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Last Train

As the nation mourned, Abraham Lincoln returned to Chicago on a funeral train—the last stop before his final rest. A look back on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death.

As Chicago honored the fallen president, soldiers guard the Lincoln funeral car, which is draped in funereal bunting. The body of Lincoln’s son Willie, who had died in Washington, D.C., in February 1862, remained inside the car—the boy would be buried with his father when they arrived in Springfield, Ill.

The rain would not let up. Driven by fierce winds, it had fallen steadily for days, drenching the black crepe that covered nearly every house and building in Chicago. The ebony banners had hung there two weeks now, ever since news of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had reached the city. But the incessant rain, as pervasive as the sorrow that had seized nearly everyone, had left those melancholy displays sodden and bedraggled.

Which made it all the more remarkable on this gloomy Monday morning that, just as the train carrying Lincoln’s body headed into Chicago, the clouds parted and the sun burst forth. After a journey halfway across the country, a journey punctuated by grand but doleful memorial services in nearly a dozen other cities, the slain president was closing in on Springfield, his downstate home. But the citizens here also claimed Lincoln as a friend and neighbor. Indeed, they fully expected him to settle in their city after he finally left the White House. Now he had come back to them in a lead-lined walnut coffin. They would give him the farewell he deserved. “All the land weeps,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in an editorial. “For we love none as we loved him.”

One hundred and fifty years ago this spring, Chicago’s salute to Lincoln marked a significant moment in the young city’s history. The prevailing emotion during that sad event was profound grief, but it seems also to have been tinged with civic pride. Chicago had grown and prospered during the Civil War. Staged over the first two days of May 1865, Chicago’s funeral for Lincoln provided the flourishing city with an opportunity to show off on the national stage.

By its own estimation (and those of more objective observers), the city succeeded. “In all the continued and uninterrupted pageant which has accompanied the progress of the late President’s remains... no community has done itself such peculiar honor as Chicago,” boasted the Tribune the day after Lincoln arrived. “Indeed, we are assured by those who accompanied the mournful cortege [from Washington, D.C.,] that, in many respects not even the New York demonstration exceeded that of Chicago.”

Departing Michigan City, Ind., at 9am May 1, the train carrying Lincoln’s body—as well as the body of his son Willie, who had died in Washington in February 1862—approached Chicago along Lake Michigan. (Lincoln’s traumatized wife, Mary, remained behind in the capital.) The train traveled first through the city’s southern suburbs: Woodlawn, Hyde Park and Fair View, where, at the newly built Soldiers’ Home, 40 badly maimed veterans of the war gallantly saluted their fallen commander as he passed by. (Known today as the Cardinal Meyer Pastoral Center, the greatly expanded Soldiers’ Home still stands at 35th Street and South Lake Park Avenue.)

Rather than head all the way into Chicago, the train stopped at a temporary depot on Park Row (today we’d call it 11th Street), an elegant avenue of houses that extended just east of Michigan Avenue. A military honor guard removed the president’s coffin from the train and placed it on a dais beneath a baroque 40-foot-tall, three-span funeral arch created by the architect William W. Boyington. (Boyington would design the landmark Water Tower in 1869, as well as parts of the Soldiers’ Home, giving him the distinction of crafting two Chicago structures that, despite the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, survive today.) A cannon boomed the minute guns began their rhythmic firing, and, from the city’s center, the big bell inside the Court House loudly tolled. Lincoln was back in Chicago.

Time has, for the most part, eclipsed the names of those distinguished Chicagoans who traveled on the Lincoln funeral train or served as honorary pallbearers. And, of course, the buildings that stood here that morning in May are long gone. The streets themselves, however, remain—making it easy to envision the progress of the funeral procession. Preceded by a military band playing the Lincoln Requiem, the sad parade stepped off from Park Row at a little past 11am and proceeded up Michigan Avenue. On the east side of the street, people jammed Lake Park (the predecessor of Grant Park) all the way to the shoreline. On the west side, they crowded sidewalks, rooftops and trees. Similarly dense crowds—conservative estimates put the number of observers at more than 120,000— extended all along the parade route. At first, this vast, close-packed throng maintained a solemn silence.

Hatless and on horseback, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker led the way up Michigan Avenue. (Just two years before, almost to the day, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson had dealt Hooker and the North’s mighty Army of the Potomac a humiliating defeat at a sleepy Virginia crossroads called Chancellorsville.) Behind Hooker, marching in step to the sound of muffled drums, came three regiments of infantry, 1,200 soldiers shouldering glittering rifles. And then, drawn by 10 black horses, appeared the open hearse bearing Lincoln’s coffin. The crowd’s eerie hush gave way to a loud, collective sob. Men and women wept. Some fainted.

As the procession made its way up Michigan Avenue, different delegations fell in behind, about 36,000 marchers in all. Its “composition was varied,” noted the Tribune, “and embraced all nationalities, all creeds and all sects.” Every branch of trade and manufacturing was represented, and most of the city’s schoolchildren—about 10,000 students—marched. Some 400 members of Chicago’s African–American community joined as well.

At Lake Street, the procession headed west to Clark and then south to the Court House. (Bounded by Randolph, Clark, Washington and LaSalle streets, Court House Square is today the site of City Hall and the County Building.) Lincoln’s body, clad in the same black suit he had worn for his second inaugural, lay in state there until the following evening. Not surprisingly, the president’s face had blackened, though it displayed a placid smile, the subtle handiwork of a Washington undertaker. In the course of 25 hours, about 125,000 people would pass quickly by the open coffin, which rested on an ornate catafalque designed by John M. Van Osdel, who is generally recognized as Chicago’s first architect (he had designed the Court House too).

Despite a drizzling rain, people waited through the night to pay their respects. At noon May 2, the line stretched nearly 1 mile: east on Washington from LaSalle to State, down State to Madison and then back along Madison to Clark. The Court House doors finally closed around 7pm, with people still waiting in vain to glimpse their fallen president.

And then it was time to go. A military honor guard carried the coffin outside to the hearse, which, escorted by 1,000 men and boys carrying flaming torches, headed to the depot of the St. Louis and Alton Railway at Madison and Canal streets (about where the Ogilvie Transportation Center stands today). The crowds of onlookers along the way were so thick that, at several places, the wooden sidewalks collapsed beneath their weight. At 9:30pm, the train carrying the president’s body departed for its final stop in Springfield, “followed,” the Tribune noted, “by the tears and prayers of thousands.”