Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Two Journeys of Abraham Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States, made two railroad journeys between his home in Illinois and Washington, D.C. One in 1861 as the President-elect and the other, in the opposite direction, as the victim of the bullet of assassin John Wilkes Booth. The second trip has been extensively covered; details of the first trip are less well known.

Lincoln was elected in November of 1860 after a bruising presidential campaign involving four candidates. He won, but with less than 40 percent of the vote he was hardly the people's choice. Of a total of some 4.7 million votes, the three candidates opposing Lincoln rolled up nearly a million more votes than he did. Until the 20th Amendment took effect in 1936 and changed the inauguration date to January 20, every four years there was a long delay between the election in November and the inauguration in March. With slavery a bitter issue, the four-month interval after the 1860 election changed history. While Lincoln waited to take office, Southern states made good on their threat to secede. The country began to fall apart.

An Affectionate Farewell
The journey that would take him to Washington began on February 11, 1861, at Springfield, Illinois. A somber crowd gathered in a cold drizzle to see Abraham Lincoln off to Washington. He told them, prophetically, "I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return." He concluded with, "I bid you an affectionate farewell." For the next twelve days the presidential train moved from city to city across the country in an itinerary designed to showcase the President-elect and his family. He met the governors and legislators of five states; he delivered more that 20 speeches in key cities and shook the hands of thousands. The grueling journey had a larger purpose: to encourage support for the Union and strengthen the loyalty of the people of the northern states.

Lincoln's route covered 1,904 miles over eighteen different railroads. His train of three, sometimes four, cars went from Springfield to Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. After a detour to Pittsburgh, it headed for Cleveland and then Albany, N.Y. In the town of Westfield, south of Buffalo, Lincoln told the crowd, "I have a correspondent in this place, and if she is present I would like to see her. Her name is Grace Bedell." A young girl was brought to the platform. Lincoln explained, "She wrote me that she thought I would be better looking if I wore whiskers." Lincoln, who had been letting his beard grow for a month, said to the little girl, "You see, I let these whiskers grow for you, Grace." Then he kissed her. The crowd loved it, and The New York Tribune story was headlined, "Old Abe Kissed by Pretty Girl." He would continue to wear a beard, with only the upper lip shaved, for the few years remaining to him.

South Carolina had left the Union the day before Christmas in 1860. Six other "cotton states" of the Deep South followed. After stops at Rochester, Syracuse and Utica, as the Presidential train neared Albany on February 18, ominous news came over the wires to Lincoln: Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as President of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama.

In Albany, the carriages carrying the Lincoln party to the Capitol passed a theater where 22-year-old tragedian John Wilkes Booth and a stock company were acting in a play, "The Apostate." The paths of Lincoln and Booth would cross again four fateful years later. From the steps of the old Capitol building, for the first time since he had begun the trip, Lincoln admitted he was weary. He ended his brief speech with, "I have neither the voice nor the strength to address you at any greater length."

A Stop at Peekskill
With Joseph Hudson of Peekskill serving as conductor, Lincoln's train traveled down the Hudson Valley on February 19, making scheduled stops at large cities. Peekskill was only a small village, but it was home to an old friend, attorney William Nelson, for whom the city's Nelson Avenue is named. The two had met in Washington in 1847 as freshman congressmen in the 30th Congress. A veteran member of that Congress was a florid-faced little man with delicate sideburns, 80-year-old John Quincy Adams, from 1825 to 1829 the nation's President. After he left the White House, his Massachusetts district repeatedly elected him to the House of Representatives.

When first elected to Congress in 1846, William Nelson, 62, was already a well-seasoned political veteran; Lincoln was a 34-year-old neophyte. Whig party politics kept Lincoln from running again, and his replacement was defeated in 1848. Locally popular, Nelson was re-elected to a second term. At Peekskill, the President-elect mounted a baggage wagon from which to speak and was joined by William Nelson. Cadets from the Peekskill Military Academy formed a hollow square around the impromptu platform. The Highland Democrat, a local newspaper that had not supported Lincoln, estimated the crowd at about 1,500.

