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.