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Mourners waved small paper American flags like this one, just 4 by 5 inches, as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train passed by . I.D. 2005.19.4

Mourning badges were mass produced and worn by the tens of thousands. I.D. 66.143.753


May 2005

Mourning Lincoln

Today, Abraham Lincoln is one of our most revered presidents. But it was not always so. During his presidency, Lincoln was widely hated, cruelly caricatured and greatly feared. Following his dramatic death just days after the end of the Civil War, a cause he had pursued so doggedly, Americans displayed some surprising attitudes.

Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on the evening of April 14, 1865, just five weeks after giving his second Presidential Inaugural Address. His assassin was John Wilkes Booth, a well known actor and Southern sympathizer. Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. the following morning. The news was telegraphed around the country and appeared in newspapers that same day.


MORE: Mourning Lincoln

Every town along the route of the funeral train was draped in black, even those where it did not stop. A large crowd gathered in Martius Square in Detroit to mourn the death of President Lincoln on April 25, 1865. I.D. 2002.0.20.14

Although Detroit was not visited by the Lincoln Special train, the city held a funeral procession honoring the memory of President Lincoln on April 25, 1865. The crepe-covered Phoenix fire engine no. 3 was an important part of the procession through the Detroit streets. I.D.

This memorial bookmark included a quotation from Lincoln: “I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by and if it be the pleasure of almighty God, to die by.” I.D. 45.67.1

Few Northerners agreed totally with the way Abraham Lincoln had fought the war or was thinking about post-war reconciliation. He was criticized from all sides: he was too vicious or too lenient, too hasty or too slow. He looked ridiculous, dressed even worse and was not a great public speaker. Lincoln was barely re-elected in 1864. He won largely because voters disliked General George McClellan more than they disliked Lincoln.

Still, when Lincoln was assassinated there was an unprecedented outpouring of grief in the North. Lincoln personified all those hundreds of thousands of Union dead. His sacrifice symbolized what nearly every Northern family had sacrificed. Northerners found comfort in public rituals of mourning and, in the process, came to regard Lincoln more highly in death than they ever did in life.

In areas of the South occupied by Union troops, Southerners kept their opinions to themselves. Many feared that Northerners would take revenge against them—and they were right, as several Southerners who celebrated Lincoln’s death were summarily executed by Union soldiers. Many Southerners privately expressed glee, feeling that Lincoln’s death was “divine retribution” against the man who had destroyed their liberties.

Other Southerners feared that Lincoln’s death was a bad thing for the South. They hated and feared Vice President Andrew Johnson even more than Lincoln. Johnson, from the slave state of Tennessee, had chosen to remain loyal to the Union when his state seceded at the start of the Civil War. One North Carolinian wrote that “old Abe with all his apeishness was a kindhearted man disposed to treat us generously.” He felt that Johnson was, on the other hand, a “renegade, demagogue and a drunkard.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis said that Johnson “was the embodiment of malignity toward the Southern people.”

Blacks uniformly lamented Lincoln’s assassination. They also feared that his death would mean their re-enslavement. Everywhere they could, blacks participated in the mourning of the death of their “savior” and “best friend on earth.” In New Orleans, ex-slaves contributed $16,000—a virtual fortune to freedmen—toward the erection of a statue memorializing Lincoln.

After his death, Lincoln’s body was embalmed and dressed in the same black suit Lincoln had worn at his second Inauguration. His body lay in state in the White House until a funeral service was held on April 19. On that day there was a grand procession up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where the body lay in state in the Rotunda and was viewed by thousands of mourners. On April 22, a nine-car funeral train began a 1,654 mile trip back to Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, traveling between 5 and 20 mph to allow mourners along the tracks to pay their respects.

The train, dubbed the Lincoln Special, stopped at major cities along the way. The first day it stopped in Baltimore and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and then 300,000 people viewed the body in Philadelphia. In New York City, over half a million people waited to view Lincoln’s body and over 75,000 marched in a huge funeral procession. From there, the train went to Albany and Buffalo, New York, and on to Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. The train then made its way to Indianapolis and Chicago, where the procession rivaled that in New York City. The funeral train arrived in Springfield on June 3 and Lincoln was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery the following day.

It is estimated that over a million people viewed Lincoln’s coffin and nearly 30 million, about 75 percent of the nation’s population, watched as the funeral train made its way through the countryside and small towns.

The way we mourn the death of a national figure tells us little about how they were viewed in their lifetime. It tells us much more about how we will remember them in the future. Lincoln had been the symbol of divisiveness, but his tragic death and the national ritual of the funeral train transformed him into a unifying figure. Had he not been assassinated, what would his reputation have been after the continued bitterness of reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War?

Waving small American flags as the train passed by, bowing their heads in mourning and marching behind the casket in an urban parade became experiences shared by millions. Millions more bought mementos of Lincoln testifying to the fact that they mourned him, missed him, and, in death, memorialized him as a national hero.

William S. Pretzer
Curator of Political History

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, began in the 1860s as a day to honor those who died fighting the Civil War. Revisit this era at Greenfield Village during Civil War Remembrance, May 28 through May 30, 2005.


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