May 4, 1865 (Thursday)
The body of Abraham Lincoln had traveled over 1,600 miles, from Washington, to New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, to Chicago, and finally home to rest in Springfield, Illinois. The train carrying his remains chuffed into this small city the morning previous. His body was taken to the State House for a public viewing.
For twenty-four hours, his lifeless body greeted mourners and well-wishers by the thousands. In all, 27,000 had arrived in Springfield for the funeral.
The procession wound its way through town, from the State House, past the Lincoln Home to Oak Ridge Cemetery, where the final ceremonies commenced.
The procession itself was under the command of General Joe Hooker, who led three divisions of veterans before the hearse. Following came the citizens groups – Masons, Odd Fellows, firemen, and the like.
When the cemetery was reached, the body, only with that of his son, Willie, was placed in the tomb as a choir sang “The Dead March in Saul.” A prayer was delivered, and more dirges were sung, and a song just penned by L.M. Dawes was rendered.
Another prayer, and more solemn songs were had before a reading of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address was read. “As When the Cross was Bleeding,” still another dirge was sung, and finally Bishop Matthew Simpson delivered his oration.
“Fellow-citizens of Illinois, and of many parts of our entire Union,” he began. “Near the capital of this large and growing State, in the midst of this beautiful grove, and at the mouth of this vault which has just received the remains of our fallen chieftain, we gather to pay a tribute of respect, and to drop the tear of sorrow around the ashes of the mighty dead.”
Bishop Simpson spoke of Lincoln’s life in Springfield before the war, and of the long train ride from there to Washington, where he was nearly met by an assassin’s bullet.
Doubtless he expected to visit you all again, doubtless you expected to take him by the hand, and to feel the warm grasp which you had felt in other days, and to see the tall form walking among you, which you had delighted to honor in years past. But he was never permitted to return until he came with lips mute and silent, the frame encoffined, and a weeping nation following as his mourners. Such a scene as his return to you was never witnessed among the events of history.
The Bishop then addressed throngs before him, noting their differences, but touching upon their common thread – Abraham Lincoln.
If we glance at the procession which followed him, we see how the nation stood aghast, tears filled the eyes of many sunburnt faces—strong men, as they clasped the hands of their friends, were unable to find vent for their grief in words. Women and little children caught up the tidings as they ran through the land, and were melted into tears. The nation stood still. Men left their plows in the fields, and asked what the end should be.
The hum of manufactories ceased, and the sound of the hammer was not heard; busy merchants closed their doors, and in the exchange gold passed no more from hand to hand. Though three weeks have passed, the nation has scarcely breathed easily yet. A mournful silence is abroad upon the laud. Nor is this mourning confined to any one class or to any district of country.
Men of all political parties and of all religious creeds have united in paying this mournful tribute. The Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in New York and a Protestant minister walked side by side in the sad procession, and a Jewish Rabbi performed a part of the solemn services. Here are gathered around his tomb the representatives of the army and navy, senators, judges, governors, and officers of all the branches of the Government.
Here, too, are members of civic professions, with men and women, from the humblest as well as the highest occupations. Here and there, too, are tears as sincere and warm as any that dropr which come from the eyes of those whose kindred and whose race have been freed from their chains by him whom they mourn as their deliverer.
The oration then turned to war, and the expectations had before even Sumter. Could the Union be saved? But as the war continued and the tide finally turned toward the North, “this feeling was changed to one of joy.” Victory of neigh, and soon it would be over.
Bishop Simpson spoke then of Lincoln the man, of his traits, his kindness, his genius, his memory and even his love of geometry. It turned then to morality and the reasons for fighting.
There are moments which involve in themselves eternities. There are instants which seem to contain germs which shall develope and bloom forever. Such a moment came in the tide of time to our land when a question must be settled, affecting all the powers of the earth. The contest was for human freedom. Not for this republic merely. Nor for the Union simply, but to decide whether the people, as a people, in their entire majesty, were destined to be the government, or whether they were to be subject to tyrants or aristocrats, or to class-rule of any kind.
Then, but not finally, it rested all upon Lincoln’s legacy – the abolition of slavery.
But the great act of the mighty chieftain, on which his fame shall rest long after his frame shall moulder away, is that of giving freedom to a race. We have all been taught to revere the sacred characters. We have thought of Moses, of his power, and the prominence he gave to the moral law; how it lasts, and how his name towers high among the names in heaven, and how he delivered those millions of his kindred out of bondage. And yet we may assert that Abraham Lincoln, by his proclamation, liberated more enslaved people than ever Moses set free, and those not of his kindred. God has seldom given such a power or such an opportunity to man.
When other events shall have been forgotten; when this world shall have become a network of Republics; when every throne shall be swept from the face of the earth; when literature shall enlighten all minds; when the claims of humanity shall be recognized everywhere, this act shall be conspicuous on the pages of history. And we are thankful that God gave to Abraham Lincoln the decision and wisdom and grace to issue that proclamation, which stands high above all other papers which have been penned by uninspired men.
In closing, the Bishop disregarded Lincoln’s own words and desires, even using the late President’s pen to call for vengeance (even while denying that was what he was doing).
And now, my friends, in the words of the departed, “with malice towards none,” free from all feeling of personal vengeance, yet believing the sword must not be borne in vain, let us go forward in our painful duty. Let every man who was a Senator and Representative in Congress, and who aided in beginning this rebellion, and thus led to the slaughter of our sons and daughters, be brought to speedy and to certain punishment. Let every officer educated at public expense, and who, having been advanced to position, has perjured himself, and has turned his sword against the vitals of his country, be doomed to a felon’s death. This, I believe, is the will of the American people. Men may attempt to compromise and to restore these traitors and murderers to society again, but the American people will rise in their majesty and sweep all such compromises and compromisers away, and shall declare that there shall be no peace to rebels.
But then, this was a rebellion. The leaders and followers both were guilty of treason. It would make sense that the perpetrators of this treason be punished – and harshly. The first Congress established that those committing treason to be executed, and those who knew of treason and yet did not report it to spend seven years in prison.
Who among the Rebels, from Jefferson Davis to the lowliest private, could claim that their acts were not, in fact, treasonous? Then who among them should not have been executed?
But this was something different. This was not a single man or a cell. These were entire states. And did not George Washington pardon those who took part in the Whiskey Rebellion? Still, Bishop Simpson walked a fine line. The leaders, he held, should be dealt with harshly. The people, on the other hand, should be, as Lincoln wanted, let up easy.
But to the deluded masses we shall extend arms of forgiveness. We will take them to our hearts. We will walk with them side by side, as we go forward to work out a glorious destiny. The time will come when, in the beautiful words of him whose lips are now forever sealed, “the mystic cords of memory which stretch from every battlefield and from every patriot’s grave shall yield a sweeter music when touched by the angels of our better nature.”
And it was finished. The gates were closed on the tomb, and the sobbing crowds dispersed into the mild spring air.
In 1926, Carl Sandburg penned an exhaustive biography of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he placed a better mark upon the ending than any other might:
Evergreen carpeted the stone floor of the vault. On the coffin set in a receptacle of black walnut they arranged flowers carefully and precisely, they poured flowers as symbols, they lavished heaps of fresh flowers as though there could never be enough to tell either their hearts or his.
And the night came with great quiet.
And there was rest.
The prairie years, the war years, were over.
((Sources: The Lincoln Memorial: A Record of the Life, Assassination, and Obsequies edited by John Gilmary Shea (published in 1865); Bloody Crimes by James Swanson; Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years by Carl Sandburg.))