General William T. Sherman Informs His Army of the Death of Abraham Lincoln

On the morning of April 17th, 1865, General William T. Sherman was boarding a train in Raleigh, North Carolina on his way to meet with General Joseph E. Johnston in Durham to discuss terms of surrender of the Confederate forces under Johnston’s command, when he was handed a telegraph message from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

WAR DEPT., ADJT. GENERAL’S OFFICE,
Washington, April 16, 1865.

The following order of the Secretary of War announces to the Armies of the United States the untimely and lamentable death of the illustrious Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States:

WAR DEPARTMENT,
Washington City, April 16, 1865.

The distressing duty has devolved upon the Secretary of War to announce to the Armies of the United States that at 7.22 o’clock on the morning of Saturday, the 15th day of April, 1865, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United Lincoln's AssassinationStates, died of a mortal wound, inflicted upon him by an assassin. The Armies of the United States will share with their fellow-citizens the feelings of grief and horror inspired by this most atrocious murder of their great and beloved President and Commander-in-Chief, and with profound sorrow will mourn his death as a national calamity. The headquarters of every department, post, station, fort, and arsenal will be draped in mourning for thirty days, and appropriate funeral honors will be paid by every army, and in every department, and at every military post, and at the Military Academy at West Point, to the memory of the late illustrious Chief Magistrate of the Nation and Commander-in-Chief of its Armies.
Lieutenant-General Grant will give the necessary instructions for carrying this order into effect.

EDWIN M. STANTON,
Secretary of War.

On the day after the receipt of this order at the headquarters of each military division, department, army, post, station, fort, and arsenal, and at the Military Academy at West Point, the troops and cadets will be paraded at 10 a.m., and the order read to them, after which all labors and operations for the day will cease and be suspended, as far as practicable in a state of war. The national flag will be displayed at half-mast. At dawn of day thirteen guns will be fired, and afterward, at intervals of thirty minutes, between the rising and setting sun a single gun, and, at the close of the day, a national salute of thirty-six guns.

The officers of the Armies of the United States will wear the badge of mourning on the left arm and on their swords, and the colors of their commands and regiments will be put in mourning for the period of six months.

By command of Lieutenant-General Grant:
W. A. NICHOLS,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman

Sherman  did not reveal the contents of the message to his staff or others under his command, and continued on to Durham and the meeting with Johnston.  At that point, Sherman showed the dispatch to Johnston, whom the Union general noted “did not attempt to conceal his distress.  He denounced the act as a disgrace to the age”.  After some negotiations, the two agreed to meet again the next day.

Returning from the meeting with Johnston, Sherman showed the message to staff members and some officers of the 15th Corps, including its commander, General John A. Logan.  Emotions would be running high when the soldiers heard of Lincoln’s assassination, so Sherman  “cautioned the officers to watch the soldiers closely, to prevent any violent retaliation by them”.

Sherman then issued an order informing the army of the assassination of Lincoln:

SPECIAL FIELD ORDERS No. 56.
HDQRS. MIL. DIV. OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
In the Field, Raleigh, N. C.,
April 17, 1865.

The general commanding announces, with pain and sorrow, that on the evening of the 11th [14th] instant, at the theater in Washington City, His Excellency the President of the United States, Mr. Lincoln, was assassinated by one who uttered the State motto of Virginia. At the same time the Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, whilst suffering from a broken arm, was also stabbed by another murderer, in his own house, but still survives, and his son was wounded, supposed fatally. It is believed by persons capable of judging that other high officers were designed to share the same fate. Thus it seems that our enemy, despairing of meeting us in open, manly warfare, begins to resort to the assassin’s tools. Your general does not wish you to infer that this is universal, for he knows that the great mass of the Confederate Army would scorn to sanction such acts, but he believes it the legitimate consequence of rebellion against rightful authority. We have met every phase which this war has assumed, and must now be prepared for it in its last and worst shape, that of assassins and guerrillas; but woe unto the people who seek to expend their wild passions in such a manner, for there is but one dread result.

By order of Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman:
L. M. DAYTON,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

Though his army was shocked and saddened by the death of the president, Sherman was relieved that the men did not take out their anger on the civilian population of Raleigh.  “I doubt if, in the whole land, there were more sincere mourners over his sad fate than were then in and about Raleigh”  he wrote.  ” I watched the effect closely, and was gratified that there was no single act of retaliation; though I saw and felt that one single word by me would have laid the city in ashes, and turned its whole population houseless upon the country, if not worse.”

Sources:

Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman
by William T. Sherman

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XLVI, Part 3 and Series I, Volume XLVII, Part 3.

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