George Alfred Townsend, "The Obsequies in Washington," April 19, 1865

    Source citation
    George Alfred Townsend, The Life, Crime, and Capture of John Wilkes Booth and the Pursuit, Trial, and Execution of his Accomplices, (New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1865), 13-18.
    Recipient (to)
    New York World
    Date Certainty
    John Osborne, Dickinson College
    Transcription date
    The following text is presented here in complete form, as it originally appeared in print. Spelling and typographical errors have been preserved as in the original.
    Washington, April 19, (Evening).
    The most significant and most creditable celebration ever held in Washington has just transpired. A good ruler has been followed from his home to the Capitol by a grand cortege, worthy of the memory and of the nation's power. As description must do injustice to the extent of the display, so must criticism fail to sufficiently commend its perfect tastefulness. Rarely has a Republican assemblage been so orderly. The funeral of Mr. Lincoln is something to be remembered for a cycle. It caps all eulogy upon his life and services, and was, without exception, the most representative, spontaneous, and remarkable testimonial ever rendered to the remains of an American citizen.
    The night before the funeral showed the probable character of the cortege. At Willard's alone four hundred applications by telegraph for beds were refused. As many as six thousand persons spent Tuesday night in the streets, in depots and in outbuildings. The population of the city this morning was not far short of a hundred thousand, and of these as many as thirty thousand walked in procession with Mr. Lincoln's ashes.
    All orders of folks were at hand. The country adjacent sent in haywagons, donkey-carts, dearborns. All who could slip away from the army came to town, and every attainable section of the Union forwarded mourners. At no time in his life had Mr. Lincoln so many to throng about him as in this hour, when he is powerless to do any one a service. For once in history, office-seekers were disinterested, and contractors and hangers-on human. These came, for this time only, to the capital of the republic without an axe to grind or a curiosity to subserve; respect and grief were all their motive. This day was shown that the great public heart beats unselfish and reverent, even after a dynasty of plunder and war.
    The arrangements for the funeral were made by Mr. Harrington, Assistant-Secretary of the Treasury, who was beset by applicants for tickets. The number of these were reduced to six hundred, the clergy getting sixty and the press twenty. I was among the first to pass the White House guards and enter the building.
    Its freestone columns were draped in black, and all the windows were funereal. The ancient reception-room was half closed, and the famous East room, which is approached by a spacious hall, had been reserved for the obsequies. There are none present here but a few silent attendants of the late owner of the republican palace. Deeply ensconced in the white satin stuffing of his coffin, the President lies like one asleep. The broad, high, beautiful room is like the varnished interior of a vault. The frescoed ceiling wears the national shield, some pointed vases filled with flowers and fruit, and three emblazonings of gilt pendant from which are shrouded chandeliers. A purplish gray is the prevailing tint of the ceiling. The cornice is silver white, set off by a velvet crimson. The wall paper is gold and red, broken by eight lofty mirrors, which are chastely margined with black and faced with fleece. Their imperfect surfaces reflect the lofty catafalque, an open canopy of solemn alapaca, lined with tasteful satin of creamish lead, looped at the curving roof and dropping to the four corners in half transparent tapestry. Beneath the roof, the half light shines upon a stage of fresh and fragrant flowers, up-bearing a long, high coffin. White lace of pure silver pendant from the border throws a mild shimmer upon the solid silver tracery hinges and emblazonings. A cross of lilies stands at the head, an anchor of roses at the foot. The lid is drawn back to show the face and bosom, and on the coffin top are heather, precious flowers, and sprigs of green. This catafalque, or in plain words, this coffin set upon a platform and canopied, has around it a sufficient space of Brussels carpet, and on three sides of this there are raised steps covered with black, on which the honored visitors are to stand.
    The fourth side is bare, save of a single row of chairs, some twenty in number, on which the reporters are to sit. The odor of the room is fresh and healthy; the shade is solemn, without being oppressive. All is rich, simple, and spacious, and in such sort as any king might wish to lie. Approach and look at the dead man.
    Death has fastened into his frozen face all the character and idiosyncrasy of life. He has not changed one line of his grave, grotesque countenance, nor smoothed out a single feature. The hue is rather bloodless and leaden; but he was alway sallow. The dark eyebrows seem abruptly arched; the beard, which will grow no more, is shaved close, save the tuft at the short small chin. The mouth is shut, like that of one who had put the foot down firm, and so are the eyes, which look as calm as slumber. The collar is short and awkward, turned over the stiff elastic cravat, and whatever energy or humor or tender gravity marked the living face is hardened into its pulseless outline. No corpse in the world is better prepared according to appearances. The white satin around it reflects sufficient light upon the face to show us that death is really there; but there are sweet roses and early magnolias, and the balmiest of lilies strewn around, as if the flowers had begun to bloom even upon his coffin. Looking on uninterruptedly! for there is no pressure, and henceforward the place will be thronged with gazers who will take from the sight its suggestiveness arid respect. Three years ago, when little Willie Lincoln died, Doctors Brown and Alexander, the embalmers or injectors, prepared his body so handsomely that the President had it twice disinterred to look upon it. The same men, in the same way, have made perpetual these beloved lineaments. There is now no blood in the body; it was drained by the jugular vein and sacredly preserved, and through a cutting on the inside of the thigh the empty bloodvessels were charged with a chemical preparation which soon hardened to the consistence of stone. The long and bony body is now hard and stiff, so that beyond its present position it cannot be moved any more than the arms or legs of a statue. It has undergone many changes. The scalp has been removed, the brain taken out, the chest opened and the blood emptied. All that we see of Abraham Lincoln, so cunningly contemplated in this splendid coffin, is a mere shell, an effigy, a sculpture. He lies in sleep, but it is the sleep of marble. All that made this flesh vital, sentient, and affectionate is gone forever.
