Julia Wilbur and the Mourning of Lincoln

Julia Ann Wilbur was born in Avon, NY on August 8, 1815. She was brought up in a middle class Quaker household and became a teacher in the Rochester school system. In 1862, at the age of 47, Wilbur was asked by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society to go south as a relief worker to aid escaped slaves. She relocated to Alexandria, Virginia where she distributed food, clothing, and supplies to the newly free. She also set up schooled, organized orphanages, and solicited for financial support for her projects from the elites in Alexandria and nearby Washington, D.C. In February of 1865, she moved to Washington, D.C. and would live there until her death in 1895. In the post Civil War years, Wilbur would work for the Freedmen’s Bureau before spending more than 30 years as a clerk in the Patent Office.

Source: Haverford College

Julia Ann Wilbur, Source: Haverford College

In addition to her fine work as a relief worker and, later, suffragette, Julia Wilbur was a detailed diarist. She kept journals spanning practically her entire life.  Not only would she keep small daily journals which allowed for a few lines per day, but Wilbur also maintained diaries of her own construction which allowed her the freedom to write as much as she desired for a set day. The originals of her diaries are housed at Haverford College in Haverford, PA, donated there by Wilbur’s great-nephew, a professor at Haverford.

Wilbur’s small daily diaries were initially microfilmed and sent to other institutions after their donation in the 1980’s. However, her larger, self constructed diaries containing far more detail were not “re-discovered” until about 2013. Using funds donated by Alexandria Archaeology and the group, Friends of Alexandria Archaeology, Haverford College scanned and digitized the large format Wilbur diaries from 1860 – 1873. From there, the Friends of Alexandria Archaeology group, headed by Wilbur researcher Paula Whiteacre, transcribed Wilbur’s 1860 – 1866 diaries into a searchable format.

At this past weekend’s Society for Women and the Civil War conference, Ms. Whiteacre presented an excellent history of Ms. Wilbur and the plethora of historical insight that is to be gained from her diaries.  After consulting Julia Wilbur’s diaries for myself, I discovered that Julia Wilbur had many interactions with aspects of Lincoln’s assassination. Two different pieces have been composed utilizing the Wilbur diaries. These piece contains the details of Julia Wilbur’s diaries in which she recounts the news of Lincoln’s assassination and subsequent funeral events in D.C.. A second post recounts her insight on the saga of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.

Witness to History: Julia Wilbur and the Mourning of Lincoln

The following are excerpts from the diary of Julia Wilbur, detailing the news of Lincoln’s assassination and the memorial events that took place in Washington, D.C. following his death.

Alexandria Reacts to Lincoln’s Death

Though Julia Wilbur had moved to Washington, D.C. in February of 1865, she was not actually in the city on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. She had traveled and spent the night at her old home of Alexandria. Therefore, on the morning of April 15th, Julia Wilbur witnessed how the news of Lincoln’s assassination settled over Alexandria:

“Alexandria VA. Apr. 15 th
93 Cameron St. 10 o clock A.M.

Oh. the bells are giving forth the saddest sound that I ever heard. Tolling, yes, tolling for what seems to us now as the greatest calamity that could have befallen us.

Wilbur Diary Lincoln is DeadPresident Lincoln is dead! Assassinated last night at the theater shot in the head by a person on the stage. The president lingered till 7 this A.M. so all hope is over. And Secretary Seward had his throat cut in bed in his own house, but he was alive at the last despatch. It is said an attempt was made on Sec. Stanton but he escaped. Many rumors are afloat, but the above is certain.

No boat not even a [?] is allowed to leave Alexandria & even Gen. Briggs was not allowed to go on the train this morning. I now regret exceedingly that I did not return to W[ashington, D.C.]. last night, but I remained to see the illumination. But there are precious few Union folks here if the houses of all such were illuminated last night. I never saw a city so dark before not even the lamps were lighted. There were to be fireworks on the cor. of King & Washington, but they were all exploded at once accidentally; & as we walked that way people were gathering in every direction, some were hurt. Hallowell Hosp. & hosp. opposite are illuminated very handsomely, & there was a bonfire in King St. & light appeared from a few dwellings. Many of the houses were entirely closed but through the crevices of others we could see people inside.

