Journal: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois, Monday morning, July 31, 2017
Here I am in the handsomely designed, nicely lit, spacious reading room of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. I don’t at this moment require any research materials from the collection, but as I often do, if I find myself with access to a grand space dedicated to the acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge, such as the Reading Room of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building or the National Library of Scotland, I feel the urge to go inside and do some thinking and writing just because I can. So here I am.
On Saturday evening, a sudden weariness and blueness of mood took me by surprise, and for the first time since I left home two weeks ago, I suddenly felt lonely. I realized I had been traveling at an unrelenting pace and it was time to rest. So over the weekend, I did a lot of strolling and lazing between bouts of purposeful touring and research. I watched Allied, a World War II romantic tragedy starring Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt, and enjoyed it very much. I talked to family and friends on the phone, sometimes while walking through grassy parks under tall green trees whose resident cicadas made quite a racket. I wrote postcards, and drank beer, and feasted on a local specialty called a horseshoe, an artery-clogging concoction made from Texas toast, french fries, a sprinkling of vegetables if you so choose (I chose yes), and ground meat topped with a sort of cheese sauce similar to that on a Welsh rarebit.
So here I am this morning, rested, happy, reconnected with my loved ones and my sense of adventure, planning my itinerary for the rest of today and the next. I’m also thinking about the many things I’ve learned and seen here in and around Springfield…
Athens, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017
I drive to Springfield from Peoria, about an hour south, and on the way, I notice a highway sign indicating the exit for an Abraham Lincoln historic site. As I did for the last one to Galesburg, I decide to take this Lincoln detour. A series of signs lead me through lovely green farmlands and tidy business establishments and houses to Athens’ old Main Street neighborhood where there are several sites associated with the life and political career of Lincoln. I park at E. Hargrave and Main, near the brick building at the corner with the ‘Old Milwaukee’ sign, and cross the street to a Looking for Lincoln placard with a Lincoln site map.
Lincoln never lived here in Athens but he did visit, many times; he lived near here in New Salem, more about that later. Athens was a larger, more bustling community than New Salem, and mail delivery was more consistent, too. Lincoln was New Salem’s postmaster from 1833 to 1836, and he came to Athens to pick up the mail occasionally when the Sangamon River, which runs between here and New Salem, was in flood and prevented its delivery.
The post office in Athens, at this time, was located here in the white clapboard Rogers Building on Main St at Jefferson. This building now houses the Abraham Lincoln Long Nine Museum, which is closed as I peer through its windows. Some years after Lincoln’s stint as the New Salem postmaster, he and the other eight members of the Illinois State Legislature were honored here with a celebratory dinner in the upstairs banquet room on August 3rd, 1837. The dinner celebrated their success in getting the capital of Illinois moved from Vandalia to the more bustling Springfield. This iteration of the Legislature, nicknamed the ‘Long Nine’ because of their average height of 6 feet, included Ninian W. Edwards, the husband of his future wife Mary Todd’s sister Elizabeth. Ninian and Elizabeth will re-enter my story later on during my Springfield journey.
I continue south on Main St, cross Madison, then continue about one-third of the long block between Madison and Little Streets. The fourth house on the left is at 400 Main St, the site of the home of Robert Wilson, one of Lincoln’s fellow Long Nine legislators, according to the map on the Looking for Lincoln placard. Lincoln stayed here at Wilson’s place on many occasions when he was in town, even borrowing a horse from Mrs. Wilson in 1836 while on campaign. Perhaps Wilson, as a fellow ‘long’ man, had a bed that Lincoln could fit in!
In any case, as well as serving in the legislature together, they were fellow political campaigners and remained friends for a long time. During the Civil War, Wilson joined the Union Army, then Lincoln gave him an appointment as a paymaster. In those days, it was common practice for Presidents and their administrations to grant government appointments to friends and political supporters. Hopefully, these appointees would have appropriate experience, but this was entirely up to the discretion of the one doing the appointing. At times, Lincoln did appoint people he believed had the experience and/or ability for the position; at other times, he traded desirable appointments for political favors. As the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln accurately portrays, this was a key tactic that Lincoln used for getting enough votes to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, legally abolishing slavery throughout the U.S. After the Civil War and the new depths of corruption in the administration of Lincoln’s next elected successor, his General-in-Chief of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant, the civil service was reformed so that, at least ostensibly, appointees were given the jobs solely based on merit and relevant experience.
