Feb. 12 is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, an event usually lumped in with Presidents’ Day, when we Americans supposedly pay homage to all our presidents or, some believe, to Lincoln and Washington, whose birthday is Feb. 22 (which became a national holiday in 1885). But if we’re honest like Abe, it seems the third Monday of February is a holiday for blowout car sales, three-day vacation packages, and for taking off school and work.
While Lincoln’s birth may be glossed over (that bicentennial was widely celebrated in 2009), the 150th anniversary this year of his death most certainly won’t be. President Lincoln died April 15, 1865, after being shot the night before at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, a fact most grade-schoolers know. What many children — and adults — don’t know is that his funeral turned into an almost unbelievable spectacle.
After an elaborate service at the White House, Lincoln’s body went on a 15-day, 1,700-mile train trip, stopping for no fewer than 12 funeral processions in cities such as New York and Chicago, where his body was removed from the train and displayed in an open casket. Historians say that the funeral “tour” was the most prolonged, elaborate, and most repeated ceremony in US history. Mourners by the tens of thousands waited hours to pay their respects. Solemn crowds would gather to watch as the train slowly made its way to Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln would finally be entombed.
The 2015 Lincoln Funeral Coalition aims to do it one more time, at least the part held in Springfield. The organization is re-creating the funeral, down to the tiniest details, from an exact handmade replica of the coffin to descendants of the original 19th-century pallbearers posing as their relatives to a copy of the original flag draped on the coffin made by the same company, still in business today.
The three-day event, scheduled May 1-3, is being organized by Katie Spindell, chairwoman of the all-volunteer coalition. She has worked for five years on the project, which she explained is in no way a festival or a profit-driven enterprise.
“We’re doing this right, with the dignity and integrity it deserves,” Spindell said. “It could only happen here in Springfield. We have one time to do this.”
Civil War reenactors, numbering in the thousands, will be encamped in the city over the weekend. Among a slew of scheduled activities, from lectures to concerts, the main event starts with the arrival of the funeral train at the station on May 2, carrying the replicated coffin of President Lincoln (which will remain closed).
From there, a procession, with a replica of the original Lincoln hearse, horse-drawn carriages, military and civilian Civil War reenactors, along with other period groups and anyone who wants to march (as long as they register in advance and dress in 1860s-era attire) will follow much of the historic route from the train station to Washington and 6th streets for an opening ceremony and an overnight candlelight vigil.
The next day, the funeral procession will head to the Oak Ridge Cemetery, where clergy and Civil War reenactors will present the exact eulogy, speeches, and salutes, somewhat scaled down (the original service lasted hours) at the receiving vault.
Scholars, politicians, dignitaries, and any number of other people with an interest in Lincoln have gotten involved. Spindell, who moved to Springfield in 2002, had no particular expertise in Lincoln, or for that matter, funerals, but does have a long history of volunteerism and getting things done. She was instrumental in successfully campaigning to get a monument installed in 2010 at the train station where the Lincoln funeral car made its final stop.
“I never thought I’d be doing a funeral for him,” Spindell said of Lincoln. “He wasn’t really on my radar.” In the past five years, however, she has meticulously, and sometimes miraculously, gathered an amazingly disparate group of volunteers, from funeral home directors to flag makers to historians, all with one mission: to re-create a funeral that happened 150 years ago.
Spindell is quick to say she doesn’t deserve all the credit and that Lincoln seems to bring out the best in everyone. The impetus of the event has launched a multitude of projects, from a $200,000 project to rebuild the original gate at Oak Ridge Cemetery, where the Lincoln procession went through en route to the receiving vault (the gate had deteriorated over time and was closed) to a the opening of a school for combat veterans to learn new skills.
“These are the things that touch me,” Spindell said. She does feel a heavy weight to get it right. “I’ve become very protective of his legacy.”
Perhaps the making of the hearse is one of the more extraordinary stories. The original hearse, which was pulled by six horses, was borrowed from St. Louis because Springfield didn’t have a grand enough one to carry the president’s body. It was returned after the funeral and was later destroyed in a fire. In looking for a hearse that could be adapted to the event, Spindell wasn’t really sure where to go, which is when P. J. Staab got involved. The Staab family founded a funeral home in Springfield in 1937, and it’s now run by the third generation of the family.
As Staab searched in vain for an appropriate vehicle, nothing was a good fit. “I said, ‘Why don’t we just re-create it?’ ” Staab said, laughing as he related the start of a very long process, which involved him flying across the country looking for someone to help.
Eventually, he connected with Jack G. Feather, the owner of Tombstone Hearse & Trike Co. in Arizona. He custom-makes hearses, modeled on Victorian-era horse-drawn ones, but he substitutes motorcycles for horses. Feather, a Vietnam veteran, reached out for help from Eric Hollenbeck, another master craftsman and veteran, who owns a Victorian millwork shop in California.
Hollenbeck jumped on the project as a chance to start a craftsman program for returning combat veterans, where they can learn skills and reclaim their lives. Working from a copy of a rare photo of the hearse, the vets have done everything from creating original molds and casting finials (decorative pieces) to building the wooden chassis.
“I know what these veterans are going through and the need to do something positive,” Hollenbeck said. “Having a part in making a positive historical impact within the great nation they fought for is priceless.”
It also seems a fitting tribute to Lincoln, who, after all, worked tirelessly to unite the country. No one can predict how many visitors will attend the event, but James Cornelius, Lincoln Curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, and a coalition board member, said that in 1865, the population of Springfield was around 15,000, but more than 75,000 people came to the city to say a final farewell.
“All eyes were on Springfield,” Cornelius said. “We hope all eyes will be on Springfield again.”
Kim Foley MacKinnon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.