The Final Journey of Abraham Lincoln (Article 39)

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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Robert E. Lee and Slavery (Article38)

“Do not join these others and secede from the United States. They welcomed us in 1845 and protected us from invasion, and to separate now is dishonorable.”

Despite this plea from Governor Sam Houston in January 1861, Texas soon joined other southern states to form the Confederate States of America.

After Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, and before he took office in March 1861, there was little doubt that 8 or 9 southern states would secede; however, many in the north still held a slim hope that Virginia and Texas might decide to remain in the Union.  Virginia was a Border State which had many economic ties to the Union, and Sam Houston, the popular Governor of Texas had recently been re-elected and was expressly pro-union. Most observers in the north, including Lincoln, thought Texas might “sit out the war,” but they did not understand the political winds in this bastion of independence. There were three major factions at work in Texas.

The first was led by the Governor, Sam Houston, who was instrumental in Texas winning independence from Mexico. When Texas issued its “Declaration of Independence” in 1836, the Mexican army was sent to put down the uprising and regain control of the break-away territory. While Mexico had initial success at the battle of the Alamo, General Houston soon led the Texas Army to victory at the battle of San Jacinto and negotiated a treaty under which Mexico eventually relinquished claims to Texas.  Houston subsequently became the President of the sovereign nation of Texas, and in 1845, he led the movement for Texas to join the United States; in part because he feared a new government in Mexico might try to invade Texas. He next became a U.S. Senator from the state of Texas, then its Governor, and was a staunch Unionist.

The second faction was a group of early settlers to Texas, mostly ranchers, who originally aligned with Sam Houston, but who had opposed giving up their hard won sovereignty as an independent nation when Texas sought to join the United States in 1845. They believed Texas could thrive as a small nation trading both with the United States and Mexico and were concerned that their unique Anglo-Mexican heritage could be lost within the larger United States population.  This group viewed that a new alignment with the proposed Confederacy would offer greater autonomy for their state; and since the new Confederate Constitution provided a method for states to legally secede, some thought that Texas might later leave the Confederacy and once again be an independent nation.

The third faction was comprised of many transplants from other deep southern states and included most of the slave-holders in Texas, who were planters concentrated in the prime agricultural areas along the eastern border with Louisiana and the nearby gulf coast. This group was disappointed in the outcome of the Mexican War of 1847, when they thought that the United States should have annexed even more Mexican territory to create future states in which slavery would be authorized. Many in this faction had already discussed the possibility of secession from the United States during the Congressional debates in 1850 and 1854 over the expansion of slavery. They believed that the Confederate States of America would protect their right to own slaves.

Governor Houston warned these two opposition factions, saying (in part): “Let me tell you what is coming. Your fathers and husbands, your sons and brothers, will be herded at the point of the bayonet. You may, after the sacrifice of countless millions in treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, as a bare possibility, win Southern Independence. But I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, but when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche. And what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South…. and Texas with it.”

In December 1860, the second and third factions, which disagreed on almost all other issues, except secession, formed a fractured coalition long enough to demand that Governor Houston convene a special session of the Texas legislature to debate and vote on secession from the United States. At first, Houston simply ignored the request, but within weeks, the momentum within the state shifted dramatically and other government officials, who were part of the new coalition, by-passed the Governor and declared an immediate statewide election for delegates to a Secession Convention to be held on January 28, 1861. These officials then held a series of “unauthorized” delegate elections, most simply by voice votes, in small towns around the state. To counter this internal rebellion, Houston decided to call a special session of the legislature which he expected would invalidate the Secession Convention and the related delegate elections.

Sam Houston’s expectations could not have been more wrong.

Instead, the legislature approved the establishment of the Convention by a vote of 140-28 and, when Houston vetoed the action, quickly over-rode his veto. However, the Governor still had enough friends in the legislature to pass a motion which required a vote of the people to confirm (or reject) the Convention’s decision; and Houston had at least some expectation that he might be able to rally voters to keep Texas in the Union.

On February 1, 1861, the Secession Convention delegates voted 166-7 to recommend secession. Now, it was left to the voters of Texas to decide.

Texas had a total population of over 421,000 free citizens and 161,000 slaves. On February 23rd, amid threats of violence at polling places from all three factions, only 61,000 Texans voted out of the probable 100,000 “adult men of substance” who were eligible to cast ballots. Of those, 46,000 voted to secede from the United States; so, while 75% of those voting chose to leave the United States, the matter was decided by less than 50% of eligible voters. But, it passed!

Houston’s expectation that the voters would choose to remain in the Union, was again, wrong.

He now accepted the fact that Texas would secede from the Union. However, his patriotism to Texas (or stubbornness as others thought) led him to ask that the state legislature reject membership in the Confederacy and revert Texas back to its former status as an independent nation. Then, as a sovereign country, Texas could remain neutral in the looming Civil War.

