On Saturday, April 15, the news of Lincoln’s assassination in Washington, D.C. reached the residents of Buffalo, New York. The entire city followed the rest of the nation with massive demonstrations of mourning. Black crepe was draped over public buildings and the residents wore black armbands and cockades. Many private homes in the city choose to mimic their public counterparts by similarly displaying mourning emblems and decorations. In Niagara Square, an affluent residential neighborhood in Buffalo, every single house was draped in black crepe and flying the American flag with the exception of one. As of Monday, April 17, this home was still without mourning decorations, much to the chagrin of other residences who thought the lack of adornment demonstrated disrespect to the fallen President and the grieving nation. That evening a group of residents decided to take matters into their own hands. According to newspaper reports, a small group of men threw either ink or mud on the front of the offending home. This blackened the front of the home, effectively forcing it into a display of mourning.
This incident would seem a minor and insignificant occurrence had it not been for the well-known nature of the house’s owner. The Buffalo resident who had his house blackened by his neighbors for failing to demonstrate an appropriate amount of mourning over Lincoln’s death was ex-President Millard Fillmore.
Fillmore was the 13th President of the United States, having inherited the office after the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850. Fillmore served out the remainder of Taylor’s term before he was replaced by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. During the Civil War, Fillmore had initially been supportive of President Lincoln’s efforts and the ex-President even commanded a corps of above 45 years-old home guardsmen named the Union Continentals. These guardsmen, too old for regular army service, trained to defend the Buffalo area in case of Confederate attack. As the war went on, however, Fillmore became less support of Lincoln’s administration and the ongoing costs of war. In 1864, he spoke out against the continuing bloodshed and endorsed the Democratic candidate George McClellan, hoping the democrats would end the war and return the Southern states into the Union even with slavery still intact. This betrayal of Lincoln turned Fillmore into a Copperhead and greatly diminished his influence thereafter. The Republican papers in Buffalo never forgave Fillmore for this and recalled his own administration’s commitment to enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.
This is the reason why there was so much backlash to Fillmore’s lack of mourning decoration on his home on April 17, 1865. In papers nationwide, Fillmore was attacked for his impropriety, with many papers taking jabs at his politics.
To Fillmore’s credit, he was quick to rectify the situation. An acquaintance in Buffalo, on Wednesday, April 19, two days after the blackening, described the scene as follows:
“I passed the residence of ex-President Fillmore. It was heavily and appropriately draped, a large American flag forming part of the drapery. Moreover, I met and conversed with Mr. Fillmore on the streets. He wore a badge of mourning on his person. He mentioned his gratification at the solemn and universal observance of the day, in the way of funeral obsequies to the illustrious dead; and in speaking of the event of Mr. Lincoln’s death, he pronounced it ‘a great national calamity.’” – The Wheeling Daily Register, April 28, 1865
In addition to adding the appropriate displays of mourning to his house, some sympathetic newspapers also published Fillmore’s reasoning for having not adorned his abode earlier:
“We have ample reason to know that this omission was not for want of sincere respect for the deceased, or of a heartfelt sorrow at his death. But private dwellings were not generally draped, and no notice was given that they would be, and Mrs. F[illmore] being out of health, Mr. Fillmore – as we are informed – did not leave his house after going to the post office in the morning, and therefore was not aware that any private dwellings were draped, and naturally thought an ostentatious show of grief might be misunderstood.” – Philadelphia Press, April 25, 1865
In the end, there is no evidence to show that Millard Fillmore meant any disrespect toward’s Lincoln’s memory. Even strongly Republican newspapers, when hearing of the circumstances regarding the vandalism and Fillmore’s response, condemned the actions of the mob.
Despite this, many still believed that Fillmore’s crime was of having the reputation of being a Copperhead and failing to publicly mourn Lincoln’s assassination quickly enough. A similar situation to this occurred with another living ex-President, Franklin Pierce.
