A year ago, on the eve of President’s Day, I released a blog post about the life and death of Abraham Lincoln , the 16th President of the United States. With Abraham Lincoln’s birthday fast approaching, I was reminded that I still have a story to tell about my experiences in May 2015 at the Lincoln Funeral Reenactment in Springfield, Illinois, on the 150th anniversary of his funeral. There is so much I’d like to share about this once-in-a-lifetime event, so this story will be told in three parts, each one a little more emotional than the previous one.
On Friday evening, May 1, 2015, after spending 12 hours photographing our way from central Missouri to Springfield, Illinois, we checked into our motel and then I quickly headed down to the train depot. My goal was to capture a few photos of the Lincoln funeral car recreated for this event.
As I neared the depot, I passed the beautiful Old State Capitol building, where Abraham Lincoln’s body was displayed on May 3 and 4, 1865, for the people of Springfield before it was transported to Oak Ridge Cemetery. And I was happy to discover that I could park near the depot and walk a short distance to take my photographs, and that there were relatively few people around it. This would not be the case in the morning.
This historically accurate replica was built by Dave Kloke, a master mechanic from Elgin, Illinois, who developed a passion for the funeral train after watching a Lincoln documentary. Through extensive study of drawings and photographs, and with the help of Lincoln history and railroad industry experts, volunteers, and employees from Dave’s company, the replica funeral car was designed and built from scratch. The result was a work of art that looked like the original train car that transported Lincoln’s body from Washington, D.C. to Springfield in 1865.
I quickly captured a few shots, then headed back to the motel to unload and back up the photos from the day and to study the information we had on Saturday’s activities. I knew Saturday was going to be a long, hard day and that much of the center of the city would be closed to traffic. After making a plan for the next day, I packed my equipment, a map of the downtown and the procession route, and some water in a backpack and climbed into bed. As I drifted off to sleep, I gave myself a pep talk about keeping a good attitude amidst the tens of thousands of people expected for the event.
Around 8:30 a.m., Ruth dropped me off for the morning activities and, as I walked toward the depot, I crossed a parking lot where many Civil War troop reenactors were preparing for the upcoming procession from the depot to the Old State Capitol. There were four young reenactors having a good time with each other and they made me smile.
Some were dressed as Union Army officers. I especially liked this man who struck a serious pose as he waited for the activities to begin.
As I neared the depot, I could hear Civil War era music being played by the 5th Michigan Regiment Band, a 1973 re-creation of the 5th Michigan Infantry Band that existed prior to Lincoln’s death in 1865. The band performs songs from the 1860’s on vintage and reproduction sax horns and wood rope tension drums.
In the first year of the Civil War, thousands of musicians enlisted to play in regimental bands. In most cases, these soldiers’ main duties involved providing music for marching troops, at concerts and dances, and for ceremonies and civic functions. However, these musicians sometimes ended up playing music during actual battles or assisting in medical operations. The music played by these bands boosted soldier morale and reminded them of home.
As I captured numerous photographs of the wonderful 5th Michigan Regiment Band, all dressed in blue, members of President Lincoln’s Own Band, all dressed in red, waited for their turn to play. This band portrays the Civil War era U.S. Marine Band. It was formed in 2012 to perform in Steven Spielberg’s movie "Lincoln."
The Lincoln funeral car, which I had photographed the previous night, was located on the other side of the tracks that ran past the depot. There were hundreds of troop and civilian reenactors surrounding the funeral car, although I couldn’t see that from where I was standing. On the depot side of the tracks, the crowd was standing shoulder to shoulder between the tracks and the depot. Some of these folks had been standing there since dawn in order to hold onto a good spot from which to see the flag-draped coffin carried from the funeral car to the hearse.
Knowing that there were still a few minutes before that transfer would take place, I mustered up the courage to politely squeeze through the crowd asking permission to move to the front for a couple of quick photos. Happily, people responded kindly to my request and I moved all the way to the tracks and back (past the same people, thanking them) all in about three minutes. When I got back to my spot by the depot, I captured the Sergeant Major of President Lincoln’s Own Band enjoying a moment with a member of the 5th Michigan Regiment Band.
The Seargent Major of President Lincoln's Own Band with Member of 5th Michigan Regiment Band, Springfield, Illinois
Around 9:15, after the coffin had been loaded into the beautifully re-created horse-drawn hearse, the hearse driver and six black horses slowly pulled the hearse onto Jefferson Street.
In 1865, the city of Springfield borrowed an elaborately decorated hearse from St. Louis livery operators Lynch and Arnot. Unfortunately, this hearse suffered the same demise as Lincoln’s funeral car when it was destroyed in an 1887 livery fire.
The Staab Family, owners of Staab Funeral Home in Springfield, Illinois, took on the task of re-creating the hearse. This was a monumental task due to the fact that there was only one remaining photograph of the original hearse, along with an 1865 woodcut of the funeral scene and a newspaper article description of the hearse. After months of research, and over a year of work by architects and expert craftsmen, including many combat veterans, the hearse was completed shortly before the funeral reenactment. It was certainly a labor of love and a work of art, with its etched glass windows and ostrich-feathered plumes.
Walking alongside the ornate hearse were honorary pallbearers, six of whom were direct descendants of the original pallbearers. The youngest descendant was 11-year-old William Polston of Minneapolis, Minnesota. What a great experience it must have been for that young man!
Suddenly, the patrol team and police officers started shouting at the crowd to move away from the train tracks. There was a lot of confusion at first, but it became clear that a freight train was barreling down the tracks and would soon be crossing Jefferson Street. I noticed that there were many horse-drawn vehicles on the other side of the tracks, so I quickly crossed the tracks. If we were going to have to wait a while, I wanted to take advantage of the stopped carriages.
Due to the modern and commercial backgrounds all around these carriages, I decided to pull in close to the carriage drivers and riders. In Parts 2 and 3, I will share several horse-drawn carriage photos from the actual processions. This is one of my favorite close-ups of a reenactor with a sparkle in his eyes. I think he would also make a good Santa Claus.
After a long 25-minute wait, even though the train had passed, the procession was still at a standstill and the patrols were not letting anyone cross the tracks. So I realized that I would have to take an alternative route to find a place to photograph the procession. I looked at my map and took an indirect route, hustling about five blocks as the procession began to move again. In Part 2, I will pick up where this leaves off. Please join me there.
In the meantime, you can view additional photos from the Lincoln Funeral Reenactment weekend here.