Lincoln’s Body (1901)

The casket of Abraham Lincoln being lifted from a temporary resting place in Springfield, IL 1901.

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on 14 April 1865, his body was carried by train to Springfield, Illinois, where Mary Todd Lincoln, his widow, had determined the late president would be buried.  The progress of his remains by rail was sedate and lengthy, as his casket was paraded through many cities and the funeral train traveled at a top speed of 20 miles per hour.  Lincoln’s journey to the grave was an unprecedented national spectacle, as tens of thousands of citizens turned out to view his cortege.

Yet, even as they mourned, conflict over Lincoln’s final destination brewed.  On the one hand, the leading lights of Springfield had formed a plan to place his body in a tomb in a highly visible location that could be seen from a train.  These men, acting without consulting Lincoln’s widow, raised $50,000, bought 6 acres of land, and set crews to work night and day building a vault that would be ready to receive Lincoln’s body on May 24, the date appointed for his funeral.  This tomb, located on land called “the Mather Block,” was built into the hill where the Illinois statehouse stands today.

Their plans did not sit well with Mary Todd Lincoln.  She recalled Abe once saying that he would like to be buried at Oak Ridge, a secluded rural cemetery two miles away.  Mrs Lincoln had a terrible time convincing the prominent men who had backed the Mather Vault to commit to burying Lincoln at Oak Ridge instead.  Eventually, though, she prevailed.  On the day of Lincoln’s funeral, his remains were laid in Oak Ridge’s receiving vault.  More funds were raised and a fit memorial to Lincoln rose.  An imposing granite obelisk with a statuary group at its base declared the location of his resting place.  Lincoln’s body was moved from the receiving vault to this tomb in 1874.

Two years later, a group of men taking orders from Chicago counterfeiter Big Jim Kennally tried to steal Lincoln’s body.  Kennally wanted the body as ransom for $200,000 in cash and the release of his partner-in-crime, convicted engraver Benjamin Boyd, then doing time in the Illinois “pen.”  When Kennally unwittingly hired a government informant to join in as a grave-robber, the plot was exposed.

The incident prompted the tomb’s custodian, John Carroll Power, to form a secret band of local men to help him guard Lincoln’s remains.  Power and his men managed to move Lincoln’s heavy cedar-and-lead coffin from its proper spot to an undisclosed hiding place in Memorial’s basement.  The remains of the three Lincoln boys who had predeceased their father remained in the upper burial chamber.  When Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882, her body was interred there too.  Paradoxically, the secrecy surrounding the exact location of Lincoln’s coffin (hidden downstairs under a woodpile) fed doubt as to whether it still contained his corpse.

In 1899, Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincolns’ only surviving child, visited the memorial and directed that the entire structure be razed and rebuilt.  Abraham Lincoln’s coffin and those of his family members were removed from the memorial and buried nearby in a temporary grave (shown in the foreground of the picture above).  In April 1901, several photographers were on hand to record the proceedings as Lincoln’s heavy coffin (said to weigh between 400 and 500 pounds) was lifted out of the grave and re-interred in the new and improved memorial.  Over a hundred people and several children watched as a crane operator opened the temporary grave, removing the enormous stone slabs covering it, and revealing the Lincoln family coffins for all to see.

Yet, even after the day’s events, which restored the Lincoln family remains to the relative safety of the new vault, Robert Todd Lincoln was not entirely satisfied.  He remained worried that his father’s remains could be stolen or desecrated.  So, he decided to have a steel cage constructed around his parents’ coffins, deep underground.  Once the coffins were placed inside the cage, several feet of concrete would be laid above it, thick enough to insure their inviolable repose.

By September 1901, a crew was ready to execute this plan.  Local dignitaries were called together to witness this final transfer of Lincoln’s remains.  At this point, a spontaneous impulse arose among the group to open Lincoln’s coffin and verify the presence of his corpse.  Though opinion was divided, those in favor of opening the coffin prevailed.  Two local workmen were called out to cut open the section of the coffin lid over Lincoln’s head.  The crowd of 23 witnesses recoiled from the wave of a shockingly strong smell.  Then, as one, they instinctively leaned in to see what was inside.

Lincoln’s visage was completely recognizable.  Covered with a powdery white chalk (taken to be a funerary cosmetic), Lincoln’s flesh had turned a deep leathery bronze.  His whiskers, hair, and mole were all intact, though his eyebrows were gone.  Spidery bits of yellow mildew clung to the broadcloth suit he’d been buried in.  (He had worn it a week before his murder to his second inauguration.)  His gloves (which he hated to wear) had disintegrated, along with his pillow rest and a small flag that had been placed on his chest, but not his bow tie.  Some theorize that the body was in a remarkably good state of preservation owing to the repeated embalming necessary to preserve it during its long journey west in 1865.