On the bluff above the station, the Jefferson Guards had placed a cannon and fired a Presidential salute of 21 guns. Nelson's welcoming speech closed with, "You have our hopes and prayers that your administration will prove as prosperous and happy to our beloved country, and as honorable to yourself as the difficulties and dangers which now threaten you are great." The tall bearded man in a black suit thanked the citizens of Peekskill for their warm reception. His response was extemporaneous and short--only 137 words in all:

"Ladies and gentlemen: I have but a moment to stand before you, to listen and return your kind greeting. I thank you for this reception and for the pleasant manner in which it is tendered to me by our mutual friend [William Nelson]. I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties which lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail; but without your sustaining hands I am sure that neither I, nor any other man, can hope to surmount these difficulties. I trust that in the course I shall pursue I shall be sustained not only by the party that elected me, but by the patriotic people of the whole country."

The village of Peekskill and the town of Cortlandt responded generously throughout the protracted years of the war that followed; 690 of their citizens served in the Union forces. Among those who watched the Lincoln train fade into the distance were two Yale graduates, newly minted lawyers James W. Husted (Class of 1854) and Chauncey M. Depew (Class of 1856). Both would become active in Republican politics, Depew as a United States senator and Husted as a longtime speaker of the N.Y. State Assembly.

A Cool Reception in New York City
Lincoln's train reached New York and the Hudson River Railroad's depot at 30th Street and Tenth Avenue at three p.m. His waiting carriage--an open barouche that had transported the visiting Prince of Wales only a few months before--was escorted to the Astor House, opposite City Hall Park, by a mounted platoon of the newly formed Metropolitan Police.

New Yorkers, largely Democratic in their sentiments, had cast 62 percent of their votes for candidates other than Lincoln, but streets and buildings were crowded with spectators. Across from the Astor House, Barnum's Museum, at the corner of Chatham Street (now called Park Row) and Broadway, was decked out in bright welcoming banners and flags. Atop a horse-drawn Broadway omnibus mired in gridlocked traffic, 41-year-old Walt Whitman, freelance journalist and former editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, watched as Lincoln alighted from the coach and looked out over a crowd of some 40,000.

Whitman was struck by the "sulky, unbroken silence," he remembered. "I had, I say, a capital view of it all, and especially of Mr. Lincoln, his look and gait--his perfect composure and coolness--his unusual and uncouth height, his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat push'd back on his head, dark-brown complexion, seam'd and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, black, bushy head of hair, disproportionately long neck, and his hands held behind him as he stood observing the people. He look'd with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces return'd the look with similar curiosity."

At eight the next morning, Lincoln was driven to a Fifth Avenue mansion for breakfast with a hundred supporters, the city's most prosperous merchants. One guest remarked to Lincoln about the number of millionaires present. "Oh, indeed, is that so?" Lincoln responded. "Well, that's quite right. I'm a millionaire myself. I got a minority of a million in the votes last November."

During the rest of the day, Lincoln met at City Hall with Mayor Fernando Wood, a Democrat, who gave him a chilly reception. Fearing the interruption of the lucrative trade in dry goods that would come with a conflict, the Mayor had already suggested that New York become a free city, separate from the Union and able to trade with every section of the country. Mrs. Lincoln visited Barnum's Museum and received ladies at the nearby Astor House.

That night Lincoln attended a reception, followed by an elaborate dinner and a performance of "Un Ballo in Maschera" ("A Masked Ball"). Giuseppe Verdi's new opera of love, murder and betrayal in high society was performed at the Academy of Music on 14th Street. Lincoln wore black kid gloves--instead of the white gloves then in style for wear at the opera. Newspapers the next day poked fun at the only pair of black gloves in a packed auditorium filled with white gloves.

The following day he traveled to New Jersey by ferry to catch a train for Washington. In Philadelphia, he was warned by Allan Pinkerton, a railroad detective who would later create and head up Lincoln's Secret Service, "Beyond the shadow of a doubt there exists a plot to assassinate you." Like New York, Baltimore was a largely unfriendly city, and much of Maryland was sympathetic to the South. From Harrisburg, Lincoln was spirited back to Philadelphia and on to Washington in a berth in a sleeping car.

