Today is the 209th birthday of this country’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. His life story is fairly well known, especially his assassination on April 14, 1865. In contrast, however, most present-day locals are generally unaware of the strong reaction and emotional response of mid-1800s Napa County residents to Lincoln’s tragic death.
A longtime Napan, Frank Leach, set the scene and mood of area residents within his written recollections of early Napa. He began, “The assassination of President Lincoln...was an event causing intense excitement in Napa as well as everywhere else. All interest in business or other matters ceased upon publication of the telegram announcing the tragedy.”
One such announcement was printed in the Napa County Reporter newspaper. It was enveloped within the thick black border typical of a proper 1800s newspaper graphic of mourning. The lengthy editorial began, “The nation is in mourning over the death of a good and great leader. Abraham Lincoln is assassinated! Great horror and unspeakable anguish fills every loyal heart at this announcement.” Following many verbose lines, the first paragraph ended, “‘God grant it may not be true,’ was the prayer for all. But alas for us! the telegraph performed its office and tells us the terrible truth (of Lincoln’s murder.)”
Leach wrote, “For several days, people would gather in groups on the streets or public places discussing the details of the awful affair. There was much bitterness expressed in these meetings, and it was feared that the feeling might take some form of vengeance on those sympathizing with the South. It would have taken but little to have started the Unionists in some kind of mob action.”
Although not threatened, one local anti-Lincoln, pro-South business, “The Echo” newspaper, chose to permanently close down the day after Lincoln’s killing.
Leach added, “but in the course of a few days things quieted down and citizens began preparations to honor the dead President.”
Those preparations began with a mass community meeting held at the Napa County Courthouse. Following the citizens’ comments, a large committee of residents was appointed to organize the commemoration. The committee included civic-minded residents, such as Nathan Coombs, George E. Goodman and Robert T. Montgomery and the local clergy, the Reverends Deyaert, Higbie, McClay and Veeder.
In addition to organizing the ceremony honoring Lincoln, they also authored a long resolution. It not only lauded Lincoln, his character and work as well as set the orders for the observance, the resolution condemned the act and those responsible for Lincoln’s assassination. It also expressed the hope for the nation’s peaceful healing.
As for the commemoration, it was held on the same day as Lincoln’s actual burial. Leach continued, “Public and private buildings, business houses, and private residences were festooned in mourning drapery. Mock funerals were held in almost every community of any size. At Napa a most creditable display was made. A procession with an imposing catafalque, followed by the military, civic societies and civilians, was an impressive sight.”
He added, “I participated in the parade as acting orderly sergeant of our (local infantry) company. I know I felt quite set up at being taken from the ranks for the position, and do not believe that the grand marshal (Lamdin) felt his responsibilities more than I did mine.” At that time, Leach was in his teens.
He concluded, “Everyone felt the solemnity of the occasion and was moved by sincere grief at the loss of the President.”
Tillie Kanaga and W.F. Wallace, in their 1901 “History of Napa County,” wrote “No event ever drew such a concourse of people to Napa as the burial services of the Chief Magistrate, Abraham Lincoln ... The procession was fully a half mile long and was lead by ‘Rangers’(the local cavalry) Capt. Lambdin (Lamdin).
“The services were held in the Courthouse square, which was densely crowded by a sorrowful multitude, who had assembled to pay their last homage to the earthly remains of one of the greatest and best of men. After a touching and appropriate prayer by Rev McClay, Hon. Henry Edgerton delivered an oration, replete with wisdom, truth and pathos. His words with a melancholy sadness fell upon the ears and touched the hearts of an attentive and tearful audience.
“Rev. Higbie delivered a benediction at the close of the ceremonies, after which Mr. Easterby came forward and requested the flag to be raised to full mast.”