Unlike Fillmore who had been supportive of Lincoln’s actions in the beginning of the war, Franklin Pierce had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln from the beginning. Pierce publicly spoke out against the war and sought to bring about peace talks to end the fighting and restore the Union with slavery intact. He was also a rightful critic of some of Lincoln’s more controversial acts such as the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and the draft. It was well known that Pierce had no love for the actions of Lincoln’s administration. Upon the news of Lincoln’s death, an angry mob descended on Pierce’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. While Fillmore was either unaware, or ignored, the crowd at his home, Pierce went out to greet them. “Fellow-Townsmen,” Pierce said addressing the crowd, “I come to ascertain the motives of this call. What is your desire?” Someone in the crowd then replied, “We wish to hear some words from you on this sad occasion.” Then, using his powers of oration, the 60 year-old former President was able to nullify the crowd:
“I wish I could address you words of solace. But that can hardly be done. The magnitude of the calamity, in all aspects, is overwhelming. If your hearts are oppressed by events more calculated to awaken profound sorrow and regret than any which have hitherto occurred in our history, mine mingles its deepest sorrow with yours…”
After talking for a bit about their shared sense of mourning, a voice from the crowd shouted out, “Where is your flag?” echoing the lack of patriotic adornment that so condemned Fillmore’s home. Pierce countered this point expertly:
“It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the stars and stripes by any special exhibition, or upon the demand of any man or body of men…If the period during which I have served our State and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left any question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution and Union, in doubt, it is too late now to remove it by any such exhibition as the inquiry suggests…”
After only a few minutes of talking, Franklin Pierce was able to disperse the angry crowd and prevent any vandalism such as was suffered by Fillmore.
Fillmore, himself, did not appear to make any public speeches of grief until May 9th. During the interim, however, he did take part in the funeral proceedings for the late President. When Lincoln’s funeral train arrived in Batavia, NY at 5:18 am on April 27, 1865, Millard Fillmore was at the station to board it. He was on board along with other dignitaries, who had previously been picked up in Rochester, when the funeral trained arrived in Buffalo at 7:00 am.
During the course of that day, Millard Fillmore was part of the funerary cortege and events. Fillmore took part in viewing Lincoln’s body as it laid in St. James Hall until 8:00 pm when the coffin was closed and the procession returned to the railway depot. At 10:00 pm, the funeral train departed, with Fillmore remaining in his hometown. An estimated 40,000 – 50,000 people viewed Lincoln’s remains in Buffalo that day including 28 year old future President Grover Cleveland.
It isn’t until May 9, 1865, that we have the first recorded sentiments from Millard Fillmore regarding the assassination of Lincoln. The remarks come from the minutes of the Buffalo Historical Society a group that Fillmore took a vested interest in. Like many other organizations at the time, the Buffalo Historical Society enacted a resolution in their minutes expressing their grief at the national tragedy. Before the BHS adopted their resolution, Fillmore asked to say a few words on the record. In his statement, which is recorded in full below, Fillmore expresses his sense of loss at Lincoln’s death but spends more words speaking hopefully of President Andrew Johnson, a man who had ascended to the Presidency through the death of another – a situation well known to Fillmore.
“As this resolution offered by Mr. Allen, is entertained by the society, and as he has been pleased to refer to me in his remarks, I trust that I shall be pardoned for saying a few words before the question is taken on its adoption. Perhaps no member of this society appreciates more fully than I do, the difficult task which President Lincoln had to perform, and I am sure none can deplore his death more sincerely than I do.
It is well known that I have not approved of all acts which have been done in his name during his Administration, but I am happy to say that his recent course met my approbation, and I had looked forward with confident expectation that he would soon be able to end the war, and by his kind, conciliatory manner win back our erring and repentant brethren and restore the Union. His assassination has sent a thrill of horror through every heart, depriving the Chief Magistrate of his life at a moment when party hostility was subsiding, and his life was doubly dear to his countrymen, and it has plunged a nation into mourning.
The chief assassin has already been summoned to the bar of a just God to answer for his crime, and I hope and trust that every one who participated in this awful tragedy will be legally tried, before the constitutional courts of the country, and if found guilty, will meet the punishment which the law prescribes for his offence; and that no innocent person will suffer from prejudice or passion. I need hardly add that I cordially concur in this resolution as a just tribute of respect to the memory of the deceased.
