Sunday, February 12, 2012

Travelogue: Looking for Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois

The stories surrounding Abraham Lincoln makes him one of America’s great heroes.  However, a trip to Springfield, Illinois, where he spent 25 years as a citizen, lawyer and state representative prior to his presidency (1861-65), gives visitors a look at his humanity. 

The first clues about the character of any man are in the way he lives so you’ll probably want to head straight to the historic district at Eighth and Jackson Street and check out his house.  Painted in Quaker yellow with brown trim and green shutters, the stunning Greek Revival contains many pieces of the Lincolns’ mahogany furniture.  Their placement has been carefully studied with the help of historic photos, 1865 stereocards and 1860 drawings from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Lincoln living room
Mary Lincoln chose the family furnishings for their sturdiness given that her husband and sons often wrestled each other on the living room floor and undoubtedly knocked things over.  The carpets, wallpaper and drapes may seem a little gaudy in color and pattern compared to today’s styles, but they reflect the elegant and refined tastes of a prosperous mid-19th century Midwestern American family. 

As a circuit rider for the Eight Judicial Court (1847-57), Lincoln gained reputation and wealth.  Because he was away from home a lot, sometimes three months at a time, he’d buy gifts for his sons, Willie and Tad, among them a stereoscope (worth about $8,000 to $10,000 today) that displayed three-dimensional photographic images like a Viewmaster.  The boys’ favorites were Niagara Falls and the Taj Mahal. 

Lincoln was a great orator and storyteller and he probably learned this by reading books out loud to his sons in the family’s living room.  He loved Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Charles Dickens and his bookcase held both their books and small busts of each author. 

His shaving stand and mirror are located in his bedroom (couples at that time had separate bedrooms).  He undoubtedly used them to groom himself, including the time he grew a new beard to make himself look presidential, as 11-year-old Grace Bedell suggested he do.  His desk is also there. 

Lincoln kept paintings and busts of his two heroes, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, in both his home and law office.  These “geniuses,” as he called them, sought to preserve the Union from sectionalism and war through compromise. 

Lincoln’s house was built in 1839 as a one-and-a-half story cottage and later expanded to a full two stories.  The family had an African American maid whom they offered free room and board as well as $1 a day wage (equivalent to $20-27 today).  However, Mary Lincoln insisted on cooking meals, a habit she had to break once they moved into the White House.  In the backyard, the family had a three-seater outhouse and a garden.

Operated by the National Park Service, the Lincoln Home Center and Neighborhood highlights Lincoln’s legal career, his time on the Eighth Judicial Circuit as well as his early political career.  Tour guides eagerly share narratives about his family, the history of the area, the ways of the times. 

The Visitors Center provides a short film on Lincoln’s life in Springfield.  Free tickets are available at the Information Desk.  Parking is $2.  The building is fully accessible to persons with disabilities.

Lincoln-Herndon Law Office

A few walkable blocks from Lincoln’s house is Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds.  A Lincolnophile guide not only explains the history of the office and its many artifacts, but Lincoln’s partnership with William Herndon.  The building also contains a replica of a mid-19th century courtroom and post office.  The Tinsley Dry Goods Store, located at the back of the building, offers gifts and Lincoln memorabilia.

Lincoln wrote his first inaugural address in this building on the third floor behind the wall of the present building.  He hid there because his office was too noisy with many, many well-wishers. 

What will also prove fascinating to any history buff is that you walk on the same dark, wide-strip wooden floor that Lincoln did.  And like his house, there is authentic period furniture, including one original chandelier and two stunning replicas made by a local tinsmith.

Lincoln’s law office grew in size when he became a senior partner.  Visitors will soon realize that Lincoln wasn’t just some hick from a Kentucky log cabin.  He was an astute, savvy and wealthy man who knew his way around politics, first as a Whig and later as a leader of the new Republican Party. 

The Lincoln-HerndonLaw Offices State Historic Site is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Make reservations by calling the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-545-7300 or check out its website.

A visit to Springfield allows visitors to get an idea of what it was like to live in a small, Midwestern town.  Lincoln lived in what is now known as the historic district and visitors can walk the same streets he walked and catch the obvious spirit of a place that reflects much of Lincoln himself.  In fact, Springfield became the seat of state government in 1839 thanks to the efforts of Lincoln and his associates, nicknamed the “Long Nine” for their combined height of 54 feet.

“Looking for Lincoln” signs dot the historic district with mini-histories of Lincoln and his times.  You can see how Lincoln pursued the American dream, a path people can more readily identify with here than in Washington where the president is immortalized in stone.

Banners of Lincoln line the downtown streets signifying a profound pride in Springfield’s favorite son without overdoing it. 

Lincoln Museum

The Abraham Lincoln Museum, now in its seventh year, is a stunning and engaging place that focuses on the life of Lincoln with an emphasis on his presidency.  You can study the man through diaries, documents and artifacts while films provide the social and historical context. 

