Last week Americans saw heavy media coverage of the death 50 years ago of President John F. Kennedy. I couldn’t help but compare the aftermath and funeral of JFK with that of Abraham Lincoln, both victims of assassins.
One reason this came to mind is because I had just finished a year-long project — reading Carl Sandburg’s six volume biography of Lincoln. (Altogether, it was about 2,400 pages, and that in small type. I gave myself a year to read it, and as a reward, could read a shorter book when I finished each volume.)
Sandburg’s massive biography is a great read, and gives you tremendous insights into Lincoln. When Sandburg introduces a side story, he gives you immense detail of that story. You don’t have to go to another reference for any more details.
I also found myself cheering for Lincoln to fire some of his early generals of the Civil War. But when he put Grant and Sherman in charge, the war shifted, for those two knew how to pursue an enemy. No doubt the Civil War ended quicker because of these two generals in command.
When JFK was killed on November 22 in Dallas, his body was shipped back to Washington that day. On November 23 the body was placed in the East Room of the White House. On November 25, he was buried at Arlington Cemetery, after his remains were viewed in the Capitol Rotunda.
Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, April 14, and died the next morning. There was a funeral in the East Room of the White House on April 19. Then the president’s casket was carried to the Capitol, where it was placed in the Rotunda, where people marched by in bereavement for two days.
On April 21, Lincoln’s body would be placed on a special burial train car at the Washington depot. A smaller casket, that of Lincoln’s son, Willie, had been disinterred and put on the train, and was to be buried in Springfield, Ill., near his father.
Then began an odyssey which followed the same railroad route that had brought Lincoln from Springfield to Washington four years earlier. For the next 12 days, Lincoln’s casket would travel to 12 cities, as people lined the train’s route. There were major ceremonies at each of the cities. The casket would be opened at each, and people would tromp by.
On April 22, it was Baltimore. Then Harrisburg, Pa. on April 23, Philadelphia on the 24th, New York on April 25, Albany on the 26th, Buffalo on April 27, Cleveland on April 28, Columbus on April 29, Indianapolis on April 30, Michigan City on April 1, Chicago on April 2 and finally Springfield on April 3. By the end of the 1,700 mile trip, his train had been seen by an estimated seven million people. More than 1.5 million has moved past his casket and seen his face. Newspapers all across the country reported each day’s events, the speakers and what they said. There had never been anything like it. It was like personal communications with the deceased.
Even years later, at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, the drama played out much faster. FDR died April 12 in Georgia, and the body got to Washington April 14, with services in the White House’s East Room. It left that same night, and FDR was buried April 15 in Hyde Park, N.Y.
With modern communications, today’s events play before an entire nation so very quickly. We all become engaged in the drama. So were Americans in 1865, in a different way, at the death of Abraham Lincoln.