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This coffin is fit for a president; it'll be used at the reenactment of Abraham Lincoln's funeral

Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio
The replica coffin was unveiled recently at an event in Elsah, Ill. George Provenzano portrayed Washington undertaker Frank Sands who built Abraham Lincoln's coffin in 1865.

It’s 1865 once more in the Land of Lincoln.

On Sunday, an army of uniformed re-enactors, about 1,000 strong, will take to the streets of Springfield, Ill., in a somber spectacle recreating the grand funeral procession for President Abraham Lincoln who was buried in the city’s cemetery 150 years ago.

The funeral hymns will be mournful. Respectful. Played on Civil War-era trumpets and bugles.

Homes and businesses along the route will be draped with yards of black bunting, and thousands are expected to witness the elaborate tribute to America’s 16th president.

Credit Library of Congress
Last portrait sitting of Abraham Lincoln before he left Springfield for his inauguration.

Volunteers from across the nation are stepping up to make the event, organized by the nonprofit 2015 Lincoln Funeral Coalition, historically accurate. One group built a horse-drawn hearse like the one that carried Lincoln’s coffin. Another recreated the rail car that bore his body from Washington on its two-week journey that allowed an estimated 1 million Americans to bid farewell.

Local historians joined together to create the coffin, a replica of the one made by a Washington undertaker for the assassinated president.

Tim Tomlinson of Chautauqua, Ill., who served as chairman for the project, spent hours researching the coffin and organizing the project. He says nothing less would do.

“There’s a sense of history here that we’re participating in a really important event,’’ Tomlinson said. “That we’re honoring a man who is one of the most widely admired men of all time.”

Credit Library of Congress
1865 lithograph by Currier and Ives of Lincoln lying in state at New York City Hall.

This is no pine box

To appreciate the lengths to which the volunteers and re-enactors are going, consider the coffin.

It’s made of native walnut, though no one will see the fine wood because it has been completely covered with black wool broadcloth, as was the style of the day. Silver-plate stars and tacks replicate the original adornments, though they will be hidden under an 1865 U.S. flag much of the time. The interior is finished with white silk and satin, though no body will ever lie in it.

Tomlinson says people ask why they went to so much trouble: Couldn’t they have just built the box of plywood?

“It’s a fair question, and it’s one that’s asked of us all the time,’’ he said. “As people who have a respect for history, if we say this is a replica of the coffin that Lincoln’s body was carried in from Washington to Springfield then we can’t build it of plywood.”

They call it the Great Rivers Lincoln Coffin, and it is named for the historical societies of Grafton, Elsah and Chautauqua, Illinois, that pitched in to have it built.

The towns -- about 40 miles north of St. Louis -- are familiar to sightseers who travel the Great River Road. Tomlinson says they have no proof that Lincoln ever set foot in their towns, but they know he visited nearby Alton on legal business and for a famous political debate with Stephen Douglas during their 1858 U.S. Senate race. The historians surmise that Lincoln might have traveled the Mississippi that flows beside their communities on his way to Alton from Quincy in the north.

Tomlinson’s wife Rose and Mary Lillesve of the Grafton Historical Society learned of the need for a sesquicentennial coffin two years ago after listening to a presentation about the event.

“We had absolutely no idea what we were signing up for,’’ Rose Tomlinson said.

They used historical photographs, books and newspaper stories to determine the design. Though other replicas exist, including one at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Tomlinson believes his group has produced the most accurate coffin. It is narrower -- just 18 inches wide -- which they confirmed by measuring the shoulders of a replica of Lincoln’s overcoat, provided by Brooks Brothers of New York, the president’s tailor.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Tim Tomlinson tells a gathering in Elsah, Ill., about the research his group did for the Great Rivers Coffin Project.

The group unveiled the coffin several weeks ago at a meeting in Elsah, which was packed with local residents who listened intently as Tomlinson described the project.

“So many people are so interested in Abraham Lincoln, and they have such respect for him it’s been very exciting working on it,’’ said Rose Tomlinson.

After the last funeral hymn echoes over Oak Ridge Cemetery on Sunday, Tomlinson says his group will start looking for a museum to exhibit their Lincoln project, and they plan to write a book detailing their historical research.

The coffin would have cost about $35,000 to build, but much of the materials and labor were donated by businesses that appreciated the significance of the project. Brooks Brothers donated the black cloth, and the Batesville Casket Company of Indiana, did the finishing work. Mosby Woodwork of Grafton crafted the wood shell.

Tomlinson said the project led to some interesting phone conversations.

“How many telephone calls are you going to receive where on the other end of the line someone says, ‘We’re building a coffin, and I think you might be interested in this,’ ’’ he said.

Did you know? Nearly 1 million people a year visit Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery, the burial site of Abraham Lincoln. At 365 acres, it’s the largest municipal cemetery in Illinois.

Credit Library of Congress
Burial at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
Don Marsh discusses the 150th anniversary commemoration events in Springfield, Ill. concerning President Abraham Lincoln's funeral with Katie Spindell, Tim Tomlinson, Ian Hunt, PJ Staab, and Larry Werline.

This could only happen in Springfield 

Katie Spindell, chairwoman of the sesquicentennial event, says the coffin builders have done a remarkable job.