Dioramas create a light and sound experience with the following memorable exhibits:

  • Lincoln at the War Department reading the casualties of war. 
    Diorama of Lincoln and advisers discussing Emancipation Proclamation
  • Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, amid the highly political nature of this law that became the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865.
  • Young Tad sick in bed with his parents at his side as they take time out from a party in the White House ballroom. 
  • Lincoln’s last moments at Ford’s Theatre where John Wilkes Booth is just about to enter the door leading to the president’s box. 
The most dramatic diorama is Lincoln’s funeral display with his casket.  It is modeled after the only remaining photo of the event that was discovered in 1951 by a 14-year-old Ron Rietveld (pronounced “REET-veld”), who later became a famous Lincoln scholar at California State University-Fullerton.

In the Gallery of Treasures, you can see Lincoln’s blood stains left on his white gloves and Mrs. Lincoln’s fan that they used on that fatal night.  There is also an 1850s silk stovepipe hat from his circuit rider days.  Its brim is worn out by the young lawyer’s thumb and two fingers due to his habit of tipping his hat to passersby. 

Most interesting are the displays showing the vicious attacks Lincoln endured from politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens who hated him because he was perceived as too supportive of Black slaves.  The collection includes negative headlines and stories, cartoons, editorials, and even Lincoln effigy dolls. 

Lincoln was one of four candidates running for president in 1860 and he captured only 40 percent of the vote entirely on support in the Northern states.  He won two of 996 counties in the South and was not even on the ballot in nine Southern states.  His victory in the Electoral College was more decisive, however, with 180 votes while his three opponents garnered only 123 votes. 

The War Gallery also hosts letters and photos of Civil War soldiers.

Of particular interest is the “Civil War in Four Minutes,” a film which follows the course of the war.  You can see the changing battle lines across a map the eastern United States as explosions denote battles and an “odometer of death” keeps a running total of Union and Confederate casualties. 

The museum has done an admirable job of depicting Lincoln’s life in an engaging and digestible way.  School children can learn as much as any adult.

Lincoln’s tomb 

Another experience of the man necessitates a visit to his tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery.  I fortunately happened upon it for the Flag-Lowering Ceremony (held on Tuesdays June through August at 7 p.m.) conducted by the 114th Infantry Regiment Illinois Volunteers Reactivated

A trumpeter and drummer begin the ceremony with songs of the era:  “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.”  Union “soldiers” pay their respects to the fallen president with weapons inspection, the lowering of the state and U.S. flags, three rifle rounds and a cannon salute.

You can still feel the heavy sadness of the place nearly 150 years after his death in the quiet and respectful crowds that gather there.  And, you can imagine Mary Todd Lincoln, and her surviving sons, Robert and Thomas “Tad,” grieving, as a handful of women and children dress in period costumes. 

After the ceremony, visitors are invited into the tomb.

The tomb, designed by sculptor Larkin Mead, is constructed of brick sheathed with Quincy granite. The base is a 72-foot square with large semi-circular projections on the north and south sides.  Double sets of north and south stairs lead to a terrace and a 117-foot obelisk rises high above.

Inside, the labyrinthine marble hallways with bronze trim reflect the solemnity of the tomb and the greatness of the man.  Small bronze sculptures featuring different times in his life are also on display:  circuit rider, new president, agonizing president.  Finally, you reach his tomb, where his body lies 10 feet below the surface.  It is a truly moving and unforgettable experience.

Cemetery hours are 9 to 5 and guides are available to answer questions.

Union Station and Union Square Park
The recently-opened Union Station Visitor Center marks another important place in Lincoln’s life:  he left for Washington from here and gave a spontaneous farewell speech to his Springfield neighbors on February 11, 1861.

Union Station Visitor Center, located across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, offers on-site booking of hotel accommodations and special event packages that are scheduled across the state of Illinois (217)557-4588.

Union Square Park has been the scene of many free events and performances, including the 33rd Illinois Vol. Regiment Band and the 10th Illinois Vol. Cavalry Regiment Band (both Civil War re-enactment groups); Mary Lincoln's Strawberry Party (a summertime family event); July 4th celebration, New Century Orchestra, Springfield International Folk Dancers, and many more musical performances throughout the year. 



 Springfield was a multicultural town when Lincoln lived in it.  There were African Americans, Poles, Irish, Germans, Swedes, and recently, historians discovered a site of an Underground Railroad stop.  The first white settlement of Sangamon County was founded in 1817 when Robert Pullman built a log cabin 10 miles south of what would become Springfield.  

The Old State Capitol Square (next to Lincoln’s law office) commemorates other important moments in Springfield’s history with bronze plaques.

  • The ill-fated Donner Party left from here in April 15, 1846. 
  • Eight hundred Potawatomie walked through town on September 29, 1838, during a forced march out of Indiana toward re-settlement in Kansas.  They did it with great dignity by dressing up in their best clothes, reported Jared P. Irwin, a stone mason working on the State Capitol building.
  • Stephen Douglas gave his famous “Protect the Flag” speech here on April 25, 1861, in an attempt to save the country. 
  • Nearby, the August 1908 race riots on Adams between Fifth and Sixth Streets eventually led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. 
  • In February 2007 then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama officially announced his candidacy for President of the United States, and in August 2008 he formally introduced his vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden.
The Old State Capitol Square has become a gathering place, especially at lunchtime.  During the summer there’s a small farmers market and an open-air barbecue.


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