- Historic Sites
Had there been a Warren Commission exactly a century ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot, its report might have read like the somber, moving, and impressively researched book from which the following narrative is taken
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
The lid was hinged to fold back a third of the way down, so as to expose the President’s lace and shoulders. In the gloom of the great East Room the people who came to pay their last respects to Lincoln were directed by officers to the foot of the catafalque; there they divided into single lines on each side, mounted the step, and walked along beside the coffin, pausing to look down at the face for an average of one second each.
At 5:30 P.M. the public was shut out, and lor the next two hours special privileged groups were admitted to the East Room. Then carpenters entered in force; they had a big job to do before the funeral the next morning. They began to build a series of steps arranged like an amphitheatre, beginning low about five feet away from the catafalque and growing higher back to the East Room walls, so that everyone invited could have a clear view of the dead president and the clergymen conducting the funeral.
Extra trains, crowded to the platforms, had been running into the city of Washington for the last two days, and people had been driving in from towns and villages in carriages or buggies or even hay wagons—the authorities figured that 6,000 people slept Tuesday night on floors of houses or hotels (Willard’s Hotel turned away 400 applicants) or in their vehicles or on blankets spread on whatever grass plots they could find. Washington was bursting—there were 100,000 human beings in the city, and 60,000 of them were prepared to watch a procession of 40,000 following the White House services on Wednesday.
At sunrise on the morning of the funeral the people who had been sleeping were waked by the booming of cannon in all the forts encircling the city, with a counterpoint of tolling bells in church towers and firehouses. It was a radiantly beautiful day—warm, cloudless, with a bright sun—and as early as eight o’clock there were throngs on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House and under the trees of Lafayette Square Park across the way. The heavy black draping all across the great front of the mansion contrasted with the spring gaiety of the bright green lawns and all the trees in blossom.
Every house and store in Washington was shut tight for the day. The rich had sent messengers to other cities to buy mourning decorations when the supply in the capital gave out, but even the poorest shanties had their bits of black cloth tacked up. And it was these humble, fluttering shreds that made people choke up. The big displays only filled them with awe.
By eleven o’clock, tickets were being presented and the majority of those invited entered the funeral chamber through the Green Room. In the Blue Room, the adjoining oval parlor, appeared the great names. It was crowded almost full with the late President’s personal cavalry guard from Ohio, who had ridden their matched black horses wherever Mr. Lincoln went. A path two and a half feet wide was opened in their midst, and along this path and through the Green Room passed General Grant, Admiral Farragut, the Supreme Court justices, and the diplomatic corps. At two minutes to twelve President Tohnson and his friend Preston King entered, followed by former Vice President Hamlin and the Cabinet: for everyone, there was the shock of Seward’s absence and the thought of how near they had come to standing beside two coffins today.
Lincoln’s complexion had always been dark, but now, instead of being even darker, it was unpleasingly lighter, a grayish putty color. Around his mouth he still had the faintly happy expression that those who watched him die saw come over his face a few minutes after he stopped breathing. They said it resembled “an effort of life,” as though he really had found peace. The trouble was that the smile was froxen on a face that was unfamiliar in its unresponsive stoniness. Gone was the mobility that so entranced anyone who had watched him in life: the magic lighting-up of the features that had made a plain man handsome when his mind struck sparks.
At each corner ol the catafalque was an officer of a special guard of honor. At the foot of the coffin sat Robert Lincoln, along with Ninian W. Edwards and Clark M. Smith of Springfield, the husbands of his mother’s two sisters, and two of his mother’s first cousins, Dr. Lyman Beecher Todd and General John B. S. Todd. Lincoln’s two young secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, stood beside Robert. Mrs. Lincoln would have been at the foot of the coffin, too, had she been there at all. Instead, she remained upstairs in bed the entire day.
General Grant, with tears in his eyes, sat alone at the President’s head, facing a cross of lilies. Just a little over a year before, on March 8, 1864, he had paid his first visit to the White House after being made lieutenant general. It was the evening of a weekly reception, and Mr. Lincoln, surrounded by citizens in the oval Blue Room, spied the shy soldier and recognized him immediately from his photographs. The President stepped up the line to greet his new head of the armies, took hold of him and moved him along to Mrs. Lincoln, saying, “Here is General Grant. What a surprise! What a delight!”