This story appears in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The black box nestles deep beneath the U.S. Capitol, encased behind thick glass, caged by a metal grille, as if it were a dangerous object, a ticking bomb primed for its inevitable explosion. Perhaps in a sense it is. In April 1865 carpenters constructed this velvet-draped bier, known as the Lincoln catafalque, to display the murdered president’s casket in the building’s Rotunda; its dark cloth conceals the rough pine boards they hastily nailed together. Since then, it has been brought out each time a national martyr or hero lies in state: James Garfield, William McKinley, John F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur. The rest of the time it sits in a niche of the Capitol Visitor Center, passed without a glance by most of the tourist throngs as it awaits the next great American death.
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, 150 years ago this month, has been recounted and reenacted innumerable times: The fateful trip to the theater, the pistol shot in the presidential box, the actor-assassin’s melodramatic leap to the stage, and death’s arrival at last in the back room of a cheap boardinghouse. Much less known is the story of what followed. The nation mourned Lincoln as it had never mourned before. In the process, it not only defined the legacy of an American hero, it also established a new ritual of American citizenship: the shared moment of national tragedy, when a restless Republic’s busy life falls silent.
During the weeks after Lincoln’s death, as his funeral train made a circuitous journey from Washington, D.C., back to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, perhaps a million Americans filed past the open coffin to glimpse their fallen leader’s face. Millions more—as much as one-third of the North’s population—watched the procession pass.
That history isn’t so very far away: A 70-something friend of mine recalls hearing his grandfather talk about seeing the funeral cortege as a young boy in New York City. And even today, as I recently discovered, to follow the route of Lincoln’s train is to discover how much his spirit still pervades the nation he loved and saved.
On the first day of Lincoln’s last journey, April 19, the line of soldiers, officials, and citizens following the hearse from the White House to the Capitol stretched well over a mile—“the grandest procession ever seen on this continent,” a reporter called it. During the days before the murder, the city—and half the country—had been celebrating the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Now the same flags hung to hail victory were shrouded in black crepe.
Two days later, under drizzly skies, a nine-car train pulled out of Washington’s main railway station. It was headed north, yet just a few minutes into its journey it crossed into what had very recently been slave territory.
From Freeland to New Freedom, the old train tracks rise gently out of Maryland toward the Pennsylvania hills. One of these auspiciously named hamlets sits just south of the Mason-Dixon Line separating the two states, the other just north. Until Maryland enacted emancipation just five months before Lincoln’s death, this line was like an electrified fence standing between four million people and liberty.
Today the old right-of-way on which Lincoln’s train passed, closed to rail traffic in the 1980s, has become a hiking trail. Rusted rails emerge here and there from its grassy margins, then sink again into the sod. A wooden post, a bench, and a couple of picnic tables are all that mark the Mason-Dixon Line itself. I sit down on the bench, with the left half of me in the South and the right half in the North, marveling at the border’s utter invisibility. I watch a pale green inchworm as it traverses my shirtfront from Pennsylvania into Maryland, then doubles back and crosses the Mason-Dixon Line again.
Earth’s most impassable barriers—as Lincoln the lawyer knew, as Lincoln the writer knew—are often those formed not of walls and trenches, nor even of mountains and oceans, but of laws and words. At this spot, as at no historic site I’ve visited, I feel the terrible arbitrariness of slavery. But Lincoln also knew that a line made of laws and words, no matter how formidable, could be erased with new laws and words. He made this line cease to exist. No wonder newly freed African Americans lined the sides of these tracks throughout the first day of his funeral journey.
Invisible lines still cross the American landscape, of course—if not between slavery and emancipation, at least between different people’s ideas of liberty. Lincoln and the Civil War are still a touchstone for many. A couple of miles north of New Freedom, back in my car now, I spot a Chevy Tahoe with a Confederate flag bumper sticker and follow it into the parking lot across from the Mason-Dixon Restaurant. The driver is on his way to the liquor store, but he’s happy to chat.
Keith Goettner is a retired state trooper, a lean man with a scraggly gray mustache and intense blue eyes; it’s not hard to imagine him in an 1860s tintype. He had 13 ancestors who fought for the Union, he tells me, and three for the Confederacy—but he’s cast his own allegiance with the Rebels. They stood for a certain kind of freedom, he says: “It’s about the right to choose to do what you want, as long as it’s legal. If you really dig into Confederate belief, they were very patriotic. They didn’t want war—they wanted to be left alone.”