But while I express my sense of the great loss which this country has sustained in the death of President Lincoln at this particular juncture, I would not be understood as implying a want of confidence in his successor. I can sympathize with him in the embarrassments with which he is surrounded, and the difficulties which he has to encounter in being thus suddenly called to the helm of state amid the perilous storm of an unparalleled rebellion. It appears to me that the storm has nearly spent its fury, and the angry waves are gradually subsiding, and gleams of sunshine already illumine many a dark spot. This fact greatly adds to the labors and responsibilities of the Government. Statesmanship must now take the place of arms. But yet I have hope. From all that I know of President Johnson I think he has talent and integrity; and if he will hear and then follow the dictates of his own good sense and calm judgment, without prejudice or passion, he will succeed. But I must say that I am pained to see so little consideration manifested even by well-intentioned friends, as to rush upon him at this time with addresses, requiring a response from him, thus engrossing his valuable time and distracting his mind, when every consideration of friendship, patriotism and propriety should forbid it.
The first caution he has to observe is to steer clear of the factions that are trying to get possession of him for their own selfish purposes — to carry out some favorite theory of reconstruction, or to gratify some feeling of revenge.
I am happy to see that he receives all politely but keeps his own counsel, and has the prudence and good sense not to commit himself in offhand speeches as to his future policy; but leaves himself at liberty, after due consideration, to take advantage of circumstances as they arise.
In my humble opinion, he who controls the destinies of a nation, especially at a time like this, should never indicate his future policy until it is fully matured in Cabinet council, and he is ready to put it in operation; nor should he promise an office until he is ready to confer it.
While, therefore, we justly deplore the loss of President Lincoln, let us never despair of the Republic; but rally around his successor, regardless of past differences or party prejudices, and do all we can to sustain him, so long as he maintains the Constitution and laws of our common country. Let us remember amidst all our grief and disappointments that there is an unerring Providence that governs this world, and that no man is indispensable to a nation’s life; and let us look hopefully for the rainbow of peace that will surely succeed the storm if we do our own duty. I hope the resolution will be adopted.”
Fillmore would become an ally for Andrew Johnson and supported the 17th President’s Reconstruction policies. This support likely had some roots in Fillmore’s own difficulties in succeeding a deceased President. When President Johnson visited Buffalo on September 3, 1866, Millard Fillmore was selected to be the lead dignitary to greet him and welcome him to the city.
In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, grief gripped the country. This grief manifested in a variety of ways. While many sought solace through individual and group demonstrations of mourning, other were so filled with confusion and conflict at the loss of the President that they struck out in anger. The forceful blackening of the 13th President’s home was as much an expression of grief as was the Lincoln funeral train itself. Saddened and confused residents around the nation lashed out at those in their communities who they knew to be critical of Lincoln in the past. For a time, many faced severe punishment for a lack of appropriate grief at Lincoln’s death, whether warranted or not. The blackening of Fillmore’s house may be regrettable but it perfectly demonstrates one manner in which the country attempted to cope with the loss of Lincoln.
Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert J. Rayback
President Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning edited by Harold Holzer
Lincoln’s Funeral Train: The Epic Journey from Washington to Springfield by Robert M. Reed
Millard Fillmore Papers, Volume Two edited by Frank H. Severance
Newspaper extracts come from GenealogyBank.com and the Library of Congress
The inspiration for this post comes from the wonderfully done, Railsplitter Podcast. Each week, the Railsplitter Podcast delves into the life of Abraham Lincoln. The three hosts are able to make Abraham Lincoln accessible to all with the use of knowledge and a good dose of humor. In that vein, one of the hosts of the podcast, Railsplitter Nick, has an ongoing “feud” with President Millard Fillmore. Why Nick dislikes Fillmore so much, I don’t really remember. However, he manages to find a way to diss Fillmore in almost every episode of the podcast. In preparation for an upcoming appearance on an assassination related episode of the Railsplitter Podcast, I wanted to find a way to connect Fillmore to Lincoln’s death. That is what led me to research and compose this post. I hope you enjoyed and/or hated it, Nick!