- Historic Sites
Journey’s End: 1865
Two humble memories—a brakeman‘s and a carpenter’s—bring back the human moments of a nation’s tragedy
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
Sometimes in Springfield on Sunday mornings Willie and Tad tagged along with their father to his office while their mother went to church. Willie brought his kitten. They clattered up the board stairs and into the long room with its desk, bookshelves, and paper-strewn table. They piled up books and toppled them over, they made a quiver of arrows out of pencils and a spittoon, while their father lay on the battered couch playing with the kitten. Willie was the older by three years, a bright, happy, imaginative boy who could make up games and stories. Little Thomas was a bubbler and a wriggler—“Tadpole,” his father called him. When carriages passed outside, coming from church, they went home, cutting through the pasture to the sand-colored house at Eighth and Jackson streets.
In the White House in Washington Willie and Tad kept kittens, goats, rabbits, and a little dog named Jip that often sat in the President’s lap at mealtimes, watchful for morsels. They had a doll named Jack, dressed like a soldier, and liable, it appeared, to stern military discipline. In their play, Jack once drew a death penalty for sleeping on picket duty. The boys dug Jack’s grave in the shrubbery, but before the burial a White House gardener had an idea that the President might pardon him. The boys appealed and got a reprieve, written on Executive Mansion note paper: “The doll Jack is pardoned. By order of the President. A. Lincoln.”
During the winter of 1862 Willie lay languid and bright-eyed with fever. At midnight Lincoln came in his old dressing gown and sat by the bedside, smoothing the burning forehead with his big hand. But then, in the waning light of a gray afternoon, Willie died. That evening John Nicolay found Lincoln lying on the floor of his study trying to console sobbing little Tad. Later in the war fire broke out at night in the White House stables. Lincoln ran out, asking for the horses, but was stopped by secret service men. From a bedroom window he watched the flames die down. Willie’s pony was in the ruins....
By midnight the whole funeral train was dark, and the rails clicked steadily under the wheels. In the catafalque car there was darkness within darkness, two coffins on the dark dais in the dark car rolling homeward over the dark prairie.
In the southern Illinois town of Alton lived Superintendent Chaffee, who had charge of bridge and carpenter work on the Chicago and Alton Railroad—nowadays the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio. One of the local boys was Edmond Beall, sixteen years old, a friend of Chaffee’s son Ship. On April 19, 1865, the Superintendent rounded up his carpenters, including Ed Beall and Ship Chaffee, and left for special duty in Springfield. Half a century later Ed Beall recalled his days in Springfield for the Illinois State Historical Society; his letter was published in their Journal in 1913. Three years later Bill Porter’s account of the funeral train appeared in the Journal. The two lads, unknown to each other, must have passed in the crowded streets of Springfield on the third and fourth days of May, 1865.
The first job was to drape the Lincoln house in mourning, Beall was a rangy youth with a long reach. When the carpenters climbed onto the steep roof of the Lincoln house, he had to hang the traditional “droopers” from the eaves above the second story. His comrades paid out a rope and Ed slid down, head first, until he could reach over the edge. When his hammer sounded, an upstairs window opened. Mrs. Lucian A. Tilton, wife of the railroad official who had rented the Lincoln house, told him to set the cloth rosettes just eight feet apart. With his head hanging into space the boy could not precisely judge that distance, and he said so. Mrs. Tilton soon reappeared with a two-foot rule taken from Lincoln’s old desk. When the job was done, Ed tucked the ruler in his belt and was hauled back up the roof. For years afterward the ruler was a keepsake in the Beall house in Alton.
While the carpenters were at work, hundreds of visitors gathered at Eighth and Jackson streets. They stripped the new-leafed shrubbery for souvenirs. They hacked off splinters from the fence and dug bricks from the wall. Photographers hawked tintypes of the house, barn, and garden. Two enterprising men showed the crowd the Lincoln family horse, Old Tom, and look up a collection for their pains. Old Tom had been sold when the Lincolns left for Washington: for five years he was a familiar dray horse on the streets of Springfield. Now the two speculators had bought him for a reported five hundred dollars and were planning to take him on an exhibition tour of the country.
From the Lincoln residence the carpenters moved on to the Illinois Statehouse. They draped the building in black velvet and built a catafalque for the coffin in the Assembly Hall.
Meanwhile the crowds were growing. Every train into Springfield was crammed with visitors, and endless lines of wagons came over the Sangamon County roads. Horses, mules, traps, carts, buggies, wagons, and a multitude on foot choked the dusty streets. Old residents pointed out the Lincoln landmarks—the site of Lincoln’s first law office, the room where the first county court convened, the plain Butler house where the bachelor Lincoln had lodged, the Edwards mansion where he was married, the Globe Tavern where he had taken his bride to live, the pasture where he had grazed his horse and cow.