There is irony, to say the least, in identifying the slaveholding Confederacy with personal freedom. But many people share Goettner’s view of liberty in this conservative section of rural Pennsylvania. Not far up the road, I stop at the Freedom Armory shooting range and gun store—“Your Second Amendment Connection,” its sign says—and meet the owner, a crew cut Louisiana transplant named Scott Morris. We chat politely across an immaculate glass case where the merchandise has names like Patriot, Savage, and Grenadier.
“I served in the military in Berlin during the Cold War, 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain,” Morris tells me. “On many different levels, I know what freedom is. Without the right to bear arms, we’d have no freedom.”
I ask Morris what he thinks about Lincoln and his legacy. “I appreciate a lot of the things he did,” he says. “But I wonder if we’re better or worse off today. We’d be better off with more states’ rights.”
In Lincoln’s day too this area was known for its Southern sympathies. But Philadelphia, which the funeral train reached on April 22, was a hub of abolitionism. The president lay in state at Independence Hall beside a black-shrouded Liberty Bell, which the antislavery movement had adopted as a symbol. Day and night some 100,000 mourners filed through the chamber where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been signed.
Lincoln had made a memorable and strangely prophetic visit here four years earlier. In February 1861, on his way to his first inauguration and with war imminent, he raised the American flag at dawn over the venerable building. In brief, impromptu—and still little remembered—remarks to the crowd, Lincoln spoke powerfully about the meaning of the declaration.
The document wasn’t merely about freeing Americans from Britain, he said. Rather there was “something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” A moment later he added: “If this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle—I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”
Lincoln’s words still resonate strongly with Ada Bello, who met me at Independence Hall. Beginning in the 1960s she and other activists gathered here for some of the first gay-rights demonstrations in American history. Back then a few dozen marchers were often outnumbered by wary police and catcalling onlookers. Now a state historical marker honors the protesters—and just a few weeks before my visit, Pennsylvania began allowing same-sex couples to marry.
The stories of the soft-spoken, 81-year-old Bello sound almost like tales of the Underground Railroad. In the early days of the movement, which she joined after immigrating to the U.S. from her native Cuba, the very idea of homosexual rights seemed to most Americans laughable at best, dangerous at worst—except to the men and women whose lives were stunted by persecution and secrecy. Police regularly raided the city’s gay bars; public exposure ended careers and drove some people to suicide. “Marriage wasn’t even in the realm of possibility.”
Although that idea would have seemed even more far-fetched in Lincoln’s time, Bello doesn’t hesitate to claim him as a kindred soul. America’s 18th-century founders framed grand but imperfect ideas in this building, she says. “I think Abraham Lincoln actually realized that unless you apply those principles to everybody, it’s a false promise. He understood the need to bring other minorities in.”
“He died for me! He died for me! God bless him!”
Those words, spoken through tears by an elderly woman as she watched Lincoln’s coffin pass through the streets of lower Manhattan, captured how she and many other African Americans felt about the president’s death. Everyone—white and black—knew that Lincoln’s role in ending slavery had spawned the murderous hatred that took his life. Understandably, African Americans hoped to take their places in the front ranks of the mourners; more than 5,000 planned to march in New York City. But many white Americans had different ideas. Several days before the funeral train arrived, municipal authorities decreed that no black marchers would be allowed in the procession. Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, sent a furious telegram from Washington overruling the ban, but the intimidation had worked. The vast parade down Broadway on April 24 included Irish firemen by the thousands, German marching bands, Italian social clubs, Roman Catholic priests, and Jewish rabbis, as well as special delegations of bakery employees, cigarmakers, Freemasons, glee club members, and temperance activists. A couple of hundred African Americans brought up the very rear.
To retrace Lincoln’s funeral route today is to be reminded often of that bitter lesson. In Buffalo I visit the city’s 19th-century landmarks: not just the terminus of the Erie Canal, once the gateway to the West, but also relics such as the Michigan Street Baptist Church, built in the 1840s as a hub of the city’s intellectually vibrant and politically active black community. Nationally renowned activists and preachers spoke in the handsome, sun-drenched sanctuary; fugitive slaves took shelter in the basement. Over the next century, a neighborhood of shops, restaurants, and clubs grew and flourished in the surrounding blocks.
Today Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in the nation and among the most racially balkanized. The old church stands marooned in a bleak urban landscape. Its present-day pastor, Bishop Clarence Montgomery, tells me that only half of the city’s young African Americans finish high school. Despite a few glimmers of hope—such as a historic jazz club that now houses an impressive museum of Buffalo’s rich musical heritage—most of the surrounding blocks are dominated by vacant storefronts, public housing, and shotgun-style houses. I’m surprised when, just a few blocks north along Michigan Avenue, the urban decay gives way to another world: a strip of gleaming hospital buildings and offices, with more under construction nearby. It’s the city’s new medical corridor, a promising sign of economic recovery—except that almost everyone I see, from the patients to the medical workers to the construction crews, is white.
