Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

7:00 A.M.

One week after the assassination, even as John Wilkes Booth is still alive and hiding in a Maryland swamp, the body of Abraham Lincoln is loaded aboard a special train for his return home to Illinois. General Ulysses S. Grant supervises the occasion. The body of Lincoln’s late son Willie rides along in a nearby casket. Abraham Lincoln once confided to Mary that he longed to be buried someplace quiet, and so it is that the president and his dear son are destined for Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.

But even after the burial, Lincoln’s body will never quite be at rest. In the next 150 years, Lincoln’s casket will be opened six times and moved from one crypt to another seventeen times. His body was so thoroughly embalmed that he was effectively mummified.

The funeral, which is quite different from the actual burial, of course, was held on Wednesday, April 19. Six hundred mourners were ushered into the East Room of the White House. Its walls were decorated in black, the mirrors all covered, and the room lit by candles. General Ulysses S. Grant sat alone nearest his dear departed friend, next to a cross of lilies. He wept.

Mary Lincoln is still so distraught that she will spend the next five weeks sobbing alone in her bedroom; she was notably absent from the list of recorded attendees. The sound of hammers pounding nails all night long on Tuesday, creating the seating risers for the funeral guests, sounded like the horrible ring of gunfire to her. Out of respect for her mourning and instability, President Andrew Johnson will not have the platforms torn down until after she moves out, on May 22.

The president’s funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue

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Immediately after the funeral, Lincoln’s body was escorted by a military guard through the streets of Washington. One hundred thousand mourners lined the route to the Capitol, where the body was once again put on view for the public to pay their last respects.

And now, two days later, there is the matter of the train. In a trip that will re-create his journey to the White House five years earlier—though in the opposite direction—Lincoln’s special train will stop along the way in twelve cities and pass through 444 communities. In what will be called “the greatest funeral in the history of the United States,” thirty million people will take time from their busy lives to see this very special train before its great steel wheels finally slow to a halt in his beloved Springfield.

The unfortunate mementos of his assassination remain behind in Washington: the Deringer bullet and the Nélaton’s probe that pinpointed its location in his brain will soon be on display in a museum, as will the red horsehair rocker in which he was shot. He also leaves behind the messy unfinished business of healing the nation. And while Abraham Lincoln has gone home to finally get the rest he has so long deserved, that unfinished business will have to wait until his murderer is found.

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