The Lincoln Assassination: A Union Army Chaplain’s Angry, Heartsick Response

Rev. William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida, 1863 (courtesy of Robert Champlin, used with permission).

In an April 30, 1865 report sent to Brigadier-General L. Thomas, the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army, the Rev. William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, chaplain of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, expressed his ire and grief regarding the recent assassination of President Abraham Lincoln:

“Sir.

The present month claims more than an ordinary place in our National history. In the very hour of general exultation and rejoicing for vouchsafed blessings and victories on our arms, promising speedy restoration of internal peace and return of prosperity and happiness, our great and good Chief Magistrate, Abraham Lincoln, was slain by the hand of foul conspiracy and vile assassination. For the first time the annals of the country have been stained by a political assassination! It is a crime against God, against the Nation, against humanity and against liberty, that has thus been perpetrated! It is the madness of Treason and murder! And the day that commemorates the Crucifixion of the Saviour of Man is henceforth made forever memorable by a new crime against the Law of God and Country.

But we must bow low, before the Almighty Hand that thus shows us the weakness and wickedness of man and the vanity of all human calculations!

May this fearful blow recall us all to our duties! We will draw near to the Altar of our country, also, as we approach the Altar of our God. We have great duties in this crisis. And the first is to forget selfishness and passion and party, and look to the salvation of the Country.

As to our lamented President, let us do justice to his memory! He dies in the hour of his country’s restored greatness, and in the full frution of his own personal triumph. The assassin’s blow, will rank him in the memory of mankind among the martyrs of freedom.

The 19th inst. – the day set apart for the funeral of our late President, was duly observed with appropriate ceremonies for our Brigade. The Regiments present were the 47th Pa. V.V.’s, 8th Vermont, 12th Conn. and 153rd N.Y. It became my duty to officiate on the occasion, and it was one of the most solemn and impressive scenes I ever witnessed.” 

Rodrock then went on to report on the morale and health of his regiment, leaving the “solemn and impressive” gathering of soldiers to the reader’s imagination. What is known for certain is that the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were unable to participate in the President’s funeral parade, as many other Union troops did, because the 47th Pennsylvanians and their fellow brigade members were still on duty. Assigned to protect Washington, DC in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, they grieved collectively during Rodrock’s brief memorial service and individually as battle-hardened soldiers when their respective schedules allowed time for rumination.

Over the next two weeks, one member of the 47th Pennsylvania would be given the honor of guarding the late President’s funeral train while others would be assigned to guard Mary Surratt and the other key conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination during the early days of their imprisonment.

To read more of Chaplain Rodrock’s reports, please see the Religion and Spirituality section of this website.

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