“Michigan Avenue is becoming our Mason-Dixon Line,” says George Arthur, a former city council president and longtime leader among local African Americans. “The medical corridor is bringing prosperity to the white community, but almost none of that reaches our black community, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.”
Indeed, Arthur tells me that when it comes to racial disparities, history seems to move backward as often as forward. “One of the first lawsuits in America to integrate public schools started in Buffalo in 1868,” he says. That effort succeeded, but by the time Arthur entered politics nearly a century later, de facto segregation had long since returned to the schools. He helped lead a successful movement to integrate them in the 1970s. “But now the schools have resegregated again, and we’re back in the same boat as in the ’60s,” he observes. “Both the 1960s and the 1860s, take your choice.”
On its journey up the Hudson River, across the Empire State, and down the shores of Lake Erie, Lincoln’s funeral train rode the same rail corridors that Amtrak now uses. In fact, even as the journey unfolded, the railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt was at a critical moment in his struggle to forge a single corporate dominion out of antebellum America’s dozens of small local lines.
In 1860s America the railroad was more than just a new technology—it was a kind of national cult. A few months before the end of the Civil War, the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison waxed mystical about the revolution that trains had brought, fostering not just economic prosperity but also human connection on a vast scale: “So may the modes of communication and the ties of life continue to multiply, until all nations shall feel a common sympathy and worship of a common shrine!”
Little remains of the Civil War–era railroad network traveled by the funeral train between Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois. But as I get accustomed to the landscape, I find I can sense the railroad like a vanished limb: a downtown street that’s wider than it needs to be, a vacant lot beside a grain elevator, a long straight groove through the middle of a farmer’s soybean field. I’ll pull over, find a telltale scatter of old gravel and broken glass, and tell myself, Lincoln passed here too.
Sometimes at these places I find signs warning of buried fiber-optic lines. Data companies often use the old railroad rights-of-way to run their cables—just as, in the late 1850s, telegraph companies ran their wires here. The multiplication that Garrison prophesied continues apace.
Even in these remote hamlets, people would have known of John Wilkes Booth’s crime just hours after the assassin’s bullet found its mark. Two weeks later, when the train came, they knew to expect this rendezvous with the dead president. The train traveled by night between the big cities—but not in darkness, for at almost every rural crossing, bonfires blazed. At three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning, as many as ten thousand people gathered at some village depots, an unimaginable thing in a time and place where life was still lived mostly from sunup to sundown. Bands played dirges as the farmers and their families waited in the chill. In Greenfield, Indiana, word came by telegraph that the train was just a few miles up the line. A young veteran, to pass those last minutes, read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural aloud to the throng. As the black locomotive approached, the town minister led a prayer. Then firelight flickered briefly on the funeral car itself, the glossy paint and silver-fringed crepe, the small windows revealing nothing of the awful cargo within. Nearly everyone was weeping now. At last a whistle sounded, and the machine, and history, passed on.
Peace looks like this: On a warm Sunday afternoon, on an artificial lake in suburban Chicago, people are paddling a boat. It’s only when they’re back onshore that I notice one of them is limping. He’s young and athletic, but he leans on a cane like an old man.
The young veteran is Brad Schwarz, who will spend the rest of his life with the consequences of what happened to him one morning in Iraq, in the fall of 2008. That’s when the Humvee he was riding in struck an improvised bomb. He survived, albeit gravely wounded in body and psyche. Back home he slept with one loaded pistol under his pillow and another in the bedside dresser. One night he awoke from a nightmare to find that he was slamming his wife’s head against the wall, hallucinating that she was an attacker.
Schwarz tells me that he was always interested in history and that when he first volunteered to serve in Iraq, he felt as if he was participating in one of the great events of his era, much as soldiers in the Civil War or World War II had done. But that soon changed. “While I was there, I didn’t feel like I was participating in history—I was just doing my job,” he tells me. “And I didn’t think we were changing anything for the better. I lost so many friends and spilled my own blood and tears and sweat there, and sometimes I feel like it was for nothing.”
The Civil War felt equally pointless and awful to many Americans in the spring of 1865. The conflict had been self-evidently unnecessary, a matter not of foreign invasion but of domestic politics gone badly awry. Now three-quarters of a million men were dead. Many families never had a body to bury or a relic to cherish: So many boys and men had simply vanished into the mud of Virginia or Tennessee.
