Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on Friday, April 14, 1865, his national funeral was conducted at the White House on Wednesday, April 19th. Prior to the service, Lincoln’s body had laid in state in the East Room upon a catafalque bedecked in black located in the center of the room.
Lincoln’s funeral was the third to be held in the East Room during the years of the Civil War. The first was for the president’s friend, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, who died in Alexandria during 1861. Lincoln’s young son, William (Willie), who died in 1862 at the age of 11, had been the second.
Due to the limited amount of space available in the East Room, the number of guests invited to attend was limited to 600. Mary Lincoln was not present during the ceremony due to her emotional state at the time. Secretary of State William Seward was also absent. Following his shooting of the president, Booth had gravely injured Seward by stabbing him and now the secretary clung to life under a doctor’s care.
Several clergy were invited to participate in the funeral service. First to speak was Dr. Charles H. Hall from the Church of the Epiphany. Using for his text a passage from 11th chapter of the Gospel of John, Dr. Hall followed that with verses from I Corinthians 15.
The Lincolns were members of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and their pastor, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, was the final speaker from the chosen clergy. Likely Dr. Gurley was in a sadden state, not only due to the fact he was helping to conduct the funeral for the late President of the United States, but he had also conducted the service for Willie three years earlier. The message he offered was entitled Faith in God, during which he called upon those in attendance to not focus on the grief they felt due to the death of Lincoln, but instead to look past the present situation and visualize “the chastening hand of a wise and faithful Father.” Reverend Gurley went on to state God’s “guidance and mercy were the props on which Lincoln humbly and habitually leaned; they were the best hope he had for himself and his country.”
The service closed with prayer offered by the U.S. Senate chaplain, Dr. Edwin H. Gray, who also served as pastor of the E Street Baptist Church. Following the service, members of the Veterans Reserved Corps carried the coffin containing Lincoln from the White House and placed it aboard a horse-drawn hearse. From there it was carried to the Capitol Building when it lay in state for public view.
On April 21, 1865, Abraham Lincoln went home for the last time. The route traveled would for the most part retrace the same miles he had covered in 1861 when he journeyed to Washington, D.C. as the president-elect.
Dubbed “The Lincoln Special”, the train was bedecked with a photograph of Lincoln on the cowcatcher. Aboard the train were approximately 300 mourners, including son Robert. Mary remained behind at the White House under the care of her doctor. Two coffins were aboard the train, the one which carried the body of the late president and a smaller one holding the remains of Willie. Prior to the trip, Willie’s coffin had been removed from its resting place in Washington, D.C. to travel home and rest alongside that of his father. From the time the train left Washington, D. C. until its arrival in Springfield, Illinois, a number of stops were made and the coffin removed to lie in state so mourners in the larger cities along the route could pay their last respects to the late president.
Lincoln’s actual funeral occurred on Thursday, May 4th. Beginning at 10:00 a.m., the doors to the State House were closed so the undertaker and embalmer could prepare the body for burial. Upon completion, the coffin was carried to the horse-drawn hearse. The elegantly appointed conveyance had been borrowed from the city of St. Louis for the occasion. The event was the largest spectacle ever witnessed in the Midwest up to that time. When the hearse arrived at the cemetery, both coffins were placed on the marble slab within the family’s tomb.
The final oration was delivered by Bishop Matthew Simpson. Having been chosen over every other minister in the United State for this sad event, he delivered an eloquent address. This was followed by the benediction offered by Lincoln’s pastor, Dr. Gurley. The wooden doors of the tomb were now closed and locked as the nation said its last goodbye to its 16th president.
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