The title of this blog comes from Gideon Welles’ diary entry from Wednesday, April 19th, 1865. He is writing of the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. It was on this day that Washington D.C. said goodbye and a nation began to mourn the loss of their beloved president. Welles’ diary gives us a glimpse into how the city mourned and just how much sorrow their was everywhere. It is quite touching to be able to read his words and see the funeral through his thoughts.
In writing of the days following the assassination, Welles describes the city as having fallen into mourning as “every house, almost, has some drapery, especially the homes of the poor”. While he describes more elaborate displays on public buildings and wealthy homes, it was “the little black ribbon or strip of black cloth from the hovel of the poor negro or the impoverished white [that] is more touching”.
In his entry from the 18th, we do get some sense of what Welles’ himself was going through, and it is evident he was feeling the loss of Lincoln immensely. He writes “I have tried to writing something consecutively since the horrid transactions of Friday night, but I have no heart for it, and the jottings down are mere mementos of a period, which I will try to fill up when more composed, and I have leisure or time for the task”. The passage that struck me the most from this entry was this: “Sad and painful, wearied and irksome, the few preceding incoherent pages have been written for future use, for the incidents are fresh in my mind and may pass away with me but cannot ever be by me forgotten”. In reading that, I felt he was probably capturing what many at the time felt. No doubt many were still feeling shock and disbelief at what had happened to President Lincoln and their was an air of sorrow that the people of the Washington D.C. and the country had never felt before.
On the day of the funeral, Welles remarks that business was suspended for the day. His words again capture the deep sorrow that was felt by most, if not all, who attended Lincoln’s funeral & the feelings of many people…
“…imposing, sad and sorrowful. All felt solemnity, and sorrowed as if they had lost one of their own household…”
Those words stick with me so much right now as I write this and try to imagine the grief that was flowing through everyone at that time.
The funeral was held in the East Room of the White House. Chandeliers were taken down or draped in black. Huge mirrors were covered in white cloth. The day before, mourners had come through to pay their respects to the slain President, with a line stretching from the White House more than a mile long.
The funeral was attended by 600 people. Robert Todd Lincoln was the representative for the immediate family at the funeral. Mary, too overcome with grief, stayed up in her room. I cannot even imagine the grief and sorrow she must have been feeling at the loss of her husband. Tad was present at first but had to be taken away because, as one person remarked, he was crying “as if his heart would break”.
Afterwards, a funeral procession was led down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capital, where again President Lincoln would lie in state, giving the people of Washington one final time to say goodbye to him. It was here, just six weeks prior on March 4th, that Lincoln had been sworn in for his second term as president and gave his second inaugural address. This is when he spoke the words that have resonated ever since the first time I read them when I was younger: “…with malice toward none…”
The funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln
In the procession, Welles rode with Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War. His entry of the procession captures the mood again of the entire city:
“There were no truer mourners, when all were sad, than the poor colored people who crowded the streets, joined the procession, and exhibited their woe, bewailing the loss of him whom they regarded as a benefactor and father. Women as well as men, with their little children, thronged the streets, sorrow, trouble, and distress depicted on their countenances and in their bearing”
Everything had “given way to real grief”.
Welles even writes of Seward, who was unable to attend the funeral due to not only injuries from a carriage accident a few weeks prior but a brutal assassination attempt upon him the same night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination:
“Seward, I am told, sat up in bed and viewed the procession and hearse of the President, and I know his emotion”.
Once at the Capitol, Welles writes that Reverend Gurley said a brief prayer in the Rotunda. The statues were all covered with black except for that of George Washington. Upon leaving, Welles’ writes an emotional sentiment: “we left the remains of the good and great man we loved so well”.
Here at the Capitol, Lincoln would lie in state for 36 hours before beginning his journey on a train to his final resting place: his home of Springfield, Illinois. The train would make many stops on its way there, the entire journey taking three weeks, giving the people of his beloved country a chance to say one final goodbye.