Perhaps that was why Americans mourned Lincoln’s Good Friday martyrdom with such intensity. “People were still getting notice of their loved ones’ dying,” says historian Martha Hodes, author of Mourning Lincoln, a new book on the president’s death and its aftermath. “Lincoln’s funeral was like a stand-in for the brother or son or father whose body would never come home.” Perhaps that’s also why people cared so much about not just seeing Lincoln’s coffin pass but filing past to view his corpse—and why the casket was not closed even when, after two weeks, the embalming techniques of the day began to fail and the dead man’s face turned dark and sunken.
Mourners collected relics as if of a saint: a snippet of drapery from the catafalque, a scrap of crepe from the funeral train. Within hours of Lincoln’s death, a bit of his bloodstained shirt would fetch a five-dollar gold piece. Many of these souvenirs survive in museums today. But what I find most affecting are the remnants of wreaths and bouquets still preserved after a century and a half. A single leaf of laurel, a rosebud faded to rusty orange: slain offerings, as if springtime itself had been offered as a sacrifice.
The train’s last stop before Springfield was, appropriately, the town of Lincoln, Illinois, 30 miles north. More than a decade earlier, when the future president was still a state legislator, it had become the first of the many American towns that would be named in his honor.
I stop in Lincoln myself late one afternoon. It’s a sleepy place, the Victorian storefronts gone shabby. The main square, with its hulking courthouse, is nearly deserted except for a few teenage kids circling on their low-slung bikes, idly popping wheelies and bucking down a low flight of stairs. At a corner of the big old building, I spot a white marble column: the kind of Civil War monument I’ve seen in almost every county seat these past thousand miles and more.
A hundred years of acid rain have eroded the names of the dead men and their fatal battles, leaving the monument looking like a relic of ancient Egypt or Babylon, not a memorial to the grandfathers’ grandfathers of men and women alive in the town today. Blurred fragments of words emerge: “TOMLINSO … DAVI … SHILOH.” A more recent marker nearby quotes a local newspaper article from April 1862, a year into the war: “It takes but small space in the columns of our paper to report the ‘killed and wounded’ from our county, but oh! … Every name in the list is a lightning stroke to some fond heart.”
As I stop to read, one of the bike-riding teenagers, a scruffy blond kid wearing a baseball cap backward, coasts up and asks what I’m doing. Before long, he’s spilling out stories about Lincoln—the town and the president (“Abraham,” he says familiarly) all mixed up together. Tim Evans is 17, an 11th grader with a jumble of plans for the future. He wants to be an architect. He wants to be an underwater welder. He wants to go pro with his stunt biking. I point to the marble column and ask if he’s ever thought of the military. “Sometimes,” he says doubtfully. But he’s got other plans. Just like the names on this monument, I think, just like the three-quarters of a million other names on other monuments—each one the remnant of a life once as complicated, as tentative, as optimistic as this one.
Lincoln was buried at last in Springfield on May 4, nearly three weeks after his death. Townsfolk draped black bunting over the simple frame house that he had last seen on the morning he departed for the presidency. They tracked down his favorite horse, the one the Lincolns had named Old Bob, which had been sold into service pulling a wagon. The animal walked in the procession to the cemetery, led by a local African-American minister who had worked for the Lincolns as a handyman.
The tomb, I find, is a disappointment. Twice reconstructed since 1865—most recently, in the 1930s, in incongruous Art Deco style—its current incarnation has all the historic character of an office lobby. (The coffin was moved no fewer than 14 times in the decades after its original burial, as if no one could figure out quite what to do with it.) Lengthy inscriptions on the wall, relics of their time, recount nearly every biographical detail except the Emancipation Proclamation. The body, a guide tells the crowd of tourists, lies under ten feet of concrete. It’s strange to think that there is a place where Lincoln still physically exists in the world, let alone that it’s a place like this.
Several hours later I make my way to another graveyard a few miles distant. There’s not a living soul at this one when I arrive, just row upon row of identical white headstones. Here at Camp Butler National Cemetery are buried more than a thousand Civil War dead, mostly men who died of disease under miserable conditions at the nearby training camp and military prison. All are equal beneath the clean-cut marble slabs: officers and privates, black men and white. Northerners and Southerners too, for here are hundreds of Confederate prisoners: Texas cavalrymen, Arkansas infantrymen, teenage boys from Tennessee and Alabama, stranded far from the soil they fought to defend.
Many of the stones bear no names, but most have dates. I begin to notice an unusual number from the spring of 1865; perhaps an epidemic swept the camp then. There’s a whole section from the first week or two of April, including a few dated April 14 and 15, the same time as the assassination in far-off Washington. One of these is for a soldier of the U.S. Colored Troops.
If the choice were mine, Lincoln too would rest here, side by side with such comrades, among the thickly clustered ranks of these honored dead.