 

Image: Photograph by Guy R. Mathis,
“Removing Lincoln’s Body, No. 9,”

from this source.

The Burial of the Unknown Soldier

Arrival of the remains of the unknown, November 1921 (Courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

In 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice ended World War One.

Some 1.2 million American troops were massed on the western front, in France.  In the last two months, they had aggressively and successfully battled German troops for control of the Argonne Forest.  This massive, culminating Allied assault, which compelled Germany to seek a negotiated peace, left some 26,000 Americans dead and another 95,000 wounded.  Their commanders knew an armistice was imminent, yet nearly 11,000 Americans were lost on the war’s final day.

Cruel as the costs of the battle were, American casualties in ‘the Great War’ (1914-1918) paled beside those of Europe.  France’s casualties alone totaled over 6.1 million, representing 73 percent of its mobilized force.  Of these, over a half-million were listed as prisoners or missing.  Britain’s casualties were more than 3.1 million, while Russia, which had mobilized 12 million men during the war (an astonishing number), saw 4.9 million wounded, 1.7 million killed.

Comprehending the magnitude of these losses and the nature and extent of the war’s damage was a social and philosophical struggle that would last for years.  The nations’ profound grief found expression in many forms.  Land and culture would long continue to bear the scars.

The war left soldiers without any recollection of their identity; it left psyches shattered from shell-shock, nerves damaged by gas.  Faces and limbs mutilated.  Corpses far too incorporeal to identify.  The war truly annihilated many combatants, depriving families the consolation of reclaiming their loved one’s remains.

In response, several nations moved to enact the symbolic burial of an unknown soldier in a ceremonial Tomb.  By interring a single anonymous warrior, they sought to honor and immortalize all who were lost and nameless.  The Tombs offered national recognition to numberless soldiers and their families, whose losses and sacrifices History had otherwise rubbed out.

Workers constructing the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington House.

In 1920, France and England were the first to bring such plans to fruition.  They interred their ‘unknowns’ in tombs at the Arc de Triomphe and Westminster Abbey.  The United States followed suit in 1921, bringing the remains of an unknown American soldier back from France for ceremonial reburial at Arlington Cemetery.  Workers labored for months, building the Tomb and a new Memorial Amphitheater too.

The ceremony was scheduled for November 11, which Congress declared should henceforth be known not as Armistice, but as Veterans, Day.  The coffin of an unknown American who died in the war’s last battle was randomly chosen from among four specially exhumed from the American cemetery at Meuse-Argonne.

The coffin of the unknown soldier aboard the USS Olympia (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Transported across the Atlantic in the U.S.S. Olympia, the body arrived at the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9.  General Pershing and other top brass received the body in an  elaborate disembarkation ceremony. The day was rainy.  The coffin lay on an upper deck under a tent of flags.

Lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia)

The body was taken to the Capitol, where, with the honors usually reserved for deceased presidents, it lay in state in the Rotunda, under a military guard.  President Harding (at right) and others (General Pershing, at left) came to pay their respects.  The bier was heaped with funeral wreaths, with more arriving every minute from all over the country.

Burial procession of the unknown, November 1921 (Courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr)

On Veterans Day, crowds clogged the streets, leaned from windows, and climbed rooftops, to witness the funeral cortege as it rolled by.  Six black horses pulled the caisson, at the head of a long procession that included President Harding, former President Woodrow Wilson, and ranks of the military.

President Wilson en route to the burial of the Unknown Soldier (Courtesy Library of Congress)

President Wilson rode in a carriage, even though he was an auto enthusiast and horse-drawn conveyances were by then an anachronism.

The Unknown Soldier's funeral cortege (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Crossing the Potomac into Virginia, the procession finally neared the grave.

Cameramen atop the Memorial Amphitheater (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Crowded atop the colonnade of the new amphitheater, cameramen documented the vistas, the participants, the pageantry, the scene.

President Warren G Harding beside the remains of the unknown soldier, Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, November 11, 1921 (Courtesy of the library of Congress via Wikipedia)

On a dais banked with flowers and festooned with funerary garlands, President Harding stood by the casket of the Unknown Soldier and addressed the crowd.

The Unknown Soldier being laid to rest (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Finally, the unknown soldier was laid to rest, while, beyond the crush of attentive mourners, a peaceful countryside stretched.

Some of the day’s events were even captured on film.

Hand-colored photographs are from the E.B. Thompson Collection,
courtesy of the DC Public Library via the Commons on Flickr.

Film clip courtesy of historycomestolife.
All other photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress.

RELATED:
Faked Repatriation of US Military Remains Today, the Daily Mail (UK).

