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Coffin: Father Abraham

At 10 a.m. April 15, 1865, a special edition of Walton’s Journal hit the streets of Montpelier, announcing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The news raced through Vermont, along the greening valleys where steam rose from vats of boiling sap toward the glistening snow-covered Green Mountains summits.

Just days before, Vermonters everywhere had celebrated the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, with an especially lively celebration taking place in Richmond, Vermont. Then bells clanged throughout the state as word came of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. The boys were coming home.

But now the Paul Revere bell in Woodstock’s Congregational Church, and a thousand other bells throughout the state, rang slowly, tolling, tolling.

In St. Johnsbury, former soldier Henry Herrick noted, “Everybody has looked very sad. He was like one of our friends. Dark and rainy tonight.”

Most Vermonters loved Lincoln, having twice given him overwhelming votes of supports in presidential elections, and sending more than 34,000 mostly young men to his armies. But what now?

Quickly, scores of funerals for the 16th president were organized.

In Brattleboro, Rev. G. P. Tyler eulogized. “God has sent us the man for the hour. Let him, though dead, speak to us.” Tyler then read from Lincoln’s second inaugural address, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this scourge of war will speedily pass away.”

In Manchester, Rev. E. S. Cushman spoke in a black-draped church. “His eye is closed on the rising glory of the emancipated country. Our limbs tremble beneath us. We sink down and cry after him, My Father, My Father.”

In Coventry, Rev. Pliny White: “He was the child of American institutions, and more than any of our presidents, he illustrated the power of those institutions to elevate mankind.”

Rev. A. B. Dascomb told a packed church in Waitsfield of the freed slaves who greeted Lincoln in captured Richmond . “See the dusky crowd throng the way, see the eager countenances as they behold their friend. It seems as if the angels, if they ever weep, must have wept at that scene.”

On a hilltop above downtown Montpelier, hundreds of sick and wounded Vermont soldiers were being treated at the Sloan Military Hospital. In the afternoon, a procession of blue-uniformed men came limping down the hill. A local paper reported, “The invalid corps, with Smith’s band, marched through the streets with arms reversed, to slow and solemn music.” Going into formation on the State House steps, they fired three volleys into the fresh Vermont springtime air — for Father Abraham.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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