But, Houston’s latest expectation (by now probably only a hope) was, again, wrong.

Texas officially joined the Confederate States of America on March 4, 1861; and, for Governor Houston, the situation soon became even worse.

The secessionist legislature quickly passed laws which required that any Texan who held office, political appointment, military commission, or wanted to vote, must sign a loyalty pledge to the Confederacy. When Houston refused to sign the oath, the legislature declared the position of Governor “vacant” and, after thirty years of service, Houston was a private citizen.

On March 5th, newly inaugurated President Lincoln, through an emissary, offered assistance to Houston if he chose to form a separate opposition government in Texas. While he gave some consideration to Lincoln’s offer, Houston decided that he would not be the cause of increased divisions within his home state.

Before his death in 1863, Sam Houston contacted many who had stood by him in opposition to secession and wrote: “There comes a time (when) a man’s section is his country. I stand with mine. I was a conservative citizen of the United States. I am now a conservative citizen of the Southern Confederacy.” However, he could still not bring himself to sign the oath.

During the first two years of the Civil War, Texas thrived as a primary supplier of cotton, food crops, cattle, and horses to the rest of the South. Texas also provided over 60,000 men into the war (about 3,000 for the Union) and, tragically, over 21,000 did not come home. And, by late 1863, the Mississippi River and many gulf ports came under Union control, and Texas commerce gradually ground to a halt. As the war came to a close, the agricultural economy in the eastern part of the state was further decimated when the slaves were emancipated; and when the market for Texas cattle collapsed, the state’s entire economy went into a deep depression from which it would not recover for nearly twenty years.

During the War, and for several years thereafter, the two surviving political factions could not agree on even basic political or economic policies, so the state’s government was usually chaotic. Further, since one group hoped for greater autonomy for Texas (or even independence), and the other group wanted preservation of slavery and more control over Mexican territory, neither group ever achieved their very different objectives.

And, Houston’s worst scenario had been realized. He had said, “You may, after the sacrifice of countless millions in treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives…. win Southern Independence. But I doubt it. And what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South…. and Texas with it.”

So, after all was said and done, and despite being wrong several other times, Sam Houston’s most dire expectation, was right.

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Robert E. Lee and Slavery (Article 37)

Robert Edward Lee cemented his place in American history for the difficult decision he made to resign from the U.S. Army as Civil War seemed eminent, and then for his military decisions which led to numerous successes on the battlefield against superior forces. However, as decisive as he was in those matters, he was always ambivalent toward slavery. Even the pillars of morality which his deeply held religious beliefs otherwise provided, could not rectify his personal conflicts about slavery. These uncertainties were evident years before the Civil War and he never reconciled these ambiguities until the end of War and after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery.

Finally, with slavery declared illegal and unconstitutional, Robert E. Lee, with his life-long reverence for law, no longer equivocated on the matter.

As an “officer and a gentleman” Robert E. Lee was highly regarded by political and military leaders in both the North and the South for his competence as an administrator and as a military tactician. He had distinguished himself during the Mexican War in 1846 and was called upon to lead the U.S. forces to end abolitionist John Brown’s occupation of the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. In between he had served admirably throughout the country as a military administrator of major engineering projects, many of which were really federal public works programs such as building roads, bridges, canals, and ports.

On a personal level, most of Robert E. Lee’s acquaintances, North and South, considered him highly principled, likable, and empathetic, and their admiration is well documented. While from our vantage point 150 years later, Lee’s tolerance for slavery seems unconscionable; most historians recognize that his views were prevalent in his day, even throughout much of the North, and were actually somewhat enlightened for a Southern aristocrat.

As discontent spread across the south after the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, Lee had some hope that his native state of Virginia would not secede from the United States. He wrote, “If Virginia stands by the Old Union, so will I. But if she secedes, I will follow. Though I do not believe in secession as a Constitutional right, nor that there is cause for revolution.” However, he had decided that, even if Virginia chose to remain in the Union, he should resign his commission as a Colonel in the U.S. Army rather than be called upon to lead a military force against other Southern states. On April 20, 1861, he wrote, “I have resigned my commission and, save in defense of my native state, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.” He said he wished to simply retire to his home in Virginia and not be sought out by either side in the coming conflict. However, whatever his original intent, powerful and persuasive friends convinced him to at least meet with leaders of the Confederate government and on April 23rd he agreed to join the Virginia Militia, and on May 14th, he accepted a Confederate commission.

His decisions to resign from the U.S. Army and to later join the Confederate Army had nothing whatsoever to do with his views on slavery, but rather it was his heritage as a Virginian which proved to be a stronger bond than the Union; and it hung over him like a cloak.

Over the next four years his reputation as a military strategist became legendary. He was confident in his military orders and quick to respond to changing situations. But, as decisive as he was on these matters, he was never so clear about the issue of slavery.

