February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
Two humble memories—a brakeman‘s and a carpenter’s—bring back the human moments of a nation’s tragedy
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.
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.
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.
In Washington, the distraught Mary Todd Lincoln had been unable to decide where her husband should be buried. The citizens of Springfield proposed to erect a tomb on the spacious, wooded Mather place, site of the present Illinois Capitol, on Second Street between Monroe and Edwards. Mrs. Lincoln demurred, and while the funeral train was crossing Indiana she came to a decision. The burial should be in the Oak Ridge Cemetery on a prairie knoll beyond the northern edge of Springfield.
On the first of May, Ed Beall and the other carpenters climbed onto lumber wagons and creaked out to Oak Ridge to build a speakers’ stand and seats for a three-hundred-voice choir. For two days and a night the saws and hammers sounded under the oak trees, where leaves had just begun to bud. On the morning of the third their work was done.
From Chicago the railroad officials sent orders over the line. At every creek and river, watchmen guarded the bridges. Regular trains were sent onto sidings an hour before the funeral train would pass. Two locomotives, No. 40 and No. 57, were assigned to the special train. Both were wood burners with balloon stacks, iron jackets, brass domes, brass sandboxes, and brass bell-frames—all polished like the sun. Both were decorated from the cowcatcher to the rear drawbar with flags and bunting intertwined with crepe. Under the headlight each engine carried a crayon portrait of Lincoln in a five-foot wreath of flowers. No. 40 served as a “pilot,” going ahead to test the safety of the track. Veteran engineer Jim Cotton took the throttle of No. 57.
With its own slow clangor lost in the tolling of church bells, the train passed through Joliet, Wilmington, Bloomington, and Lincoln, where acres of people stood in silence. The cars crept through villages where people had waited in the midnight hours with lanterns, flags, and torches. At every crossroad families stood bareheaded in the fitful light of bonfires. But finally sunrise warmed the prairie, and from the top of the train brakeman Porter saw the glint of water through the wooded bottoms of Salt Creek. The next downgrade carried across the Sangamon, and Springfield showed in the distance.
After all night on his carpentry job at Oak Ridge, Ed Beall climbed onto an empty lumber wagon and jolted into Springfield. The streets were filled with horses, vehicles, and people on foot—all pressing in toward the C & A depot. Three blocks north Ed jumped off the wagon and shouldered through the crowd. His workman’s badge got him past the guards and onto the observation platform. He was there when the pilot engine, puffing pale woodsmoke, its brasswork gleaming under the black shroud, panted past the station. Then, while the buzzing of the crowd ceased, the funeral train steamed slowly past—the black-dressed engine, the coaches with sentries at each platform, the catafalque car with its emblems of office and of mourning. When the train stopped, the crowd surged forward. Ed Beall saw pickpockets at work below the platform. From the rear coach stepped General Joe Hooker, a straight, brisk-striding man with a face as red as an Indian’s. Fighting Joe broke his stride when he saw a pickpocket reaching for a spectator’s wallet. One of his feet shot out and sent the thief sprawling.
Eight tall sergeants carried the coffin to the hearse, and the honor guard fell in behind. Drums throbbed and the procession moved through the bright May morning to the Statehouse. Ed Beall followed the casket in and took his position near its foot. He divided the crowd that came, sending them in two files, six abreast, past the dais where the coffin rested.
All that day and that night the lines moved through the Representative Hall. These were the folk from Lincoln’s own country—from Petersburg, Jacksonville, Beardstown, Towanda, Metamora, Charleston; people who had known Lincoln the axeman, the boatman, the surveyor; people from the Eighth Circuit towns who had known Lincoln the lawyer, who had heard his drawling stories in the tavern and his arguments and summations in the courtrooms.
Among that endless line of mourners was lean, longfaced William H. Herndon. He had first seen Lincoln on a horseback trip along the Sangamon, when Lincoln was piloting the steamer Talisman over the ruined dam at New Salem. He had gone stump-speaking with him, had ridden with him on the circuit court, and had been his law partner for twenty-one years; their names were still together, “Lincoln & Herndon,” on the office door now hung with crepe. During all that time they were “Billy” and “Mr. Lincoln,” and now Bill Herndon stood with his own thoughts above the open coffin. “We who had known the illustrious dead in other days,” he wrote, “and before the nation laid its claim upon him, moved sadly through and looked for the last time on the silent upturned face of our departed friend.”
All night long the streets were thronged with people, as though no one could sink to rest, and church bells tolled hour after hour through the darkness. After a warm, windless night, the morning of May 4 brought a burning sunrise in a cloudless sky. It was the beginning of a blazing day—the hottest day ever known in Illinois, old residents said. By mid-morning hundreds were prostrated, and Mayor Dennis of Springfield had to be carried away from the crowded Statehouse square.
At noon a salute of twenty-one guns boomed through the hot, still air, and the final funeral procession formed. At the head were General Hooker and his staff; then Brigadier General Cook; Brigadier General Oakes; huge Justice Davis, whom Lincoln had appointed to the Supreme Court; Governor Yates of Illinois and his staff; the governors of other states; members of Congress; and a multitude of others. In the line was Old Tom, sweating under a caparison of black velvet, led by two perspiring grooms.
At Oak Ridge Bishop Matthew Simpson of the Methodist Church, a close friend of Lincoln’s in Washington, gave a eulogy, and the massed choir sang in the blaze of sun. The coffins of Lincoln and his son Willie were placed in the hillside tomb. That small room was cool and dim, and it smelled of evergreens strewn on the stone floor.
Slowly the crowd dispersed. In the trance of heat Springfield grew quiet as the country town to which Lincoln had come nearly thirty years before. The congressmen went back to Washington. The governors returned to their capitals. By train, wagon, horseback, and on foot a multitude of people journeyed homeward. And from their assignment with history young Ed Beall went back to repairing boxcars and Bill Porter caught a freight on the Chicago and Alton run.