MLK: Memorial and Man

It’s fun to imagine what our departed greats would think of the posthumous images we erect in their memory.  Some of those enshrined on the National Mall in DC would be startled or surprised to find how we see them.  Lincoln, famous in his own time for telling naughty stories too risqué to be repeated in polite society, would be amused to find himself so completely ennobled and now comfortably ensconced in the best society.  Jefferson, a great lover of the Enlightenment, would probably like his memorial’s Neo-classical trappings, but would he like being stuck inside forever that way?  He seems too cut off from Nature, there in his rotunda, which could scarcely please a man who so loved to garden.

And what about the new kid on the block, Martin Luther King, Jr.?  He’s probably more than a little bit miffed, and I don’t blame him.  His new statue is ugly, and he deserves better than to be remembered as a stern colossus cordoned off alone, with nothing but two marble icebergs for company.  I can hardly imagine a memorial duller or more inapt.  Here was a great artistic opportunity, and one bungled badly.

King’s was a congregate life.  His struggle, his aims, his achievements can only be appreciated by comprehending them in relation to a larger society.  He was nothing if not part of a collective, a figure who, because of his gifts and his particular conceptualization of the problem of black Americans, became the symbol and voice of a larger brotherhood, the leader of a larger tribe of suffering humankind.

He became great by giving voice to, and raising up, a great part of our society, and his labors, no matter how refracted by his own personality, were memorable and laudable because of his relation to other, more ordinary, Americans.  The photographs of King that stick in my mind are all teeming with crowds, with phalanxes and teams: King addressing the millions during the March on Washington; King marching with Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, and others who were the civil rights movement’s first generation of strategists and leaders; King walking arm in arm with his wife Coretta or a friend.  Even the famous image of King taken during his imprisonment in the Birmingham jail takes its significance from the fact that he had been temporarily ripped from his proper place as a leader of a movement and a people.  King’s invariable impulse was to place himself before, to be seen by, and to connect with masses of American people.

Not only was King essentially a creature of his race, a champion who gave voice to, and would not let us forget, the deplorable position of blacks within American society, but his too-brief life was almost inconceivably kinetic and dramatic, particularly during what would prove to be in his last years, between about 1963 and 1968, when he had really just reached maturity.  During these years, King worked, and spoke, and moved, incessantly.  In retrospect, his life appears to have been one long succession of sit-ins, bus rides, marches, interviews, mass meetings, huddles, parades, and rallies.  He was the leader of a movement, and that movement moved.  King moved hearts, but, more crucially, he moved millions of ordinary American citizens to act, and, in so doing, he achieved what few American leaders have ever accomplished as brilliantly.  Whatever their accomplishments, neither Lincoln, nor Jefferson, nor Washington ever led a popular movement of the sort that Martin Luther King helped will into being.  While these other leaders attained greatness while occupying positions at the top of America’s social and political hierarchies, King was a great dissident, leading an outsider movement that was amorphous and purely voluntary.  In that sense, his greatness came solely from his relationship to other people.

The crowded, kinetic character of King’s life is precisely what his new memorial fails to capture or even acknowledge.  King’s very death was public and dramatic, occurring at the center of a homely crowd scene; it, too, is occluded.  King as depicted on the Mall appears isolated, mute, static, even uncaring, yet this King couldn’t be farther from the passionate, embracing, vibrant, and, above all, articulate character whose words and deeds are impressed on our memories.

It’s unfortunate that King’s life and place in history have been immortalized in a way that separates King out and partakes of the “great man” theory of history.  The pressure to figure King in a style resembling that of the great whites he would join on the Mall must have been considerable.  Yet a representation truer to the significant chapters in King’s struggles for civil rights and referring in some way to the larger social and political context in which he labored would have been preferable.  King did not emerge, inexplicably, out of nowhere, like some force of nature: his identity as an activist and intellectual was inextricable from the major traditions and figures that influenced and inspired him.  King’s hard-won pre-eminence as a civil rights leader derived from his ability to frame arguments about racial justice in terms of democratic principles and Christian precepts that most Americans, regardless of race, understood and revered.  He was also deeply influenced by the example and ideas of the great Indian pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi, whom King traveled to meet early in life, and from whom he adopted the key principle of non-violent resistance.

King’s contributions to American life do not hinge solely or even principally on his steadfast determination, as his sculptor has argued; many blacks of that time were similarly determined.  King’s great contribution lay in bringing together a rich complex of ideas through which his people’s disruptive yet urgent crusade for equality could be legitimated and realized.  “Why We Can’t Wait” was one of his famous titles.

Choosing to depict King’s situation and achievements in a more explicit way would have been risky as well as more artistically demanding.  King’s importance cannot be understood without acknowledging the perdurance in America of race hatred, any more than his success can be explained without reference to religious faith, including that of non-Christian spirituality.  The modern era furnishes many instances of memorials—from David’s Death of Marat to the Vietnam Memorial—that are at once simple, truthful, and moving.  Had the creators of the King Memorial harkened to such examples, they might have arrived as a more fitting and less sanitized tribute to one of our greatest modern men.