I was very, very tired last night. I slept with Mrs. Fish. About 6 o’clock this morning the sad news came to us. I could not believe it. Capt. Gale of Gen. Slough’s staff came from W. in the night. Every soldier is on duty now, & none are to be seen in the city. No persons are allowed to leave the city. It was raining hard but I thought I must go on the 8 o’clock boat, & did not learn till I had nearly reached the wharf that no boats were allowed to leave. I then came to see Mrs. Belding. Found her and Mr. B. at breakfast. Their smiling faces, looked out of place to me. They had not yet heard the bad news. Mr. Baker has been to the Telegraph office and learned that the President died at 7 this morning. I have been so fortunate as to get a paper, & all the particulars that have transpired are given. Mr. Belding has just come in and & says the secesh are being arrested. The military authorities have been very lenient with secesh lately. No passes have been required for a month or more.

Mr. B. says a wood train has just come in on the Orange & Alex. road, & report a large number of rebel cavalry at Burke’s Station. These are probably some of Lee’s men & horses that were given up by Grant or that Grant allowed Lee to retain. Mrs. Belden is not able to go out, I helped Mr. B. fix drapery over the windows. I called at Magnolia House. Mrs. P. & Mr. G. had just procured some black cambrick & were arranging it over the bow window.

…The Soldiers go to every secesh house & make the occupants put something black on the doors or windows. Then went to Dangerfields, & told them to put crape on the door, & after they left it was taken off. The soldiers went back & made them put it on again & told them if they took it off they would pull the house down. Then Dangerfield wrote to Gen. S. to ask to be excused from doing this, but the Gen. sent a piece of black cloth to him & said it must be put over the door. It would have been better if the soldiers had waited till all the Union folks had draped their houses, & then obliged the secesh to do the same, but they could not wait for orders. The soldiers have shot 2 or 3 men today expressing joy that Lincoln is dead.—The Mayor, Mr. Ware said to Mrs. Dogan today that “Lincoln died serving the devil”. This reached Gen. S. & he had an interview with Ware & there were some sharp words.

Evening. Sec. Seward is comfortable, & may recover, his son Frederick is in a very critical condition, his son Clarence has only flesh wounds & is able to be about the house. There is a report that Boothe has been taken; that his horse threw him on 7th st. & he was taken into a house.— There is no doubt that it was intended to murder the President, the Vice Pres. all the members of the cabinet and Gen. Grant. & that the managers of the theater knew of it.”

“Alexandria. Sunday Apr. 16.

Very bright. windy. Slept with Mrs. Fish & took breakfast with her this morning. Then I went to call on Aunt Lucinda. She was the picture of sorrow. She said she was all tore up, could’nt work, could’nt do any thing. She would put black on her house if it “took the last cent in her pocket.” I went around among the houses of the colored people. It was a touching sight to see a piece of black cloth on every cabin, shanty & shed. On some a simple bit of woolen or cotton, but the best they had. A young man spoke to me & the tears came into his eyes & said he, “I would rather have been shot myself than to have had our President killed. I would rather lose all my relations, I would rather lose my mother than to have him killed who sustained the country.” I am not ashamed to say that I wept with him. The colored people feel it so deeply. Every face is sad. They realize that they have lost a friend. They are in the habit of calling him Uncle Sam, & they now speak of “Uncle Sam’s being killed,” of Uncle Sam’s being shot by secesh.”— I think every dwelling house in the city has more or less black upon it. I called on Mrs. Dogan & she repeated to me what the Mayor said. She is so indignant.— I went with Louisa J. to Grace Ch. Hos. & to L’Ouverture. They all feel so deeply. They cannot express their feelings any more than we can. We all feel that we have lost; personally have lost a friend. There is no consolation to offer. We all suffer alike.”

Washington Reacts to Lincoln’s Death

On the afternoon of April 16th, Ms. Wilbur was allowed to catch a train into D.C. She compares how the reaction of Lincoln’s death was different between the two cities:

“How differently W. looks from Alex. only part of the houses are draped. People are going to & fro. talking & laughing. The air seems full of treason.

… One house on the Avenue was illuminated as soon as the President was shot, Officers went to the house but as the occupants were only women they were not arrested. Too bad. They should not have stopped to think whether they were men or women. Numbers have been heard to say that they are glad, that Lincoln ought to have been shot years ago. & they have not been arrested either. They would’nt stand much chance in Alex.”

“Monday, Apr. 17th, 1865,

… The houses in Georgetown are very generally hung with black. All the cabins & shanties of the colored people are. It was a nice ride, & it is refreshing to see green fields. & flowers, & trees beginning to look green. We brought home violets, houstonia & azalias. F. & I took walk on Avenue as far as President’s House. The pillars are covered with black, Mounted guards at the street gates allow no one to enter the grounds. — It looks like a sepulcher

Before this black never meant anything to me. I believe in it on this occasion. We passed Seward’s House. A guard is placed all around it. & on the walk we were not allowed to go between the guard & the house.

