Sunday, February 15, 2015
I flipped through my Midwest Living magazine this month and found something I had to mark on my calendar. This April will mark 150 years since our 16th president was assassinated. In remembrance, a replica of Abe Lincoln’s funeral train will roll through Springfield, IL and ML says that a “replica horse-drawn hearse will carry a replica coffin to Oak Ridge Cemetery on May 3, where a memorial ceremony honors Lincoln’s life.”
I researched the details of the funeral train when I was writing a story for my Traveling through Illinois: Stories of I-55 Landmarks and Landscapes between Chicago & St. Louis book. The newspaper’s description was so eloquent I had to quote them directly. When the railroad tracks separate from their long journey along the highway and veer away toward the center of Springfield, near mile marker 108 southbound, I imagine that mournful train bringing Lincoln home. Here is our entry for southbound mile 108:
108 Funeral Train
During your journey, you may have seen a passenger or freight train traveling between Chicago and Springfield on these rails paralleling I-55. On May 3, 1865, the most memorable train in Illinois’ history passed along this same route. President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train brought him home to Springfield. When Lincoln left Springfield on February 11, 1861, (the day before his 52nd birthday) he stood at the train depot and bid his friends a sad farewell.
Friends, no one who has never been placed in a like position can understand my feelings at this hour, nor the oppressive sadness I feel at this parting. For more than a quarter of a century I have lived among you, and during all that time I have received nothing but kindness at your hands. Here I have lived from my youth until now I am an old man. Here the most cherished ties of earth were assumed. Here all my children were born and here one of them lies buried. To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am… With these words I must leave you -- for how long I know not. Friends, one and all, I must now bid you an affectionate farewell.
Four years later, a train brought him back to the Springfield depot, once again among tearful friends. On April 21, 1865 the funeral train left Washington and began its 1700-mile journey to Springfield. Over 30 million mourners, with bowed heads and teary eyes, waited alongside the tracks for their moment to pay respects to him as the train passed. In the late evening of May 2, the train left Chicago and followed the future route of I-55. In Joliet, Bloomington, and Lincoln large silent crowds had gathered, and in the smaller towns hundreds more mourners lined the tracks, sometimes illuminating the route with torches held high and sometimes even paying tribute with funeral arches placed over the tracks. The town of Williamsville, which you’ve just passed, had an arch that said, “He has fulfilled his mission.”
On the morning of May 3, the train moved slowly into Springfield—taking two hours to go about a mile and a half. The New York Tribune reported that:
The pall-bearers, those old men, friends of his, lang syne, approach. The stillness among all the people is painful; but when the coffin is taken from the car, that stillness is broken, broken by sobs, and these are more painful than the stillness. The coffin is borne to the hearse; the hearse moves slowly, almost tenderly, away, followed by the mourners, and the pallbearers walk by the side. The cortege, more solemn than any that had gone before, reaches the States House, where he was wont to speak face to face with his neighbors – where at this hour those neighbors press to behold his face locked in death. All night they will pass by with eyes searching through tears for resemblances and recognition of the features they knew so well.
On this eve of President's Day, and in the month of his birth, I envision Abe through Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay in "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight":
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down...
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.