The Earl of Derby, leader of Britain’s opposition during the war, told the House of Lords that “the misfortunes of the United States affect us more than the misfortunes of any other country on the face of the globe.” Even though the British government had flirted with recognizing the Confederacy earlier in the war, dozens of towns and civic organizations throughout the British Empire sent memorials in the months that followed. Even industrial areas hit by the loss of Southern cotton were grief-stricken. “We have suffered long and severely in consequence of the cruel war which has cursed your land; for it has crippled our industry, blasted our hopes, and caused many of our sons to seek a home among strangers,” lamented the townspeople of Mossley near Manchester. “But our sufferings sink into insignificance when we think of this horrid crime, which stands without a parallel in the history of the world.”
Among ordinary people, Lincoln’s death weighed heaviest. “The Spanish people have been thunderstruck,” reported the American ambassador in Madrid. “I have heard ordinary men, ignorant that an American was listening, offer to lose a right hand if only this news might not be true.” His counterpart in Chile witnessed similar outpourings of sorrow: “Strong men wandered about the streets weeping like children, and foreigners, unable even to speak our language, manifested a grief almost as deep as our own.”
Why was Lincoln’s death mourned so deeply in foreign lands? He never traveled overseas, either before or during his presidency. Except for the ministers and consuls who journeyed to Washington, few Europeans ever had the opportunity to meet him. Television and radio did not yet exist to carry his face and voice throughout the world. Foreign mourners could only know him through newspapers and word of mouth.
For many, this was enough. In both Lincoln and the American experiment writ large, many Europeans saw an idealized view of their own aspirations. Sympathy came easily in Italy, where a war for national unification had also just been completed. “Abraham Lincoln was not yours only—he was also ours,” wrote the citizens of Acireale, a small town in Sicily, “because he was a brother whose great mind and fearless conscience guided a people to union, and courageously uprooted slavery.” For the German states, whose own national unification would come within the decade, the American conflict was also their own. “You are aware that Germany has looked with pride and joy on the thousands of her sons, who in this struggle have placed themselves so resolutely on the side of law and right,” proclaimed members of the Prussian House of Deputies in their memorial for the fallen president. The U.S. consul in Berlin noted that one of the deputies had a son currently serving in the Union Army, while another had lost his only son at Petersburg.