A Union Soldier’s Personal Experience of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
For the past semester at Northern Virginia Community College, I have worked very closely with American History Professor Dr. Terry Alford in an attempt to discover something of the writers of a set of brittle, timeworn diaries that he had recently acquired from a sale in Pennsylvania. Dr. Alford knew from purchase that they belonged to a set of brothers, German immigrants who fought in the Union Army, and that one of the diaries contained a personal account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, but the seller was unable to reveal any more of their histories. Returning to Virginia, he drove to Annandale and walked into his office where he set the diaries on a shelf.
In the early summer of 2014 I came to Dr. Alford’s office to thank him for the spring semester and to covertly ask him about my grade. We chatted and he told me about some special assignment he wanted to task to a student in the upcoming semester. The project, he said, would allow one of his students to work with physical documents from the middle of the 19th century. He then pulled something out from a padded manila envelope, and started to flip through a century-and-half old book. I volunteered before he gave me any more details.
There are eight diaries in total: six of them written by Jacob Frederick Hammerly, and two written by one of his three brothers, Martin Hammerly. It is the former that are the most interesting, though Martin’s account of the Second Battle of Corinth—his comrades falling from Rebel fire on both his sides—is not forgettable.
After reading the diaries, transcribing, in full, one of them, and spending several days in the National Archives and Library of Congress a basic personal history emerged. Jacob Frederick Hammerly was born in the Kingdom Wurttemberg in 1834 to Margarathe Hammerle. His father died September 2nd, 1852 shortly before Jacob came to the United States on October 3rd. He settled in Amboy, Illinois sometime in 1853. After working in Northern Illinois for several years he eventually joined the Union Army as a private in late August at a recruiting station in Amboy along with two other brothers, Martin and Jacob. Jacob Frederick Hammerly and brothers were in the 12th Illinois Infantry. Jacob served in Company B.
After being mustered out on September 12th, 1864 Jacob lived in a soldier’s lodge in Washington, D.C. where he was employed part-time at a music store. He closely followed news from the war and often noted different Union victories alongside the weather of each day and how much money he has spent on various items as well as who owed him money. This continued for some time until April of 1865.
The tone in April is that of excitement for the war being over and anxiety over how Hammerly will deal with it on a personal level as well as concern for his missing brother. During this month Hammerly was searching for his brother, Alfred, who he had not heard from in some time. At some point Hammerly was made aware that Alfred was in Washington, D.C., a city then in the midst of celebration and victory. “This news overjoys my heart but yet I am troubled, thinking of the whereabouts of brother Alfred” he writes on the 4th of April, “A letter from him would do some justice to my feelings.”
The last entry mentioning Alfred in April reads: “The 6th I went through the Columbia and Mt. Pleasant Hospitals in search of some of the 141st but could find none, there were but few of the 2nd corps there.” Other matters evidently were also pressing on Hammerly’s mind this month.
On the 3rd of April Hammerly writes “This morn the departments are being dressed in the stars and stripes. In front of the War Dep. I heard Lee, Stanton, and vice Pr. Johnson and others address a large crowd, and reading dispatches stating that both Richmond and Petersburgh was ours, great were the cheers and applauses.” He later goes to see the parades. The next several days are likewise filled with celebration and fireworks (what Hammerly called “illumination”) as the war comes to a close.
April 10th comes and Hammerly writes “The papers have the surrender of Lee and his whole army, the…buildings are again floating with the stars and stripes. It came.” What more could be written by a patriot other than those final two words: “It came”? This reveals in Hammerly a certainty that must have been felt by millions and swept the nation. The Union remains intact and Lincoln is the hero of the land. He describes the 11th as “another day of jubilee…the illumination of the city could be seen in the Horizon untill nearly midnight.”
Certainly not everyone was entirely pleased by the result of the war, as Hammerly wrote on the 13th: “Every house in the City is decerated with the stars and stripes. The big guns too are booming away. I went on watch at 6 o’clk. P. M. such an illumination I never saw the air is full with the bursting rocket and all kinds of fireworks are displayed. I worked some at Mr. Neals and Smiths, they seemed to be regular secessionist much dissatisfied by the illumination Smith especially.” There was nothing negative about the day, and nothing that even Hammerly’s Southern sympathizing boss could do to bring down his high spirits. He ends the April 13th entry with “Got my boots fixed payed $2.00”.
