They were grieving, but there were plans to be made. Urgently!
For the first time in American history, a President of the United States had been assassinated.
Only a day earlier, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln, his associates, and indeed a majority of all Americans, had been rejoicing that the Confederate government had abandoned Richmond, Confederate armies were surrendering, and the four-year war was ending. But then, amid what must have been nearly overwhelming shock and grief, the President’s family, friends and Cabinet members had only a few days to plan funeral events which, they hoped, would somehow allow millions of people to commonly grieve for their tragic loss.
Except for the immediate elevation of the Vice-President under the Constitution, there was no protocol to follow, no funeral service outline, and not even a specific place for his burial. Further complicating the planning process, the President’s widow was in no condition to make decisions or even provide assistance to those who would take charge.
What emerged from this chaos was a heartfelt tribute to the fallen President which gave the American people the opportunity to personally pay their respects during a remarkable twenty-day period after his death. The grieving funeral planners did their sad jobs, and did them very well. As a result, during the time from the first service on Monday, April 17, until the final service and burial on Thursday, May 4, 1865, the nation was able to say an extraordinary farewell.
Abraham Lincoln was going home.
He had died on Saturday morning April 15, 1865 and on Monday, Robert Lincoln, the President’s son, invited close friends and cabinet members to a viewing at the White House; and on Tuesday, the public was permitted to pass through. On Wednesday, after a brief service, the funeral procession made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue, where all buildings were draped in black, to the Rotunda of the Capitol Building; under the new dome which President Lincoln had insisted be completed during the Civil War as a symbol of the continuity of the Union. Over 100,000 citizens filed past his coffin in Washington DC before it was placed on a nine car funeral train, also draped in black, to re-trace the 1,700-mile journey Lincoln had taken from Springfield, Illinois to the Nation’s capital for his first inauguration; only four years earlier.
Over the next 12 days, the train made stops in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Michigan City, Chicago and, its final destination, Springfield, Illinois; and processions and funeral services were held at each of those cities. Reliable historical records indicate that over ten million people witnessed the funeral events in some manner; over half of the combined populations in Washington DC and the states along the route. They assembled in the larger cities with scheduled stops, including Philadelphia where the President lay in Independence Hall for 24 hours. And, in New York City, one million people lined the streets, including Broadway and Fifth Avenue, to watch the four-hour procession pass; the largest gathering of Americans in the country’s history until then. However, millions of others simply stood silently by the railroad tracks in the countryside and in numerous small towns just to watch the train pass.
For those who had to make the plans, and assure the events were appropriate and on schedule, those first few days must have been incredibly difficult.
Most of the urgent decisions for the funeral were made by Cabinet member Edwin Stanton, the President’s two secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay, his friend, Ward Lamon, and his son, Robert Lincoln. They knew that thousands, likely millions, of their fellow citizens would want the opportunity to personally show their respects to the President; however, they debated the best way to accommodate the public, while maintaining the appropriate solemn dignity. Certainly, a catafalque would need to be acquired upon which the President’s casket could be placed, but no one could recall one in Washington DC; so they directed that three White House carpenters build one suitable for the occasion. The workmen must have been honored to be asked to use their skills in such a way, and to their credit, they designed and built the catafalque in only two days; and it was deemed a “Worthy and Grand Edifice” by one newspaper. Unfortunately for our country, that same platform would later be needed for three more assassinated Presidents; James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy.
One of the issues faced by those trying to plan the funeral events was that, in 1865, the fastest form of communication across distance was the telegraph. All of the people trying to prepare and coordinate multiple events in Washington, and with those in various cities along the route, had to first dictate their message, have an operator input the message in telegraphic code, which was received by another operator and decoded, before being presented to the intended recipient. Then, if there was any question or further discussion needed, the process had to be reversed; so there was often a delay in any final decision. Despite these limitations, the hundreds of organizers pulled off nearly flawless events in numerous cities over 17 days with almost perfect timing.
For example, even the decision of the location for the burial place of the President was not decided without long distance communication and coordination during the first two days after his death. There was debate as to whether the President should be buried in Washington or back in Springfield, or possibly Chicago, since no prior arrangements, or even expectations, had been made by Lincoln or his family. Why would they have? After all, he was only fifty-six years old, had just been re-elected to a second four-year term, planned to travel to Europe and the Holy Land after his final term, and then return to his law practice in Springfield where he thought he would live out the rest of his life. Robert recalled that, several years earlier, his mother had helped dedicate the new Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield and he inquired about availability there. Of course there was no tomb suitable for a President, but there was a hill in the cemetery that friends of the family thought would be a good location to build a crypt. However, at the same time, with the best of intentions, but unbeknownst to the family, and in a rush to accommodate a suitable place for a Presidential tomb, some leaders in Springfield quickly purchased a six-acre site in the downtown area. On Monday evening, two days after the assassination, Mary regained some semblance of composure, and along with Robert, concurred in the decision to bury the President in the Oak Ridge Cemetery, but not before considerable telegraph traffic had been sent between Washington and Springfield to make the choice.
While officials in other major cities along the train route would have a few extra days to make their plans, those in Washington DC had no such advantage. Decisions had to be made quickly and then directives given to those who would carry out the assignments. For example, in addition to building a catafalque, arrangements for a horse drawn cortege had to be made and Cavalrymen selected to accompany the planned procession from the White House to the Capitol Building. Further, to accommodate the expected crowds, grandstands were ordered to be constructed. While it was a frantic pace, the cabinet members and friends of Abraham Lincoln worked so well together in this tragic situation that the commemorative events in Washington DC provided the city’s residents, and thousands of visitors, a fitting farewell to the President.
Then, there was also, “The President’s Train.”
The concept of the special train with stops re-tracing Lincoln’s inaugural route was developed by Edwin Stanton, Ward Lamon, and Robert Lincoln, and the logistics of those arrangements required the coordination of hundreds of officials and workmen, but the train was still ready to leave Washington DC at 7am on Friday, only six days after Lincoln’s death. The train was covered in black cloth, with large American Flags. It had nine cars, including a car built earlier for the President which contained a parlor, sleeping compartment, and a former reception area which was converted to hold the President’s coffin and catafalque, while other cars accommodated nearly 300 mourners, many of whom made the entire twelve-day trip. The train was ordered to never travel more than twenty miles per hour and the very detailed schedule, which gave anticipated locations in half-hour increments for the entire route, was printed in over one hundred newspapers along its expected path. Robert rode to Baltimore on the train, but from there, returned to Washington to help his mother. Also on the train was the body of Willie, the young son who had died in the White House in 1862, which had been buried in Washington DC.
Willie was going home with his father.
A reporter in Chicago who knew Lincoln tried to express the overwhelming sadness he observed throughout city and concluded his remarks poetically. “He who writes this is weeping. He who reads this is weeping. Hushed be the city. Hung be the heavens in black. Let the tumult of traffic cease. Let the streets be still. Let the lake rest. Let the winds be lulled. Let the bells toll. Home, bear him tenderly home.”
In Springfield, after the last funeral service, on May 4, 1865, the bodies of President Lincoln and his son, Willie, were placed in a temporary tomb, just below the hill where they would later be interred. Work soon started on what would become “Lincoln’s Tomb” which would be the final, and fitting, resting place for a special President.
Abraham Lincoln was home.
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