“I’m always touched and amazed by the thoughtfulness and the interest of all of these people who are doing such extraordinary things,’’ she said.

The weekend’s events will also include military encampments by Civil War reenactors who are coming from across the country, and musical and theatrical performances at various venues. About 1,200 reenactors have signed up to participate in the funeral ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday. Their uniforms must pass muster with the “uniform police” who will judge their historical accuracy.

“The procession is the most historically accurate part of this, and they have to be in appropriate clothing for that,’’ Spindell said. “People who come in period costume and have not registered can stand along the street. Spectators are not required to be in period clothing.’’

An estimated 150,000 people made their way to Springfield in 1865 to pay respects to the man who abolished slavery and held the nation together during the Civil War. But Spindell has no idea how many to expect this weekend.

“There’s no way to know because it’s never been done before,’’ she said. “There’s no precedence for this. I would say we’ll have tens of thousands. You need to call me on May 4th, and I’ll give you an idea of how many people were there.’’

The events will go on, rain or shine.

“People ask me, ‘What are we going to do if it rains?’ I say, ‘You are going to get wet,’ ‘’ she said.

The organization has raised about $300,000, much of it in in-kind donations of goods and services, and is still seeking donations to make up for the loss of a $75,000 state grant that was denied after Gov. Bruce Rauner froze discretionary state spending, Spindell said.

“Can we still put this on? Yes. Are we? Yes. Is it difficult? Beyond words,’’ she said. “I was not expecting it, and it was incredibly difficult to hear. We had to turn ourselves around and see what we could do.’’

Spindell said Springfield has been supportive; residents appreciate their city’s role in history.

“This event can’t take place anywhere else in the world,’’ she said.

Did you know? Springfield’s population was under 15,000 in 1865. Residents were asked to open their homes to strangers because there were so few inns to accommodate the estimated 150,000 people who descended on the city for the funeral.


Credit Library of Congress
The hearse used in the procession was provided by a St. Louis livery.

A St. Louis connection

St. Louisans who attend the event should note the hearse that’s been recreated by Staab Family Livery of Springfield and wood craftsmen from the Blue Ox School for Veterans in Eureka, Calif.

It’s a detailed replica of the carriage owned by Lynch and Arnot of St. Louis that carried Lincoln’s coffin in the funeral procession. According to news accounts of the day, an appropriate hearse could not be found in Springfield. Two silver medallions with the initials “A. L.” that had been attached for the funeral were removed afterward. One of them is owned by the St. Louis Mercantile Library, now located at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It’s currently on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The hearse itself was destroyed in a fire in 1887.

Credit Library of Congress
The Nashville locomotive that pulled the Lincoln funeral train.


The Lincoln funeral train

The funeral recreation marks the last of the major events marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington came just five days after the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Va. Nearly 650,000 Americans died during the four years of war, but Lincoln had held the Union together.

The national outpouring of grief was staggering, even by today’s standards, says Ian Hunt, a historian at the Lincoln presidential library in Springfield.

The Lincoln funeral train stopped in 13 cities for public viewings. In Springfield alone, nearly 75,000 people filed past his coffin during the 24 hours that it was on display in the legislative chamber of the old state capitol.

Hunt isn’t surprised that people are going to such great lengths 150 years later.

“Lincoln is one of those rare figures in history. He doesn’t appeal just on a local level. He doesn’t appeal just on a state level. He doesn’t only appeal on a national level. He’s truly a global figure,’’ Hunt said.

The train traveled  in reverse order the route Lincoln took from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration in 1861, with just a few alterations, Hunt said.

“The biggest was taking him up to Chicago, and Chicago had a lot of meaning for the president,’’ he said. “It was in 1860 at the Republican convention in Chicago at which he was nominated. He spent time in Chicago. He had law clients in Chicago. He had argued cases in Chicago.’’

Credit Library of Congress
African American clergymen led Lincoln's horse during the procession in Springfield.

In small towns along the route, people would gather at rail stations just to see the train. At night, they would keep bonfires glowing for light and warmth, and  choruses would sing hymns as the train passed by.

“The president had so many unique attributes that all seemed to come together in 1860,’’ Hunt said. “He was not a man of great wealth so he was seen as a man of the people. He was a middle-class attorney here in Springfield. I’m hard-pressed to think of another president, even in the modern era, that could match an eloquence that Mr. Lincoln had, which is even more remarkable when you consider that this was a man who had less than one year of formal schooling.’’

In 1863, Lincoln abolished slavery in the Confederate states, but in his funeral procession African Americans marched at the end, separately from white mourners. An exception: Two African American clergymen from Springfield led Lincoln’s horse in the procession.

Lincoln’s coffin was opened for the public viewings, Hunt said. A team of embalmers accompanied the president’s body, and he was embalmed a number of times. His burial was moved up by two days -- to May 4, 1865 – because embalmers were concerned that his body was degrading faster than they expected.

Hunt believes the casket was open because the mourners  needed to see the president's body.

“Even in death they needed to lay their eyes upon him so that they could have that sense of closure,’’ Hunt said.

Did you know? Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife, did not travel to Springfield for his burial. She was too grief-stricken to attend any of the memorial services for her husband, including the one held in the White house.

A complete list of sesquicentennial events is available on the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Coalition website. 

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Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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