- 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
Many convalescent soldiers had left their beds in the Washington hospitals to march out of respect to their late Commander in Chief, and though some were too weak to go far, there were those on crutches who actually hobbled all the way to the Capitol. The colored citizens of Washington made one of the most impressive sights of all. They walked in lines of forty, straight across the avenue from curb to curb, four thousand of them. They wore high silk hats and white gloves and marched in dignified silence, holding hands.
The scene was solemn and impressive as the procession swept around into Pennsylvania Avenue from Fifteenth Street—and suddenly, movingly, the whole mile-and-a-half distance leading to the Capitol came into view. Every window, housetop, and tree was weighted down with silent watchers, the sidewalks were crowded, and there were many colored people with very young children. The grandeur and sadness of it all was indescribable. Every face in line was solemn—and most were streaked with tears. The measured tread of the marchers, the slow rolling of the wheels of the gun carriages over the cobblestones, the dirges of the thirty bands, the beat, beat, beat of the muffled drums—the sounds as well as the sights—made the day unforgettable.
Amid the solemn pageantry of the funeral in Washington, one family was not represented—Mr. Lincoln’s own people, those who had raised him and grown up with him. But they had received the heartbreaking news. Dennis Hanks, the cousin who had lived with Abe in a cabin in Indiana, took the news out to an old woman on the Illinois prairie. This was Sarah Bush Lincoln, Abe’s stepmother, born December 13, 1788, and twice a widow. No one knew the origins of the boy from the wilderness the way Sarah did, and his yearnings. And no one was more responsible for the paths he had taken. A widow with three children of her own, Sarah married Abe’s father, Thomas Lincoln, after the boy’s mother died of the “milksick”- drinking milk from cows that had eaten poison snakeroot.
When their new stepmother arrived, Abe and his sister Sarah liked her immediately. She was tall, slim, and curlyhaired, with lovely white skin, blue-gray eyes, and a beautiful nature. She scrubbed Abe and his sister, made one family of all five children—six, with Dennis Hanks—cooked the good game with which the forest was filled, and made Thomas clear more land and raise vegetables. She also got him to put a wood floor in the cabin and stop the roof from leaking. Although she could not read or even sign her own name, Sarah brought with her three books—Webster’s Speller, Robinson Crusoe, and The Arabian Nights. Abe already owned Aesop’s Fables and The Pilgrim’s Progress, and there was the family Bible which his own mother had read daily to him. The boy, “raised to farmwork,” as he said of himself, spent long hours reading—borrowing every neighbor’s book within walking distance. Sarah’s greatest contribution to her stepson’s life was persuading her husband not to disturb this reading time or force Abe to turn wholly to physical labor. She had felt immediate kinship with this boy. “His mind and mine,” she said proudly, “what little I had, seemed to run together, move in the same channel.”
Later, when Thomas and Sarah lived in their cabin in Illinois, Lincoln came as often as he could when he was practicing law in Springfield or riding the circuit. Mary Lincoln never went the seventy miles to see her husband’s parents, nor did she ever invite Sarah to Springfield or allow her sons to meet such humble relatives. A few days before he went east to be inaugurated President of the United States, Lincoln made the trip once more to see the woman he wrote and spoke to as “Mother.” He brought her a woolen shawl and a black wool dress. He took her in his arms and she cried over him. She told him she would never see him again and that he would be killed.
So when Dennis Hanks set out for Sarah’s cabin with the dread news, the old lady knew before he spoke. “Aunt Sairy,” Dennis said, “Abe’s dead.”
“Yes, I know, Denny, I knowed they’d kill him. I ben awaiting fur it.”
Several weeks before this mournful day, the President and his wife were driving by horse and buggy along the James River in Virginia when they came to an old country graveyard. It was far from the busy world and had tall trees, and on the graves the buds of spring flowers were opening in the sunlight. They both wanted to stop and walk through it, and they did. Mr. Lincoln, said his wife, seemed thoughtful and impressed. He said, “Mary, you are younger than I. You will survive me. When I am gone, lay my remains in some quiet place like this.”
Twenty days after the shooting at Ford’s Theatre, the President got his wish. After twelve funerals in twelve cities as he was borne home to his prairie state, his long coffin was placed in a hillside tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois,—with tender leaves of spring opening on all the trees and a little brook, brimming with April rains, dashing joyfully by.