Wilbur diary Seward not told of Lincoln's death

He was not told of the President’s death until yesterday. He seems to be improving. No news in particular. No trace of the murderers…”

Viewing Lincoln’s Body in the White House

Julia Wilbur was one of the individuals who viewed Abraham Lincoln’s body as it lay in state in the White House:

“Tuesday, Apr. 18, 11 A.M.

We have taken a last look at the mortal remains of Abraham Lincoln.

The public will be admitted to day from half past 9 till 5 P.M.— Frances & I went shortly after 9. People were already waiting at the gates, & a line of 2 abreast was formed on the walk in front of the House & were to enter by the western gate. We were told that unless we fell into line we wd. not be likely to go in at all. So we placed our selves in the rear of several hundred people & waited for the time. This arrangement is very proper, for all is orderly & quiet & all; black & white have an equal chance. At 40 min. after 10 the gate was opened, Officers are placed all along the line. There are no black hangings until we reach the E. Room. We passed through the ante room, the hall & the Green room.

The windows of the East Room are draped with black berege[?]. The frames of the mirrors are draped with the same & the mirrors are covered with white berege, & all the gilding is shrouded in black. Chandelier also.

The catafalco is in the center of the room. It is 11 ft. high. 16 ft. deep & 10 ft. wide. The height of the base or step around the platform is 8 inches. The step is one foot in width, 2 ft. 6 in. higher is the surface upon which is placed the coffin, over this is a curved Canopy. The inside is lined with white satin fluted. The top is covered with the finest alpaca & festooned. The surface of the dais is covered with black broad cloth, bordered with heavy silk fringe. The Coffin is mahogany lined with lead & covered with black broad cloth, festooned & fastened with silver tacks, the edge has silver braid & tassels, each side has 4 massive handles & at the head & foot there are stars.

On the top is a row of silver tacks on each side. A silver plate encircled by a shield. The inside of the face lid is raised with white satin & trimmed with black & white braid & fastened in each corner with 4 silver stars. The rest of the Coffin is lined with box plaited satin. The pillow is of fine white silk.

The embalmed body is dressed in a full suit of black.

Wilbur diary Lincoln's face

His face is very white, but wears a natural expression. on the platform & surrounding the entire Coffin is a wreath of white flowers & evergreens.

We walked slowly through the room but were not allowed to stop a moment. If I cd. have stopped one minute! But the scene is one never to be forgotten although so hastily viewed.

The remains will be taken to the Capitol tomorrow. & remain there until the next morning. They are to be removed to Illinois.

When we came out on to the sidewalk the line of people extended to the corner near the State Dept. Colored people were mixed all the way through. & I heard nothing said that was out of place, all wore an air of seriousness. & no loud words were heard.

12 o’clock, Miss Moore has just come in. She succeeded in seeing the President, but was almost crushed in doing so. The pressure was immense. The Navy Yard Employees came in a body (about 2000) & they were allowed to go in. & the line of people on the side walk had to wait. There was some expressions of dissatisfaction. & some disturbance. They say the line now extends below the Treasury building.

Frances & I were fortunate in going as early as we did. There was no crowd & no pressure.

…Mr. Seward is no worse & Mr. F. Seward is improving

8 P.M. — warm. Went to Miss Flagler’s to dinner, & then walked down the Avenue to see the crowd at the gate waiting to go in & see the President. The Illinois delegation was pressing in & then the gate was shut, leaving on the outside one of the most democratic assemblages that I ever saw. There were not less than a half doz. Brig. Generals; & Majors, Colonels & Lieut. Cols. in abundance, & ladies with them all waiting for admittance. Some of these pushed through to the gate. Gen. Rawlins Chief of Gen. Grant’s staff was one of them. Some of them made two attempts & then gave it up. Oh, such tired looking people as stood in that column. but the gate was not opened again & the people began to disperse before I left. They looked so disappointed that I felt sorry for them. While standing there I saw a person pass who fixed my attention. I asked a soldier who it was. He said “Gen. Grant.” He walked leisurely on talking with a gentleman who accompanied him. I stepped along & walked by the side of Gen. Grant for several rods, but few persons on the side walk there. & I scrutinized him closely. He is only of medium size hair, beard & complexion all of the same color.

Wilbur diary describing Grant

An inferior looking person for a Lieut. Gen. of the U.S. armies! His hat was the worse for wear. & his entire dress had a dingy look. His shoulderstraps were much tarnished. & his 3 stars were not of the first magnitude as to brilliancy by any means. I am much gratified to have seen him. I did not expect to have such good luck.

