Journey’s End: 1865

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In the fall of 1864 William S. Porter, a young man from the sleepy southern Illinois town of Jerseyville, was mustered out of service with the 145th Illinois Infantry. He was just sixteen, but the war had left a man’s lines in his face. A few days after his discharge he became a brakeman on the Chicago and Alton Railroad—riding on the tops of trains, setting hand brakes and couplings. From the swaying roofs of boxcars and coaches he watched the prairie roll past, in sunlight and starlight, all the way from Chicago to St. Louis. Then, one day late in April, 1865, when young Porter dropped off a train at Bloomington, Illinois, and reported to the superintendent, he found a dozen young brakemen, weathered and wind-burned like himself. They were ordered to Chicago on special duty.

On the Chicago lake front, at Twelfth Street and Michigan Avenue, Porter joined a special train, a baggage car and nine coaches, all draped in black. The first seven coaches carried a New York military company in dress uniform. The final car was occupied by an official party, including General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker; Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton; Governor Richard Yates; Captain Robert Lincoln, the late President’s oldest son; and Lincoln’s long-time friend, Supreme Court Justice David Davis. The next to the last car was heavily draped in mourning, with crepe rosettes framing each of its twelve windows. On its side appeared the presidential seal, and at both vestibules stood rigid sentries wearing blue campaign caps, white gloves, and black arm bands. Within the car on a raised dais rested a small coffin containing the body of twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln, who had died three years before in Washington and was now to be buried beside his father in Springfield. There was room on the dais for a larger coffin but now that space was empty. The casket had been taken to the Chicago courthouse, where an endless stream of people passed it, night and day.

During its solemn twelve-day journey from Washington the train had been visited by thousands and seen by millions of silent people. In a dozen cities plumed horses and military companies marching to muffled drums had escorted the coffin between the cars and public buildings: Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in the Pennsylvania Capitol at Harrisburg, in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, in the City Hall in New York—while vast, hushed crowds filed by. In Syracuse thirty thousand came through a midnight downpour to pay their tribute to the assassinated President. At Cleveland the bier rested in a black draped tabernacle in the Public Square. At Columbus eight hearse horses clattered over the planking of High Street between unspeaking ranks of people, and the coffin was carried between the black-draped pillars of the Statehouse. In the rotunda over fifty thousand people, two and a half times the city’s population, moved past the still figure. Indianapolis was thronged with citizens from every county of Indiana. In a steady rain, one hundred thousand awaited their turn to walk past the President’s catafalque.

Abraham Lincoln’s death in the hour of military triumph prevented exultation in the North; rejoicing swiftly changed to sorrow, and the whole nation bent beneath the massive tragedy of the war. In place of victory banners, every town and city hung out its emblems of grief, while bells tolled and the air shook to the somber boom of cannon.

From Washington Walt Whitman followed in his mind the President’s return to the heartland.

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities, /Amid lanes, and through old woods, where lately /the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the /gray debris,/ Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, /passing the endless grass, /Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat,every grain from its /shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen, /Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in /the orchards,/ Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave, /Night and day journeys a coffin.

In Chicago on the evening of May 2, the funeral cortege formed at Washington and LaSalle streets, outside the Cook County Courthouse. Eight sergeants carried the coffin to the hearse, drawn by eight black horses, each accompanied by a Negro groom; then the procession moved west on Madison Street with an echoing clip-clop of hooves on the pavement. Fifty thousand persons followed the military guard. More acres of people waited outside Union Station while the long coffin was carried into the train and set down again beside the small one. Night had fallen when Bill Porter freed the brakes on the funeral coach and the train began its journey back home to Springfield.

When the lights of Chicago dwindled, there remained the huge dark prairie under the stars. The train ran slow, hardly swaying on the long straight track. Lights and voices filled the cars ahead, but the funeral coach was dark and still.