Through superhuman effort, for four years Lincoln managed to pilot the states loyal to the union to a hard-fought victory. But he made bitter enemies in the process. Following his second inauguration on March 4, 1865, Lincoln would serve only one month and eleven days of his next term. With the bloody Civil War behind him, he and his wife had decided to attend the theater on April 14, five days after Lee's surrender. The play, "Our American Cousin," a comedy on tour after its successful New York run, starred actress Laura Keene. In the middle of the performance, Lincoln was struck by a .44 caliber lead bullet from the single-shot derringer of disgruntled actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Fate intervened, however. When Booth attempted to leap to the stage from the Presidential box, he caught one of his spurs in the decorative bunting and broke his leg in the fall, hobbling him.

Black-bordered newspapers all over the country the next day carried the word that Lincoln had been shot the night before at Ford's Theater on 14th Street in Washington and had died in Petersen's boarding house across the street. The first doctor to attend Lincoln in the theater was young-looking 23-year-old Charles A. Leale, of New York, assistant surgeon, U.S. Volunteers, who had been in the audience. Graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical College only two months before, Dr. Leale was the surgeon in charge of the commissioned officers' ward of the Army General Hospital in Washington. He quickly recognized that Lincoln's wound was mortal and did everything to make the dying President comfortable in his final hours. A nearly forgotten player in the Lincoln drama, Dr. Leale later practiced medicine in New York City, not retiring until he was 86. He died in 1932 at the age of 90 and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Yonkers, N.Y.

Another Journey Through a Valley in Mourning
More widely documented is Lincoln's second passage through the Hudson Valley. Exactly four years, two months and six days after his Peekskill speech, the special funeral train bearing the body of the murdered President paused at Peekskill.

The outpouring of grief by the nation was of monumental proportions. On Friday, April 21, Lincoln's embalmed body left Washington in a nine-coach funeral train. Also on board for the trip back to Illinois was the exhumed casket of his son Willie, dead in the White House of typhoid fever only three years before at the age of eleven. Except for the omission of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and the addition of Chicago, the journey would duplicate in reverse Lincoln's trip east in 1861. A ferry brought the funeral party from New Jersey to Manhattan, passing ships in the harbor draped in black muslin. The ferry docked at Desbrosses Street, and Lincoln's casket was placed in a glass-sided hearse drawn by six gunmetal-gray horses.

Brooklynite Walt Whitman, changed by his three-year stint as a volunteer worker in Washington military hospitals, had crossed the East River by ferry to Manhattan. Walking up Broadway past shuttered stores draped in black, he recorded the mood of Gotham. It began to rain toward noon, he recalled. "Black clouds driving overhead. Lincoln's death--black, black, black--as you look toward the sky--long broad black like great serpents."

At the head of the procession was General John Adams Dix (for whom Fort Dix in New Jersey was later named) and troops of the Seventh Regiment. A German choral society marched, singing a funeral ode. The line of march was across Canal Street and down Broadway to City Hall, where the body lay in state. City businesses closed for the day; the courts adjourned. At the 19th Street Synagogue, the Rev. J.J. Lyons led the Jewish prayer for the dead, the first time such a ceremony was held in the United States for a non-Jew. On the following day, Tuesday, April 25, a 16-horse funeral car followed 18 bands as they marched slowly up Broadway from City Hall to 14th Street and Union Square, then up Fifth Avenue to 30th Street and across to the Hudson River Railroad depot.

Arrangements for the funeral were blemished by the decision of the Democrat-controlled Common Council to exclude blacks from the march. Despite the snub, the city's blacks held their own tribute featuring Frederick Douglass at the Cooper Institute. The Republican Union League Club protested the exclusion of black mourners to Secretary of War Stanton. A small token contingent of "freedmen," some in blue Union uniforms, was finally allowed to march at the rear of the procession.More widely documented was Lincoln's second passage through the Hudson Valley. The official timetable for the Lincoln funeral train shows only three stops in the Hudson Valley: Peekskill (3 minutes), Poughkeepsie (15 minutes) and Hudson (3 minutes)--although other stops may have been made to take on water or fuel. A "pilot engine" ran ten minutes ahead of the funeral train, which consisted of a locomotive named "Union" and seven coaches.