…Dr. P. says he never saw such a pressure before. Women fainted, children screamed, & there was some rough talk & some abuse of cold . people, but not by the officers. Brigadiers & niggadears were all served alike. & this was worth seeing too.”

The Funeral Procession to the Capitol

Julia Wilbur witnessed and funeral procession for President Lincoln as his remains were taken to the Capitol:

“Washington D.C. 207 I Street.
Wednesday Apr. 19, 1865

A day to be remembered.
On the 19 of Apr. was shed the first blood in the Revolution.
On the 19th. of Apr. was shed the first blood in the Rebellion.
On the 19th. of April the remains of Abraham Lincoln were taken from the White House to the Capitol, to be removed thence to Springfield Illinois.

The funeral obsequies were the most remarkable that have ever occurred in this country It seemed a National tribute to departed worth. The procession was immense. & Penn. Av. from the War Dept. to the Capitol was occupied from curbstone to curbstone by the Military, &c. while the sidewalks were filled with spectators, also the windows & roofs of buildings.

… About 10 A.M. I went out with Mrs. F. around a few squares & by the White house, The various legations have displayed the flags of different nations. I have seen from the houses of the Ambassadors the Austrian, Brazilian, Spanish, Chilian, Russian, French, &c.

Upon the whole length of the Stone coping of the iron fence in front of the President’s house & war Dept. people were seated & all of 3/4 were Colored. It was a touching sight. As far as they could they had encircled the dwelling in which lay the remains of their murdered friend & such numbers of mournful faces I never saw before. Each one had done his or her best to make a respectable appearance.

When Frances got ready about 12 M. we went out.

Wilbur diary Wanted posters

(all about are posted notices, “$20,000 reward for the apprehension of the Murderer of the President.”)

We made our way to the bend in the St. just below the Treasury. where we could see the Avenue all the way to the Capitol. I obtained a seat on the curbstone & F. was just behind me. The sun shone very hot but otherwise it was as good a place as we could get.—The procession moved at 2 & was 1 ¾ hours in passing.

I have no heart to write any more to night. I feel crushed with a great misfortune. & this seems to be a general feeling. I have not seen a drunken person to day nor heard one unfriendly remark about the President.”

Viewing Lincoln’s Body in the Capitol

Ms. Wilbur once again viewed Lincoln’s remains, this time as he lay in state at the Capitol:

“207 I st. Apr. 20. 1865.

At half past 8 Mrs. Fish & I started for the Capitol. When we reached the east side a long column had already formed & we took our places in the rear but this was only for a moment. The Column lengthened rapidly & by the time we reached the steps, the rear of the Column extended to near the place where the Metro cars stop.

There were a large number of colored soldiers, artillerists, in the Column.

The pillars & the dome are draped & the Rotunda also. The large pictures are all covered with black, & the statues are shrouded in crape, except that of Washington who has simply a black scarf on it. There is no canopy over the platform on which the coffin is placed. The camellias are wilted, & it now seems like death.

We were not allowed to pause a moment but I observed all that I could in passing through.

Wilbur diary viewing Lincoln

He lies in solemn silence & thousands of sincere mourners will take a last look at the features of Abraham Lincoln today.

Several officers, a guard of honor I suppose, are seated near the coffin, & numerous guards are stationed all about. A great man has gone from us. & a nation feels the loss.

I purchased several pictures of the President, also Seward’s. Then went to Mrs. Coleman’s. She called at Mrs. Slade’s with me. Mrs. Slade is employed at the White House. & knows a good deal of its inner life. Mrs. Slade & Mrs. Keckley have been with Mrs. Lincoln nearly all the time since the murder, not as servants but as friends. Both colored women; & Mrs. Lincoln said she chose them because her husband was appreciated by the colored race; they (the colored people) understood him, Miss Josephine Slade gave me a piece of a white rosette worn by one of the pallbearers.

Since 10 o clock it has rained. How uncomfortable it will be for the people at the Capitol who are waiting to go in.

…It is now after 4 & I cannot set myself to work. I feel that a great calamity has befallen us, me, which has unfitted me for ordinary occupations.


