On April 21, 1865, a train carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln and bearing the dead president’s picture affixed above the cattle guard on the front left Washington for a 180-city, seven-state journey of more than 1,600 miles. The route, through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and then west through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, was a close approximation, in reverse, of the journey that brought Lincoln to Washington from Springfield when he first assumed the presidency.
Accompanying his body were some 300 people, including an embalmer, and strangely, the disinterred body of Lincoln’s son Willie, who had succumbed at age 11 to typhoid fever and would be reburied next to his father in the family plot in Springfield.
At major cities, the corpse was unloaded from the train, placed on a wagon draped in black which was sometimes drawn by white horses, and boosted onto a suitable platform for viewing in a city hall or a state house — for anywhere from a few hours to 24.
“We marched in by fours, and divided into twos on each side of the casket, and passed directly through the Hall,” Mattie Jackson, a former slave, remembered of the viewing in Indianapolis. “It was very rainy, nothing but umbrellas were to be seen in any direction. The multitude were passing in and out from eight o’clock in the morning till four o’clock in the afternoon. His body remained until twelve o’clock in the evening, many distinguished persons visiting it, when amid the booming of cannon, it moved on its way to Springfield, its final resting place.”
When done in one city, the train set out for the next, again conveying the corpse from its state of repose, back to the carriage and once again onto the train amid dirges and drumrolls, and then onward, over and over again.
By all accounts it was a grand and solemn sight, one being recreated in many cities this year in honor of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. “He was thus transported into immortality,” historian Merrill D. Peterson wrote in “Lincoln in American Memory.”
There’s been nothing comparable to Lincoln’s final odyssey. It made the unreal real for millions, some 90 years before the advent of television.
But it was also before the advent of refrigeration and Lincoln’s body did not fare well. It “held up well through the first stops of the funeral train: Baltimore, Harrisburg and Philadelphia,” writes Richard Wightman Fox in his acclaimed new book, “Lincoln’s Body.” But “the tide began turning for Lincoln’s corpse after the marathon viewing in Manhattan” where the “body was exposed to the air for twenty-three straight hours.” After that, he writes, quoting the New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant, it was no longer “the genial, kindly face of Abraham Lincoln” but “a ghastly shadow.”
“Even those who stole an extra moment or lined up more than once might come away disappointed,” says Martha Hodes in her equally fascinating book, “Mourning Lincoln.”
“The fact was,” Hodes writes, “the one face the mourners had waited so long to see was faded and decayed, powdered and worked over. By the time the funeral train got to New York, the discoloration was evident, with viewers describing it either as ‘wan and shrunken’ or ‘shrunken and dark.'”
Under the circumstances, and because of the crowds, some would not go. Hodes writes: “When William Webster lined up in Philadelphia at eight in the morning, he was told he wouldn’t reach the coffin until three that afternoon. ‘I am glad I did not go on,’ he wrote to his brother. ‘I shall remember Mr. L. as I saw him in Trenton, with that bright smile playing in his face.'”
“To those who had not seen Mr. Lincoln in life,” said the New York Times as it reported the viewing of the body at City Hall, “the view may be satisfactory; but to those who were familiar with his features, it is far otherwise. The color is leaden, almost brown; the forehead recedes sharp and clearly marked; the eyes deep sunk and close held upon the sockets; the cheek bones, always high are unusually prominent; the cheeks hollowed and deep pitted; the unnaturally thin lips shut tight and firm as if glued together; and the small chin, covered with slight beard, seemed pointed and sharp. The body is dressed in black, the white turned-over collar and the clean white gloves make a strong contrast to the black velvet cloth and leaden-hued features. This is all that remains of the man whom goodness made great and whose rest in the hearts of the people is forever and abiding, It will not be possible, despite the effection of the embalming, to continue much longer the exhibition, as the constant shaking of the body aided by the exposure to the air, and the increasing of dust, has already undone much of the…workmanship, and it is doubtful if it will be decreed wise to tempt dissolution much further.”
But people saw what they wanted to see.
In Buffalo, Lincoln’s face was reported by the Buffalo Morning Express to be only “slightly discolored” after “after some preparation by the embalmer and undertaker.” And he still had a “life-like expression” and “that same kind, benignant look that characterized the ‘People’s President’ when alive.”
And most people had not “seen Mr. Lincoln in life,” as the New York Times had put it.
Mattie Jackson, for one, was unfazed. Lincoln’s picture, clipped from a newspaper, had hung in her mother’s room while enslaved in Missouri. When the master of the house saw it there, Mattie would later recall, he beat her mother and sent her to the “trader’s yard for a month as punishment.”
Before the war ended, Mattie, 17, escaped on a river boat to Indiana — “on free soil for the first time in my life” — and made her way to Indianapolis. Lincoln stayed on her mind.
About seven months later, when he was assassinated, she found it hard to confront the reality of his death. It was “like an electric shock to my soul,” she recalled.
Only when she viewed his body in Indianapolis, was she certain. “I could not feel convinced of his death until I gazed upon his remains, and heard the last roll of the muffled drum and the farewell boom of the cannon.” Only then, she said, was she “convinced that though we were left to the tender mercies of God, we were without a leader.”