the fence & still not seeing much of a chance of getting in. I [snatched] my chance, jumped over the [fence] … saw the President … (Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334), Box 7)
After completing the journey home, Lincoln was buried in Springfield on May 4, 1865. Paulison was one of thousands of Americans who flocked to the train in 180 cities to bid farewell to their president.
Abraham Lincoln Collection (C0094)
Board of Trustees Records (AC120)
Honorary Degree Records (AC106)
Scrapbook Collection (AC026)
Van Duyn, John (Class of 1864). Diary (1865)