On April 11, 1865, two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered his formidable Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Grant’s towering, exhausted commander-in-chief addressed a crowd of hundreds assembled outside the White House. But instead of celebrating the Union victory, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of the thorny problem he now confronted: how to rebuild the nation in order to incorporate millions of newly freed slaves, along with their former Confederate owners, whom many Northerners believed should be punished for their failed rebellion.
With the fall of Petersburg and Richmond, and Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, Washington was consumed by celebration. On the evening of April 10, 1865, a crowd of some 3,000 people gathered outside the White House, hoping for some rousing words from their president. In response to their cries of “Speech!” Lincoln demurred, saying he would deliver an address the following evening, after he had adequate time to prepare. As consolation, he issued a special request for the Marine band. “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it.” As the crowd laughed and cheered, Lincoln added, “It is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.”
With Union victory on the horizon, the president’s mood was somber, even as the capital’s joyful hubbub swirled below him. According to what he told his wife and others close to him, disturbing dreams visited Lincoln in the early spring of 1865. In one, he encountered a large group of soldiers and citizens in mourning before a shrouded figure in the East Room of the White House. When he asked one of the soldiers who the corpse belonged to, the man replied “The President…he was killed by an assassin!” In another of Lincoln’s dreams, he was on a ship moving rapidly through the water towards a vast and unknown shore. Having had similar dreams on the eves of Antietam, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln apparently considered this one a good omen, believing it a sign that Confederate General Joe Johnston would soon surrender to William T. Sherman in North Carolina.
Lincoln’s speech on the evening of Tuesday, April 11—one of the rare formal addresses he delivered during his presidency—would reflect his uneasy state of mind. A cheering, singing crowd of hundreds gathered on the White House lawn, with rolls of intense applause greeting Lincoln’s appearance at the window of the second-floor balcony in the North Portico. The president waited several minutes for the din to subside; his friend, the journalist Noah Brooks, then held up a single candle to illuminate Lincoln’s prepared text.
Lincoln had prepared this speech carefully. Though he began on a joyful note—“We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace”—and promised a day of “national thanksgiving” he proceeded directly to a reminder that the nation now faced a task “fraught with great difficulty,” that of “re-inauguration of the national authority—reconstruction.”
The formerly jubilant crowd fell silent as Lincoln delivered his remarks, which were far from the celebratory address they had expected. Most of Lincoln’s speech dealt with specifics about the recently established free-state government in Louisiana, which Lincoln hoped could serve as a model for other former Confederate states during Reconstruction. Critics (especially Radical Republicans) were attacking Louisiana’s government, especially because it didn’t extend the right to vote to blacks.
While Lincoln conceded problems with Louisiana’s government, he went on to point out that its new constitution outlawed slavery, granted economic independence to blacks and allowed for public schools for both races. It also empowered the state legislature to enfranchise blacks, if it chose to do so. Lincoln argued that even though Louisiana had not yet exercised its right to enfranchise blacks, it had pledged its loyalty to the Union, and would provide a crucial vote in favor of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. Wasn’t it better to work with such a government to improve it, rather than destroy the work that had already been done?
Though Lincoln’s speech that night was not especially inspired—especially compared with his transcendent second inaugural address the previous month—it was important. For the first time he publicly expressed his support for limited black suffrage, which he had previously discussed only in private. As he put it: “It is unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
After concluding with the strange warning that he might be on the verge of making “some new announcement to the people of the South,” Lincoln withdrew, leaving many in the audience disappointed. The speech wouldn’t go over well with Lincoln’s critics, either: Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the leading Radical, claimed the president was only promoting “confusion and uncertainty in the future—with hot controversy.”
As it turned out, Lincoln wouldn’t get the chance to put more of his Reconstruction policies into effect. One member of the crowd outside the White House that night was the handsome young actor John Wilkes Booth, who snarled to his companion about Lincoln’s address: “That means n—- citizenship! Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”