The train left at 4 p.m. and headed for Albany at a slow speed. As the train passed, bells and cannon and guns sounded. From the windows of the train, the funeral party could see an endless tapestry of bonfires and flickering torches held by clustered mourners.Exactly four years, two months and six days after his Peekskill speech, the special funeral train bearing the body of the murdered President paused briefly at Peekskill.

Towns and villages in the Hudson Valley outdid themselves in paying tribute to the fallen President. "Yonkers mourns with the Nation" read a banner decorated with crepe, women nearby waved their handkerchiefs while tears streamed down their cheeks. Seven thousand persons assembled at the station in Irvington with its draped inscriptions, "The Honored Dead" and "We Mourn the Nation's Loss." At Tarrytown, American flags arched over the railroad tracks. Under a flowered dome of black velvet stood two dozen young women in white gowns.

The Lincoln funeral train with its coffin passed under Sing Sing's impressively tall memorial arch of draped flags spanning the tracks of the Hudson River Railroad. Thirty-six stars ranged across the arch marked the states of the Union. Amid dark-clothed ranks of mourners stood a woman impersonating the white-robed Goddess of Liberty, with a garland of evergreens around her neck. According to the Sing Sing Republican, dated April 27, 1865, "Detective James Jackson, connected with the Sing Sing Prison, was allowed to get on the funeral train and see the body of Lincoln when the train stopped for water."

Exactly four years, two months and six days after his Peekskill speech, the special funeral train bearing the body of the murdered President paused briefly at Peekskill. The village displayed a large portrait of Lincoln encircled with roses, and red, white and blue tassels. Firemen and a company of Highland Grays with drooped flags paraded before a large crowd. Almost 87 years later, Mrs. Alida Hutchinson, the last survivor of those who heard Abraham Lincoln speak and who saw the funeral train, died in Peekskill January 26, 1952. She was in her 96th year.

The entire student body and professors of the United States Military Academy at West Point crossed the river and assembled at Garrison's Landing on the opposite shore. A thousand gray-caped cadets stood at present arms with guns reversed, their muzzles pointing down. At Cold Spring a young woman stood, her face black-veiled; at her right, a kneeling boy soldier; at her left, a kneeling sailor boy. Fishkill decorated the motto "In God We Trust" with evergreen boughss. Also crowding both sides of the track were delegations from Newburgh, New Paltz, and other parts of the apple country across the river. At Poughkeepsie the throng stretched far from the depot and railroad tracks. Thousands stood, the men with uncovered heads, hundreds of women and children with miniature mourning flags, and a cornet band from the National Business College. Minute guns fired at each of the fifteen minutes during which the train had stopped. A committee of women was granted permission to enter the funeral car and lay a wreath of roses on the coffin.

As the funeral train chugged northward through the darkness, another drama was being played out in rural Virginia. Federal troops were closing in on John Wilkes Booth, hampered in his flight by the telltale broken leg he sustained at Ford's Theater. Near the village of Bowling Green, he was cornered in a burning tobacco shed and shot through the neck by Union Sgt. Boston Corbett. Dragged from the shed before the flames reached him, he asked for a glass of water. "Tell my mother I died for my country," he begged. He was carried to a nearby house and placed on the porch, where he muttered, "I thought I did for the best." Booth asked his captors to raise his hands so he could look at them. Staring at his hands, he spoke his last words, "Useless! Useless!" and expired.

At other stations north to Albany were crowds and mourning displays: at Staatsburgh, an ingenious circle of light; at Rhinebeck and Barrytown, torch formations; at Tivoli, lighted lamps; across the river at Catskill, huge bonfires and naval vessels on the river with flags at half-mast; at Hudson, booming guns at one-minute intervals and two hotels with all windows illuminated and draped in black. The train arrived at East Albany at 10:55 p.m. It was a journey the Hudson Valley would long remember.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 9, 2007.

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