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Nashville in the Dark Hours After President Lincoln's Assassination

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

April 1865 marked a turbulent time in Nashville; remarkable given that the city and its citizens had just endured a long Civil War and occupation by the Federal Army. Emotions in the city ran from fear, to excitement, to joy and defeat.

It all began on April 3rd when word reached Nashville that Richmond had fallen to the Union army. Business in the city came to a standstill as citizens, soldiers and freedmen crowded the streets. Everyone began to realize that the four years of war might be at the end.

Then, on Wednesday April 5th William G. Brownlow of East Tennessee was inaugurated as Governor of Tennessee, thus ending the military government under which the state had existed since it had fallen to Union forces in 1862. On the same day the state legislature ratified the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution thereby prohibiting slavery. The two events helped prepare Tennessee for re-entry into the Union. It would be the first southern state to do so.

The following Monday, April 10, at about 9:00 A.M., the report of Lee surrendering to Grant was posted on the bulletin board of the Nashville Dispatch newspaper office located on Deaderick Street. A celebration began that continued into the night as the downtown streets filled with citizens, soldiers, and freedmen. This is, at this point, a city full of temporary residents, because in April 1865 there are still over 15,000 Federal soldiers and 13,000 civilian Army employees present. While that number is down from December 1864 when over 55,000 soldiers had lived in and around Nashville, many of those working for the Quartermaster Department had brought their families with them thus further increasing the population. Additionally, refugees had flooded the city. There were thousands of freedmen in Nashville alongside thousands of women and children who had traveled from the North to find husbands, brothers, and fathers in the numerous hospitals. Nashville was the medical center for the western theater of the war. All of these people had an immeasurable impact on a town whose population in 1860 had been just under 17,000.

Two days after that announcement, Adelicia Acklen gave a large ball at Belle Monte (later known as Belmont Mansion). Curiously, it not known why she gave the party or why only one account is known of the event. Perhaps, it was planned as a celebration of the war’s end. Or perhaps it was a charity event to benefit the refuge association caring for the refugee women and children in the city; Adelicia served on the organization’s board of directors. Whatever the occasion, it was soon eclipsed by events to unfold that weekend.

For Saturday April 15th in Nashville was planned to be a day of celebration. The entire population of the city turned out for the festivities. Everyone from the surrounding country side was in town. All of the businesses were closed. Every building in town was "richly decorated with flags, evergreens and patriotic mottoes." A military parade with 15,000 troops was planned. It was all to start at 10:00 in the morning. As the military forces formed for the parade news that President Lincoln has been assassinated the night before reached Nashville by telegraph at 10:00 a.m. Word spread from person to person, and the crowd became strangely quiet. At first not a word was spoken; no one moved. Never before had an American president been assassinated and certainly not just days after a military surrender which had ended the bloodiest war the country had known. The path forward was unchartered. Especially, for the Federal forces that occupied the city. The crowd became frantic. The celebration was cancelled; the soldiers returned to their barracks in formation with their guns reversed as the bands played funeral dirges. The dry goods stores were opened so that black crepe could be distributed to hang on the houses and commercial buildings. Those who did not join the observance were threatened with military orders to do so. Houses that were not decorated for mourning were confiscated by the army within days. Respectful mourning was expected. The potential consequence for not? In the days that followed, six or seven people who showed joy over Lincoln's death were shot and killed where they stood.

On Wednesday April 19th, the day of Lincoln’s funeral, President Andrew Johnson declared a national day of mourning. In Nashville, as in many cities throughout the nation, all businesses were closed. Today, we observe the ceremonies in response to national tragedies though multiple media devices available at our fingertips. In the 19th century each town and village had to respond in their own way. So, once again at 10:00 a.m., citizens and freedmen gathered, this time to watch a solemn funeral procession, conducted in absentia, wind its way through the city. At the head, an elaborate catafalque built in three tiers covered with black fabric was drawn by twelve horses and followed by an estimated 50,000 people. The procession went out Harding Pike to an open field where a platform had been erected for the speakers. The crowd gathered at the platform just as a burst of “forked lightning” shot thru the sky followed by the “low rumbling sound of Heaven’s artillery”.

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