One more thing: Wilson, in his 1866 description of Lincoln’s thought processes, made me aware of the word ratiocination. Nice. I like learning new words that are fun to say aloud.
I double back on Main St and turn left on Jefferson St to my next destination at Jefferson and Mill. On the northwest corner, there’s a blue clapboard two-story house with white trim. This house incorporates the old Banks Hall’s Tavern, where Lincoln stayed and ate sometimes. The proprietors were Abner Banks Hall and Helen Jennett Francis Hall. Helen was Simeon Francis’ niece, and Simeon Francis came to have many close connections with Lincoln. I’ll return to that story when I’m in Springfield.
Banks Hall’s Tavern was the best place to get a bite to eat on that part of the stage route between Beardstown, New Salem, and Springfield. Perhaps Lincoln stayed here when he was a local surveyor as well; he surveyed the new Sangamon Town Road, which angled to meet Main St from the south and west, in 1834. He had become a surveyor as a likely way to supplement his meager living as a postmaster. Lincoln’s first two runs for political office had failed, his militia service had been brief and relatively uneventful, and his first foray into business as a shop owner had failed and left him in debt. Surveying was a skilled trade but one that could be self-taught for free, so thus Lincoln did. But he didn’t remain a surveyor for long. The pay was still not that great and his debts were substantial, so he began to teach himself law and again ran for state legislator. This time, he won a seat.
I know that if I continue in the direction I was driving earlier, I would get to New Salem before long. However, the day’s getting on and I want to make some good progress exploring Springfield and gathering more information there first, so I pick up the car and continue south.
Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017
After about a 20 minute drive, I reach my first Springfield destination: the Lincoln Tomb. I wind through the hilly cemetery with its granite monuments and headstones almost white in the summer sun, and park the car. I round the showy, castellated old caretaker’s building and cross the lawn.
I find that the Lincoln Tomb is absolutely lovely. It’s just about the most elegant, grand while neither overblown nor fussy monument one could wish for. There are monumental sculptures surrounding the central towering obelisk which include fighting men, a rearing horse, and Lincoln himself, charged with drama and historical moment. The statues are well spaced and there’s not too many so the ones that are here stand out and invite study. Taste and restraint rule here as much as the desire to do great honor to the man buried below.
There’s a bronze version of the same Gutzon Borglum portrait bust of Lincoln that I saw in Peoria Heights. This one’s larger, and its nose is shiny. I guess people rub it for luck; a giggling family is doing this very thing as I arrive. There’s a statue of David Hume with a shiny big toe on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, and it shines for the same reason. For some reason, I feel very differently about the Lincoln nose-rubbing than I do of the Hume toe-rubbing. The statue of Hume is on a public street, while Lincoln’s bust is at his tomb in a cemetery. The moment I see those kids jumping up, egged on by their mom with the dad taking pictures, I feel a little disturbed, even a little offended. My father’s strict injunctions against unruly and disrespectful behavior in the presence of the dead and in other solemn places remain deeply instilled in me, I suppose. I feel like scolding them. It also feels disrespectful to mess around with the image of someone’s face, rather than a toe or a sleeve, especially when it serves to disfigure it in some way. The rubbing gives Lincoln’s bronze portrait the clownish look of a cartoon image of a drunk with a shiny red nose. Apparently, however, many thousands of my fellow citizens feel differently than I do about this.
I open the front door, which is a single one the size of an ordinary interior door, presumably because such a relatively small entrance is easy to guard against grave robbers, and enter. Yes, grave robbers. At least one attempt had been made to steal Lincoln’s body before, and history is rife with grave-robbing of the tombs of the rich, powerful, and honored dead. When Lincoln’s remains were moved to their final resting place in 1901, ten feet below the Tomb’s central chamber in a concrete-and-steel reinforced vault, the portion of the coffin lid that would cover the head and shoulders was cut open. After a brief view of the face to confirm identity, which was still recognizable after all those decades, the coffin was resealed.