Lee had often expressed his disapproval of slavery and hoped that it could eventually be abolished; however, he never articulated any reasonable time-table. And, in 1858, when he had the opportunity to free slaves owned by his father-in-law, George Washington Custis, he delayed any action for five years.

Lee’s complex and conflicted thoughts about slavery were evident when he wrote that, “Slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country” but he accepted its current reality and added, “How long their subjugation may be necessary is only known and ordered by a wise and Merciful Providence.” However, he decried efforts by the Northern politicians to interfere with “the domestic institutions of the South” (i.e. slavery) saying “Their object is both unlawful and foreign (against) this institution for which they are irresponsible and non-accountable.”

It is interesting to note that Robert E. Lee was deeply religious and his beliefs and practices, and those of many other Southerners, accommodated slavery.  For 200 years their religious leaders had proclaimed, among other justifications, that the Negro race was outcast from other biblical tribes (Old Testament), and that Jesus recognized the relationship of master-to-slave and never condemned slave-holding (New Testament). These doctrines led to Lee’s assertion that “Merciful Providence” would determine how much longer the slaves “subjugation” would be necessary.  He once said “The Blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically and socially… and their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity…which I hope will prepare and lead them to better things.”

Despite these ambiguities, Lee certainly benefited from the services of slaves, but not through direct participation in the slave trade or even personal management of slaves.  His aunt sent a slave to accompany Robert for his first military assignment after he received his commission from West Point in 1829.  When Robert’s mother Mary Lee died, she left several slaves to each of her sons. While the four female slaves Robert inherited never served in his household, he did permit his brother to manage and “let” those slaves for which Robert probably received a portion of the proceeds. On the other hand, researchers have found no record of any slave being purchased by Robert or on his behalf, and in 1846 he transferred (not sold) the last of the slaves he had inherited to his father-in-law George Custis; perhaps as compensation for permitting Lee’s family to reside in Custis homes.  After that, he probably never owned another slave; although, his wife’s family did own slaves at various Custis plantations; including Arlington which, at one time, had over 250 slaves. None, however, were owned by Robert E. Lee.

Some modern writers have declared that he freed the last of his slaves in 1862, but they misunderstood Lee’s role in that case. Lee was acting as the executor of his father-in-law’s estate which contained the provision that all slaves owned by Mr. Custis upon his death were to be freed in an orderly fashion at such time the estate was in solid financial condition, but in any case freed within five years of his death. After Mr. Custis died in 1857, Lee, acting as the executor, determined that earlier mismanagement and neglect of the plantations by George Custis and other Custis relatives had caused a drastic decline in crop production in the few prior years; therefore, the estate was not in “solid financial condition” as stipulated in the will. Lee intended, as executor, to utilize the “five-year” window to improve the status of the estate, and to accomplish that, he did not readily free the affected slaves. The Civil War had not yet started when Lee assumed the role as executor and for two years between 1858-1860, his plans were on track to revitalize the plantations and the value of the Custis estates steadily increased. Some critics of Lee suggest that he did not release the Custis slaves earlier because he would have financially benefited.  Most respected Lee biographers, however, believe Lee was less interested in personal gain than in expressly following his fiduciary responsibilities as executor.

On December 29, 1862, Lee completed his assignment as executor and officially released the last of the Custis slaves on the five-year time-line; ironically, two days before the Emancipation Proclamation became effective.  However, during the Civil War, the various Custis properties were ravaged and most of the property at Arlington, which was the crown jewel of the plantations, was confiscated by the Union Army and became Arlington National Cemetery.

So, in the end, Robert E. Lee’s efforts to revive the Custis holdings were in vain. As it was, the slaves had lost five years of potential freedom and the Custis family never regained their wealth.

After the Civil War ended there were those in the north who wanted Lee tried for crimes against the Federal government and they invented rumors about his mistreatment of slaves to press their point; unfortunately, some of those fabrications still surface today. However, the military and congressional inquiries at the time found no credible evidence that would impugn Lee’s character (other than involvement with slavery) and the new President, Andrew Johnson, refused to support any charges against Lee.

Robert E. Lee became the President of Washington College (later renamed Washington and Lee) for a nominal income; however, since he and his wife had lost all of their wealth in the War, including her interest in her family’s estate at Arlington, their financial situation was bleak for the rest of their lives.  A few of the former Custis slaves continued to live near the Lees and served the General’s family, primarily to help care for Mrs. Lee who suffered from severe and crippling arthritis.  But, by then, these freed people were there by choice.

In 1856, five years before the Civil War began, Lee’s ambiguity was evidenced by his words in a letter to a friend, in which he lamented the south’s dependence on slavery, and concluded with this profound statement, which also proved tragically prophetic; “This institution can only be changed by them (Northerners) through the agency of a Civil and Servile War.”

And, he was right!

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