Monday, October 5, 2015

The Last Journey of Abraham Lincoln, and The 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train

The death of Abraham Lincoln came at twenty-two minutes past seven in the morning on April 15th, 1865. He had been shot by John Wilkes Booth on the evening of April 14th as he enjoyed the play My American Cousin with his wife, Mary, and companions Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone. When the president drew his last breath in a simple lodging house near Ford's Theatre, plans to honor the dead president went into action. America had just emerged from a horrendous civil war, and the death of the man who had reunited the country was almost unimaginable.

What did the American people feel when they learned that they had lost their president? We had never lost a president to assassination before, and Lincoln had become so much more than an elected official. Lincoln was the final casualty of a bloody civil war, a war that brought about "... a new birth of freedom" (In the words of Lincoln himself), and upheld the belief that all men are created equal. The ideas Lincoln stood for took root in the hearts of many Americans. The peace that Lincoln had worked to create was now uncertain, especially for African Americans, who had looked to Lincoln to protect and progress their cause. No one knew what would happen now that the Great Emancipator was gone. Before anything else could be done or thought of, Americans wanted to pay their respects to the fallen president. 

After a period of visitation and state mourning in Washington, Lincoln's body departed the capital on April 21st. He was to be carried by train on a nearly 2 week long journey that would take him home to Springfield, Illinois. The route the train was to take was very similar to the trip he took upon his inauguration:

(Lincoln's inaugural route is in black, while the funeral train procession is a dashed line)

A funeral of this scale and grandeur was unprecedented in the U.S. The funeral train that bore the president home consisted of 9 cars, one of them being a personal car constructed for Lincoln that he never used in life. In death, the car was transformed to hold not only Lincoln's casket, but that of his 11 year-old son Willie; they were to be interred together (Willie died in 1862 at the age of 11). The car underwent a transformation, and was covered in black bunting and draping. It is said that a light shone upon the casket in darkness so it was constantly illuminated. A lone engine steamed ahead of the funeral train to ensure that the track was clear, and the funeral train never went over 20 mph to avoid accidents.

Schedules, such as this one, were distributed ahead of time so mourners could gather to see the train pass by:

Crowds gathered along the tracks for a glimpse of the train as it passed by. People from all walks of life were brought to the tracks by crude and sturdy roads alike. They built huge bonfires to illuminate the night and better see the funeral train pass. When the funeral car stopped in large cities, Lincoln's body was seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans. An embalmer traveled with the funeral procession in order to keep Lincoln's body as presentable as possible. It must have been a moving experience, waiting in the night while making fellowship with neighbors. Then, the sound of a steam engine would over power the crackling of the bonfire and harmony of the hymns being sang...

After Lincoln was laid to rest, the train car that had taken him on his final journey was not preserved. The car saw many different owners, and eventually was destroyed in a fire in 1911. A replica of the car has been built, to nearly 85% accuracy to the original. The car is truly amazing, and the men who built it over a four year period are very proud of their creation. No plans or photos of the interior of the car exist, so it took great care and hard work for the car to be rebuilt. The car has been travelling the country in honor of the 150th anniversary of the president's death. If you have not yet seen the car, the schedule and information can be found on this website:

Endeavors such as this one bring history to life! When you think of history as it was lived and as though it is still happening, that's when you gain a real appreciation for it. A tangible link to the past helps people appreciate history as being a part of our present instead of one dimensional facts and figures in a dusty textbook. As you enter the car, a replica of Lincoln's casket lay inside, just as it would have in 1865. Seeing even a replica of the casket moved me, and made me consider how the hopes and dreams of the America of the 1860s could have been reduced to this black box... or were they? Lincoln's death, to me, showed that his dedication to freedom, truth, and the preservation of the Union did not die with him, and lived on in others who read his words and lived his principles.

I thank the Warther Carving Museum and everyone who helped bring the train to Dover. The only thing better than seeing the train was seeing children get excited to learn about Lincoln and history in general! 

1 comment:

  1. "When you think of history as it was lived and as though it is still happening, that's when you gain a real appreciation for it." So very true. The train builders and planners of this exhibition should be commended for contributing to living history. I think President Lincoln would approve.