When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln:
Southern Reaction to the Assassination.

by Carolyn L. Harrell

Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997. xiv p., 136 pp., illus. ISBN 0865545650. $29.95.

The outpouring of grief and anger in the Northern states following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was unparalleled in the history of the American experience. People freely displayed their emotions in both private and public, urged on by the elaborate and rather macabre funeral tour the deceased president's body took on its journey home to the Illinois prairie.

The reaction of Southerners, who had recently been forced back into the Union after the surrender of Lee's army at Appomatttox, was less demonstrative. Outwardly, and officially, the former Confederate states now under Union military control, mourned as well, but in a more subdued manner. Their military overseers ordered official periods of mourning and religious leaders were directed to hold memorial services. A few people did turn out for these ceremonies, but only because they were required or expected to do so. True public opinion in the South was not expressed publicly, but was reserved for hushed tones and quiet conversations. Few, if any, recorded their true feelings in public writings or orations. Rather, honest response to the death of Lincoln in the South was only set down in writing in private diaries and journals.

Carolyn L. Harrell has now produced a book based on these private reactions to Lincoln's assassination, that gives insight into the true reaction of Southerners to the assassination of the civil leader of the Union government. To write When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln, Southern Reaction to the Assassination, Harrell searched both previously published sources and unpublished papers throughout the nation. The story she constructs reveals the true collective Southern opinion of the momentous occurrence of the death of Lincoln.

The story that emerges is one of mixed emotions. One the whole, it was difficult for many Southerners to feel true sorrow at the death of the man many blamed for the strife wrought upon them. Many in the South privately expressed their pleasure at the poetic justice of their conquerors losing their beloved leader at a time when they were celebrating their victory.

However, most of the diarists also greeted the news with trepidation and rightfully so. Many feared that the act would further enrage and already angry foe. Certainly, blame would fall upon the South for this act, and the process of reconciliation would be made more difficult as a result of the murder of the beloved president. Additionally, the death of Lincoln placed Andrew Johnson at the head of the nation. Many in the South hated Johnson more than Lincoln, for he was a Southerner, a Tennessee Unionist, who had cast his lot with the North rather than support his native South. And Johnson's disgust with the Southern elite, the plantation class, was well known, and made the possibility of a smooth transition back into the Union even more remote.

Harrell's book does an excellent job at seeking out these sources of true public opinion of a momentous event. In an atmosphere where even the appearance of jubilation at the death of Lincoln may have brought upon the celebrant sanction, imprisonment, or even death, many citizens of the South entrusted only themselves with their true feelings. Carolyn Harrell now shares with us a peek at those feelings, long hidden, but fortunately not forgotten.

When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln, Southern Reaction to the Assassination is well written account of true Southern opinion. In separate chapters she examines reaction in the upper South, the deep South and the border states. A brief bibliographic essay precedes an extremely detailed listing of her sources, itself a useful tool for those wishing to explore the subject of Southern sentiment more fully. The author, and Mercer University Press, is to be commended for using footnotes rather than endnotes.

Carolyn Harrell's When the Bells Tolled for Lincoln, Southern Reaction to the Assassination, makes a fine addition to any Lincoln library.

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 1999