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Sixth annual Holt Lecture provides enriching opportunities for students

“The shot John Wilkes Booth shot at Ford’s Theatre was the first shot in the war to come after, the war on Black freedom and equality…a war we are still fighting today,” Martha Hodes said as a striking final thought in her lecture “Mourning Lincoln: The Assassination and the Aftermath of the Civil War” given at WVU on September 29.

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For the sixth annual Holt Lecture, guest speaker Dr. Hodes shared her research findings published in her recent, award-winning book Mourning Lincoln. Mourning Lincoln was awarded the Lincoln Prize and the Avery O. Craven Prize, in addition to being named one of ten long-list finalists for the National Book Award, an Editor’s Choice in the New York Times Book Review, and a Best Book of 2015 by the Wall Street Journal.

The enlightening lecture looked into the varied responses to the death of Lincoln and how those responses shed light on the concerns of people in the aftermath of the Civil War. A full-house of students attended from all levels of the program to hear from Dr. Hodes.

Ph.D. student Chuck Welsko, whose research focus is 19th century American history, said, “Her lecture gave fresh insight into the responses of average Americans to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, countering the idea that Americans universally mourned the fallen President.”

She began with white mourners in the North who grieved Lincoln, characterizing the event as “thunder in a clear blue sky.” However, as she would later reveal, not all Northerners mourned the death of Abraham Lincoln.

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Among the Confederates, many varied responses demonstrated the complicated and destructive aftermath of the Civil War. Some blatantly celebrated the death, others hid their celebration of Lincoln’s death for appearances, some were concerned about a future union without Abraham Lincoln as its leader, and some were genuinely sad as they thought Lincoln was a good man.

Dr. Hodes was struck in her research by the “persistence of everyday life in the face of catastrophes”. This was particularly true in the aftermath of the Civil War in which so many other losses occurred that competed with the death of Abraham Lincoln. 

Among some of the most devastated mourners were the African Americans who saw the Civil War as the second war of independence, and Lincoln as their primary defender. She found the moment of the assassination and the flood of responses to be pivotal in setting the stage for race relations through today. Asked in the discussion about sources, Dr. Hodes discussed how difficult it was to find the African American voice, often using sources written by White people and inferring the African American emotions.

History major Steven Brady found the research on African American response to be his favorite part of the lecture.

 “I would have to say that my favorite part of the lecture was hearing about how African-Americans reacted to the news of Lincoln’s assassination. Dr. Hodes explained that reading about the reactions from African-Americans-moving away from the traditional sources of white men and women- was central to her work and provided a different insight to this tragic event in American history,” he said

The Holt lecture is designed to give students access to some of the leading research in the field of American history and it lived up to its purpose. Students who filled the lecture hall found the lecture to be interesting, enlightening and helpful in providing a more human view of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Graduate student Autumn Mayle thought that “Mourning Lincoln” was a wonderful lecture that provided a well-rounded look at the responses to Lincon’s assassination. “I liked how she incorporated the military perspective, the racial conflict and the gender perspective,” she said.

Brady said about the lecture as a whole, “Dr. Hodes insight and research into this topic was presented quite well and has helped me to understand how Americans reacted to this tragedy in the wake of our nation’s most devastating war.”

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Dr. Hodes' visit not only included the annual lecture, but also featured a lunch workshop. Students who attended read a short article written by Dr. Hodes describing her research on African American responses and were allowed a chance to hear her discuss it more in depth and ask questions.

Welsko, who attended both the afternoon seminar and the lecture  said “I found Dr. Hodes’ time on campus, in her lecture as well as her afternoon workshop with graduate students and faculty, an enriching experience.”

“Moreover, Dr. Hodes’ presentations demonstrated some of the best scholarship a historian can offer. She challenged us, either as a large crowd or in a smaller setting, to reconsider not only how we approach Lincoln’s death, but also how we consider the voices of historical actors,” Welsko said.

The Rush D. Holt lecture series is supported by the family of Senator Holt through the Senator Rush D. Holt Endowment established in 1998. Since the first Holt Lecture held on April 11, 2011, this series has brought some of the most prominent historians in American history to WVU to share their research and knowledge with the students in our department.