I have read an account of the transactions of yesterday in the Chronicle, “No monarch ever had such a funeral, It was not so elaborate or ornate as the pageant of Henry VIII. of Eng. or the return of Napoleon to France, but it was the proudest tribute ever paid to the memory of an American President. The suddenness & manner of his death intensified the National sorrow & called forth a burst of popular gratitude without parallel. It was a lovely day, The air was filled with perfumes & harmonies of spring. Crowds had come from all the States. The Govt . was typified in Andrew Johnson, The Army represented by Grant & his staff, the Navy by Farragut & his sea-lions, the Judiciary by Chase & his associates; the Cabinet, the Congress, the Deptmts, the freedmen, the released prisoners, the penitent rebels (?), the Clergy, the professions, the People, the base of the mighty Pyramid.” The colored societies appeared remarkably well, & a Colored regiment from the front reached 7th. St. at 2 o ’clock, wheeled into the avenue & headed the procession from thence to the Capitol. Eminently fit & proper as this was, the papers make no mention of it.”

Missing the Train

Julia Wilbur had hoped to be present when Lincoln’s funeral train departed D.C. for its long journey to Springfield, but did not make it there in time:

“Friday, Apr. 21st 1865,

This morning Frances & I went to the Depot, but the funeral train had left a few minutes before we got there.”

Julia Wilbur would continue to occasionally mention, small tidbits surrounding the national mourning for Lincoln. She would visit Philadelphia in late April and discuss the buildings in mourning there. She documented Lincoln’s arrival in his home state of Illinois based on the newspapers’ reporting the event. However, the bulk of Ms. Wilbur’s firsthand experiences in mourning Lincoln had passed when Lincoln’s body left D.C..

Julia Wilbur’s interactions with the assassination conspirators, however, had only just begun. Click to read about Julia Wilbur and the Saga of the Assassination Conspirators.

Paula Whitacre
Transcriptions of Julia Wilbur’s Diaries from Alexandria Archaeology
Digitized pages of Julia Wilbur’s Diaries from Haverford College

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17 thoughts on “Julia Wilbur and the Mourning of Lincoln

  1. Michael Plummer


  2. Debbie Lou Hague

    Her diary is amazing. The detail she includes as she sails to Point Comfort to the James and up to Richmond is incredible and I can’t wait to read more!

    • Debbie,

      I’ve been reading a lot of Julia Wilbur’s diaries these last few days and I agree with you that she is fascinating. The experiences she had are amazing and her descriptions of the poor state Richmond was in when she visited it in May and June of 1865 are extremely vivid. In the next segment I’ll cover her interactions with the Lincoln assassination story, but her non-transcribed diaries from the Reconstruction era are also fascinating.

  3. Herb Swingle

    I am from the Rochester,NY area,and Julia Wilbur was a friend of Susan B.Anthony!

    • You are quite correct, Herb. In her later years Julia Wilbur was a member of the suffrage movement and met many suffrage notables.

  4. Laurie Verge

    I’m hooked on her writings just from the segments that you have posted here – and I am not always a fan of historical diaries.

    • Laurie,

      Paula Whitacre, the Julia Wilbur researcher who presented at the Society for Women and the Civil War conference, has a blog of her own dedicated to Ms. Wilbur. You might enjoy reading some of her posts as well.


      Ms. Whitacre is in the process of working on a book about Julia Wilbur.

  5. Paige


    You never cease to amaze me; this is truly remarkable. Julia Wilbur’s words are captivating, and I am amazed by her attention to detail. This is why I’m glued to Boothie Barn– you always have the greatest stuff! Looking forward to reading more.

  6. Once again, you never cease to amaze, Dave! You have a wonderful way of digging up things – keep at it! Thanks for making BoothieBarn a virtual jewel of information!!

  7. Thanks, Dave, for spreading the word about JW! I am the person who has transcribed the diaries and am now working on a book about Julia with a focus on her time in Alexandria. Honestly, my blog is not nearly as good or complete as Dave’s, but feel free to check it out (www.paulawhitacre.com).

    For those of you who are in the DC area, I will be presenting about her in mid-November (Local History Room, Alexandria library) and in mid-February (Black History Museum).

    As it happens, I am off to the National Archives today to look into more of those lovely military records about Alexandria during the war.

    • Thanks. She makes frequent mentions of visits to the family burial ground when she lived in Rochester. She died in Washington in 1895 but, as said in her obituary, “the burial was at Avon [in upstate NY]”

  8. Pingback: Julia Wilbur and the Saga of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators | BoothieBarn

  9. Thank you for posting this, would like to read more. I believe the fabric is black funeral baize. It was commonly used for mourning draping of homes, carriages, coffins, and clothing. It was also used in other colors to muffle door sounds, typically to the servants areas. At present, a modern form is used on pool tables.

  10. Quite possibly, although those who could not afford or could not go out to buy on such short notice apparently used any bit of black available.
    Love the words that were once commonplace–like “baize”

  11. Pingback: Come See Us: Spring 2016 | BoothieBarn

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