I step into a marble-lined, oval room with a bronze sculpture of Lincoln on a pedestal in the center, a smaller version of the Lincoln Memorial statue in Washington, D.C. There are many such bronze statues throughout the tomb, smaller versions of larger statues in various places. They are placed in alcoves in corridors that surround the central square room. The burial chamber is in the interrupted-oval room at the north end of the structure, which is above Lincoln’s actual burial vault. A red granite symbolic empty tomb, called a cenotaph, stands in the center. Crypts behind the south wall of this chamber hold the remains of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of his sons, Edward, William, and Thomas (called Tad). Lincoln’s oldest son Robert wanted to be buried here as well, but his wife decided otherwise. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery, as he served briefly in the Union Army and then as the 35th Secretary of War under Presidents James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. Lincoln’s only grandson, Abraham Lincoln II (called Jack), was originally buried here, but he was re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery after his father’s death.
The Tomb is as beautiful inside as it is outside, with a very different feel. Outside, the pale granite gleams, and the monument’s structures and sculptures tower and rise. Inside, the marble and granite and bronze glow gently in the lowly-lit rooms, the golden honey atmosphere at least as much a result of the lights as it is of the materials. I suspect the warm tone of these electric lights was chosen to reflect the quality of light of the gas lamps and candles that lit interiors in Lincoln’s time. The mood is warm despite the cold stones and metal, and the place feels close and solemn: it wraps around you just as it does around itself, just as a shroud does the departed. No one rubs any of the facsimiles of Lincoln’s nose in here, though as you can see from the photos, they do rub the toes of his bronze boots.
I pay my respects and look long at the sculptures and the architecture details, then re-emerge to the hot summer day. Down the hill to the north of the Tomb, there are two more structures of interest. At the north foot of the Tomb’s hill, there’s a pedimented marble vault with an iron gate. This was the initial resting place of Lincoln at Oak Ridge Cemetery in May of 1865, along with the remains of his son William, who had died in 1862, during Lincoln’s first term in office. The caskets remained here, under guard, until December of that year, until they were interred in a temporary vault partway up the ridge towards the Tomb here today. Lincoln, William, and his two other deceased sons were reburied within the unfinished Tomb in 1871.
The other is a castellated tower across the path from the receiving vault. It holds the original large flat stone, mounted upright and engraved, upon which Lincoln and his son William’s caskets were placed for the many months they awaited their temporary resting place on the ridge. The tower was built in 1900, the year before Lincoln’s casket was opened to confirm the presence of his remains, then re-interred in its permanent, secure resting place deep beneath the floor of the Tomb’s burial chamber.
As I leave Oak Ridge Cemetery, I wind among the lots before I find the way out. It’s a pretty and peaceful place and I would linger if I were a less restless traveler.
I continue south towards downtown Springfield and head for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. I see so many interesting things here that I want to tell you about. Since this tale has already grown somewhat lengthy, I’ll continue the tale of my day’s explorations in my next installment of my explorations following the life and ideas of Lincoln in Springfield. Stay tuned!
Sources and inspiration:
Brink, McCormick & Co. ‘Springfield Township, Springfield City.‘ from Atlas of Sangamon County, 1874.
Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995
Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889
History of Sangamon County, Illinois; Together with Sketches of its Cities, Villages and Townships … Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Representative Citizens. Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co., 1881
Illinois Ancestors.org: Abner Banks Hall and The Grandfathers Vol.I, The Hall and Overstreet Families
Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois. National Park Service website
Looking for Lincoln: various historical/informational placards throughout the Springfield, Illinois and surrounding areas about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln at their associated sites
MacLean, Maggie. ‘Elizabeth Todd Edwards: Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.’ Civil War Women blog, Jul 28, 2013
‘Robert L. Wilson (1805-1880)‘ from Mr. Lincoln & Friends: The Politicians by The Lehrman Institute
Robertson, Peggy. ‘The Plot To Steal Lincoln’s Body.’ American Heritage, April/May 1982
‘Robert Todd Lincoln‘ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
‘Rogers, Colonel Matthew Building/Abraham Lincoln Long Nine Museum.‘ National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. Prepared by John R. Ede, Oct 1, 2004