Abraham Lincoln died, according to press reports, with a smile on his face. “I had never seen upon the president’s face an expression more genial and pleasing,” wrote one New York Times reporter. In the following days, the public fascination with Lincoln’s physical appearance continued in death as it had in life. People clamored to see the dearly departed president for one last time.
And so, after a one week public viewing period in the capital, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton organized an elaborate funeral
procession that would take Lincoln’s body for public viewing in 11 other US cities. The casket traveled by train, winding up in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
It would be an almost two week long journey, something made possible by new embalming practices introduced during the Civil War. As it turned out, those practices weren’t advanced enough to keep Lincoln’s body from noticeably deteriorating over the course of those two weeks. But still, Americans came out in droves. An estimated one million people saw the body, and seven million saw the train pass by— a number about equivalent to a third of the entire population of the Union at the time.
We sat down with Richard Wightman Fox, a historian at the University of Southern California, to talk about the spectacle of the funeral train and what it meant to Americans in the spring of 1865.
On the train’s youngest viewers
“Everybody wanted their children to see all of this. They wanted to pass this event on through time. And by bringing their kids, making sure that they saw the body– also, this is true of blacks and whites in all of these Northern cities. And when they are interviewed by journalists at the time, they keep saying I want my children to see this.”
On the race dynamics of the crowds that gathered
“I think in East coast cities— Baltimore, Philadelphia, especially— there was already a well established black presence out in public. But in the Midwest, especially, one gets evidence in several places in which black people say at the time this is new and different. We have never been welcomed into public space as we have now been welcomed in these Lincoln funeral events.
Black men especially say in print in 1865, before this, we always felt we were just inviting a beating to go out in public. But here, in the funeral events, we have been welcomed. It’s a completely different atmosphere in those places.
And we have lots of evidence from the actual funeral episodes that black people were over-represented, according to their numbers in the population, in the crowds walking by the body. And they also mourned differently. They mourn volubly. And white people who talk to reporters say, often, we wish we, white people, could show our emotions about this as easily as our black neighbors do.”
On how Lincoln’s idea of a “body politic” lived on in the inclusiveness of the funeral tour
“Lincoln is the man who pushed hardest to defend his idea of a body politic, in which there was no distinction between the leader and the led. He wanted everybody to feel they were equal.
And therefore, he called himself the representative man of this particular moment when he was chosen as the chief magistrate. He wasn’t better or superior, he was just temporarily the leader. And that body politic implicitly, by the end of his life, included African Americans. That’s what led John Wilkes Booth to kill him. It was that Lincoln was going to get rid of the hierarchy between monarch and people and he was going to get rid of the hierarchy between white and black.”
On how the trip helped confirm Lincoln’s place in history
“It’s certainly a spectacle, and it’s a spiritual as well as secular event in the sense that people are still trying to figure out what
this man meant to them. They realized that the assassination had catapulted him into a new stratosphere of importance for them. And he became, in effect, cosmically important, not just a national hero.
But he would have been that without the assassination. He would have been this Republican hero who gave up his body. He withered in office, beyond anything that anyone had witnessed before. We have photography now recording his facial wrinkles, the famous Alexander Gardner image of him in February 1865, looking like he’s really ready to drop. And people of the time said that— they said he looks horrible. We are afraid he’s going to die in office just of fatigue.”
On what Lincoln might have thought of the public display of his body
“If there was a one person in 19th century America who would not have minded his body deteriorating in public, I think it would’ve been Lincoln. His whole point, this zealous Republican wanted to be with the people always. He jumped into crowds. And I think myself that by the end of his life, he had demonstrated, especially with his walk through Richmond on April 4th, 1865, that he was not to be taken as a coward in any respect.
He would gladly give up his life if that’s what it took to protect the Republic. And for him, the Republic meant a place where leaders congregate openly with the led. And so, here, after death, he, I think, would have been very glad to be treated as a corpse in public and for his body to go right down into dust. I think for him that would have been almost the perfect denouement.”