This is the anniversary of Christs death. The miserable day of the death of the martyr, death of allmost a second Christ; of our most beloved President Abraham Lincoln…by the hand of the most brutal assassin the world ever knew, this night between the hours of 10 – 11 in Fords Theatre whilst every ones attention was upon the stage, this murderer J. Wilkes Booth came in to the Presidents box and discharged a pistol within a few feet of his head, the President never spoke a word afterwards. About the same time another villain went into Secretary Sewards house and surprised the whole family wounding three Mr. Sewards, a Messinger, and a Servant it is well known that both of this cutthroats made good their escape. A reward of 10,000 Dolls is offered for the apprehension of the murderer.”
Hammerly was emotionally destroyed. The following are several relevant excerpts from the diary that detail Hammerly’s emotions, the death of Lincoln, and the pursuit of Booth:
“Saturday the 15th
Our much dearly beloved President gave up his ghost between the hours of 7-8 a.m. He has died, yet he lives! Saw his remains removed from Mr. Petersons (opposite the Theatre) to the whitehouse, all spectators are silent yet their hearts speack aloud. The buildings both public and private are now being draped in mourning, the emblems of rejoicing have suddenly disapeared, the flag is at have mast ‘The people are mourning a martyred father’”.
“Thursday April 18th
I woke up with a heavey heart the murder of the President impressed upon my mind, I could not help but love him almost as a father where is another such a man? The white house is opened to the people to see the President once more, I went twice but cannot get in…many like myself are disappointed a number of ladies fainted from being crowded.”
“Thursday april 20th 1865
Another day was given to the people to take a last view of the dearest President, there was not so much crowding done, every one who came could see him, the doors were left open until 9 o’clk. I saw him in the morning looked somewhat darker but natural. The rotunda presented a dark and solemn aspect. The coffin was the most magnificent one I ever beheld.”
“April 29th Saturday
to day guns were fired in honor of the Surrender of Johnston to Sherman- Grant- War is over…The famous Booth-assassin- murderer the cowardy villain was killed last Friday the 27 near Front Royal Va. In a barn , by one of the 16th N.Y cavalry. He said before he died tell mother I died for my country the cowardly villain.”
As much loved as presidents have been since Lincoln, there really have been none that elicit this kind of emotive reaction to their death with the exception of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and arguably even he did not receive the exact national mourning that Lincoln did. Perhaps assassination creates heroes where there might not have been any before; elevation of a good man to a great man, a great man to a saint. It’s a tough issue, but had Lincoln lived there is doubt that Hammerly would write such adoring words and phrases as “I could not help but love him almost as a father”, “magnificent” in regards to a coffin, “almost a second Christ”, and “he died yet he lives” underlined in thick ink.
From the point of Booth’s death on, the diary returns to Hammerly’s regular affairs. Nothing in the rest of the diaries in any way comes close to the passions presented here, in less than ten pages of entries.
Hammerly eventually heard from his brother, Alfred, on May 5th and soon they continued their relationship and spent some time together. His drowned brother, Jacob, was not mentioned again in 1865.
Washington, D.C., still hurt by Lincoln’s death, did not forget their victory: “Wednesday May 24th fine weather. Shermans army passed the avenue to day found my Regt. It too took them all day to pass. So many Soldiers Washington never saw before.”
Hammerly married a Pennsylvanian woman, Laura. She was born in 1844 in Stephensville, Pennsylvania (now called Stevens Township in Bradford County). They had two children: Christie E. Hammerly who was born in 1868, and Nellie Beers Hammerly who was born in 1882, both in Pennsylvania. Christie went on to marry Lawrence E. Edgeworth, and Nellie married Frederick William Shand (in 1905).
In 1870 the Hammerly’s resided in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. In 1878 they were living in Chicago once again, where Hammerly remained until his death on December 17th, 1903. He is buried in Cook County Il.
 This brother, who shared the same name, drowned in 1861 during his service.
 Booth’s name was written in at a later date.
This article was published in the Surratt Courier in early 2015. This is their website: http://www.surrattmuseum.org/surratt-courier