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Tracing Abe Lincoln’s Springfield, IL, footsteps, Part 2

By Gerri Nielsen

Fri, Aug 3rd, 2012
Posted in All Features

By Gerri Nielsen

This story is the second in a five-part series about Gerri Nielsen’s trip to Springfield, Illinois.

TUESDAY: We walked the couple blocks from the downtown Hilton to Lincoln’s home, a National Park Site. We passed the First Presbyterian Church that houses Lincoln’s pew along with other historical documents. The current church building was built in 1868, three years after Lincoln’s death.

The Lincolns attended the second of three church buildings of this congregation; that structure was sold in 1871. Like other parishioners of the time, Abe paid $50 upfront and then paid a yearly rent to retain the family pew. The pew was number 20 on the left side, seventh row from the front. Even though Lincoln himself was never a member of the church, Mary became one on April 13, 1852, after the death of their son Eddie in 1850 (his funeral was held in their home). Their son Tad was baptized in the second church building, and his funeral was held there on July 17, 1871.

The third and current building of the congregation was the site of Mary’s funeral on July 16, 1882. It seemed a bit ironic since Mary swore she could never return to Springfield after Abe’s death--it just held too many memories for her that would bring her into a deep melancholy.

We found the pew in the entryway of the church with a silver nameplate on the arm. A church member had purchased the pew from the old sanctuary and donated it to the current building in 1912. On Easter Sunday in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt sat in it at worship services. Church members proudly showed us the million-dollar organ in the balcony, and the gorgeous Tiffany windows which are slated to be dismantled and sent to St. Louis for cleaning and restoration this month.

When we arrived at Lincoln’s home, Tim Townsend, a Lincoln Home Historian, gave us an orientation. Then Park Rangers toured us through. The home is quite different than its original state when Lincoln purchased it as a 1 1/2 story cottage for $1,200. It is now a two-story, large home. Mary, who was born into Kentucky aristocracy, had never done any household tasks herself. Now, marrying below her station, she had to learn to to cook, clean, and take care of Abe and their four sons: Robert, Eddie, Willie, and Tad. Mary had begged all the years they lived here for a cook stove so she wouldn’t have to cook over the hearth fire. She finally got her stove just before they left Springfield for Washington.

When you walk up the stairway, your hand is grasping the same railing Lincoln’s did. Many of the furnishings are original, including Mary’s dresser, Lincoln’s desk, and a stereo-optic toy the boys played with in the living room.

The neighbors all complained about the younger boys, the terrors of town. Since Abe and Mary had unhappy childhoods, they swore their boys would be able to live carefree and undisciplined--the boys would be happy and have limitless freedom. This included letting them throw toys from the balcony. A decoration on the wrought-iron railing on the balcony remains broken today from the boys’ roughhousing.

But the Lincolns’ time here was happy and historic. Several important guests were entertained in this home, and Abe and Mary’s intent was to return here and continue living a happy midwestern life.

Next was a tour of the old state capitol building. The building is the fifth statehouse in Illinois, and it was in service from 1839 to 1876. A young intern named Mike dressed as a Union soldier was our guide. The capitol is decked out as it was when Lincoln served as a busy lawyer in Springfield. We saw the secretary of state’s office, the Supreme Court (where Lincoln pleaded over 250 cases!), several more offices, and on the second floor, the Senate and the House Chambers. We even sat at the legislators’ desks and imagined what it would be like to use those quills to write resolutions.

Across the street we toured the Lincoln-Herndon law office. On the morning before he boarded the train leaving Springfield bound for Washington as President-elect, Lincoln told his partner to leave the shingle up on the shop--he planned to come back after his terms in office and continue on lawyering. “We’ll just go on as before--this thing won’t change anything,” he said. Our guide, a volunteer named Molly, gave us all the history inside the building, including all the changes over the years. Dressed in period costume, she gave us some secrets about how women dealt with seven layers of underclothes like pantaloons and corsets. When she spoke, she had to tae slow, deep breaths every minute or so to work around the confines of the corset.

Molly also showed us the post office located in the back and described the intricacies in sending letters in the mid-1800s. Mailing a letter was very expensive--for the receivers. Before the time of postage stamps, a list of names of people who had letters waiting for them at the post office was published in the newspaper. Receivers would come to the post office, take a look at the letter, and decide if they wanted to pay for the letter or not. If they refused, the letter would be sent to Washington, D.C., to the dead letter office and would be destroyed.

The cost of the letter depended on the number of sheets and the number of miles the letter traveled. Generally, a one-sheet letter traveling 30 miles would cost six cents. Traveling 150 miles, it would cost 18 3/4 cents. Traveling over 400 miles, it would cost 25 cents--a fortune for someone earning 40 cents a day. The cost of a 2-sheet letter would double. For that reason, the writers would write as small as possible; sometimes they would write filling up one sheet, and then they would turn the sheet 1/4 turn and continue writing in a crossword puzzle style; reading it is tricky! They would fold the sheet and write the address on a blank space, because using an envelope would cost more.

Senders and receivers used codes so they could save their money; if someone moved to a new location, the receiver of the letter would know his/her loved ones had arrived safely in their new location just by seeing that they had written. If a baby was born, writers would write the name of the baby in the addressee’s name. They’d jot down certain letters or doodles to declare if it was a girl or boy.

After tromping around town, we boarded a trolley which took us to see Lincoln’s tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Mark Johnson, Historian of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, explained its history. There was a lot of discrepancy over where Lincoln’s final resting place would be. After his assassination, he was immediately regarded a hero, and several people felt his burial place should be in Washington, D.C. He was certainly a man of the people, and his family’s wishes were almost ignored.

Finally, after some telegraphing and finagling, Lincoln’s only living son, Robert, insisted that Lincoln’s burial happen in Springfield, the town he loved dearly. Today, visitors can see the receiving tomb, where Lincoln’s body was at first kept while the monument was being built. A temporary vault is now gone, with just a granite marker on the site.

In 1874, a 117-foot Quincy granite monument was erected. A giant obelisk towers over a bronze statue of Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand, and four bronze sculptures representing the four Civil War military services: infantry, artillery, cavalry, and navy. Lincoln’s body was placed in a marble sarcophagus in the burial room. The front of the tomb contained artifacts and documents visitors could peruse museum-style.

There was a lot of controversy when Chicago tomb raiders tried to steal Lincoln’s body in 1876 to collect a ransom of $200,000. Their scheme was foiled when an informant told police, who showed up before the robbers on the appointed night.

The tomb now encases Lincoln’s body under ten feet of concrete with the slogan: “Now he belongs to the ages” decorated in gold letters. Also buried in crypts here are Mary, and their sons Willie, Tad, and Eddie. Oldest son Robert, who served as Captain for U.S. Grant in the Civil War and secretary of war under President Garfield, lies at rest in Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. A castle-like building was constructed for the “keepers” of the tomb, and as of 1960, the Tomb has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Our group was lucky to see the 114th Infantry Regiment Illinois Volunteers dressed in their Union blues march in and lower the flag flying at the tomb in a ceremonial flag retreat ceremony that evening. One lucky winner took home the flag that had been flying in front of Lincoln’s tomb the previous week. We were happy to see a boy scout from northern Illinois take home the prize. Every year, hundreds of boy scouts from around the country venture to Springfield to take the 20-mile Lincoln Heritage Trail hike from New Salem to Springfield, earning them a badge.

Read the third installment of the series in next week’s Fillmore County Journal!

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