    The officers present are Generals Hunter and Dyer and two staff captains. Hunter, compact and dark and reticent, walks about the empty l chamber in full uniform, his bright buttons and sash and sword contrasting with his dark blue uniform, gauntlets upon his hands, crape on his arm and blade, his corded hat in his hands, a paper collar just apparent above his velvet tips, and now and then he speaks to Captain Nesmith or Captain Dewes, of General Harding's staff, rather as one who wishes company than one who has anything to say. His two silver stars upon his shoulder shine dimly in the draped apartment. He was one of the first in the war to urge the measures which Mr. Lincoln afterward adopted. The aids walk to and fro, selected without reference to any association with the late President. Their clothes are rich, their swords wear mourning, they go in silence, everything is funereal. In the deeply-draped mirrrors strange mirages are seen, as in the coffin scene of "Lucretia Borgia," where all the dusky perspectives bear vistas of gloomy palls. The upholsterers make timid noises of driving nails and spreading tapestry; but save ourselves and these few watchers and workers, only the dead is here. The White House, so ill-appreciated in common times, is seen to be capacious and elegant—no disgrace to the nation even in the eyes of those foreign folk of rank who shall gather here directly.
    As we sit brooding, with the pall straight before us, the funeral guns are heard indistinctly booming from the far forts, with the tap of drums in that serried street without, where troops and citizens are forming for the grand procession. We see through the window in the beautiful spring day that the grass is brightly green; and all the trees in blossom, show us through their archways the bronze and marble statues breaking the horizon. But there is one at an upper window, seeing all this through her tears, to whom the beautiful noon, with its wealth of zephyrs and sweets, can wait no gratulation. The father of her children, the confidant of her affection and ambition, has passed from life into immortality, and lies below, dumb, cold murdered. The feeling of sympathy for Mrs. Lincoln is as wide-spread as the regret for the chief magistrate. Whatever indiscretions she may have committed in the abrupt transition from plainness to power are now forgiven and forgotten. She and her sons are the property of the nation associated with its truest glories and its worst bereavement. By and by the guests drop in, hat in hand, wearing upon their sleeves waving crape; and some of them slip up to the coffin to carry away a last impression of the fading face.
    But the first accession of force is that of the clergy, sixty in number. They are devout looking men, darkly attired, and have come from all the neighboring cities to represent every denomination. Five years ago these were wrangling over slavery as a theological question, and at the beginning of the war it was hard, in many of their bodies, to carry loyal resolutions. To-day there are here such sincere mourners as Robert Pattison, of the Methodist church, who passed much of his life among slaves and masters. He and the rest have come to believe that the President was wise and right, and follow him to his grave, as the apostles the interred on calvary. All these retire to the south end of the room, facing the feet of the corpse, and stand there silently to wait for the coming of others. Very soon this East room is filled with the representative intelligence of the entire nation. The governors of states stand on the dais next to the head of the coffin, with the varied features of Curtin, Brough, Fenton, Stone, Oglesby and Ingraham. 
    Behind them are the mayors and councilmen of many towns paying their last respects to the representative of the source of all municipal freedom. To their left are the corporate officers of Washington, zealous to make this day's funeral honors atone for the shame of the assassination. With these are sprinkled many scarred and worthy soldiers who have borne the burden of the grand war, and stand before this shape they loved in quiet civil reverence.
    Still further down the steps and closer to the catafalque rest the familiar faces of many of our greatest generals—the manly features of Augur, whose blood I have seen trickling forth upon the field of battle; the open almost beardless contour of Halleck, who has often talked of seiges and campaigns with this homely gentleman who is going to the grave. There are many more bright stars twinkling in contiguous shoulder bars, but sitting in a chair upon the beflowered carpet is Ulysses Grant, who has lived a century in the last three weeks and comes today to add the luster of his iron face to this thrilling and saddened picture. He wears white gloves and sash, and is swarthy, nervous, and almost tearful, his feet crossed, his square receding head turning now here now there, his treble constellation blazing upon the left shoulder only, but hidden on the right, and I seem to read upon his compact features the indurate and obstinate will to fight, on the line he has selected, the honor of the country through any peril, as if he had sworn it by the slain man's bier—his state-fellow, patron, and friend. Here also is General McCallum, who has seamed the rebellious South with military roads to send victory along them, and bring back the groaning and the scarred. These and the rest are grand historic figures, worthy of all artistic depiction. They have looked so often into the mortar's mouth, that no bravo's blade can make them wince. Do you see the thin-haired, conical head of the viking Farragut, close by General Grant, with many naval heroes close behind, storm-beaten, and every inch Americans in thought and physiognomy?
    What think the foreign ambassadors of such men, in the light of their own overloaded bodies, where meaningless orders, crosses, and ribbons shine dimly in the funeral light? These legations number, perhaps, a hundred men, of all civilized races,—the Sardinian envoy, jetty-eyed, towering above the rest. But they are still and respectful, gathered thus by a slain ruler, to see how worthy is the republic he has preserved. Whatever sympathy these have for our institutions, I think that in such audience they must have been impressed with the futility of any thought that either one citizen right or one territorial inch can ever be torn from the United States. Not to speak disparagingly of these noble guests, I was struck with the superior facial energy of our own public servants, who were generally larger, and brighter-faced, born of that aristocracy which took its patent from Tubal Cain, and Abel the goatherd, and graduated in Abraham Lincoln. The Haytien minister, swarthy and fiery-faced, is conspicuous among these.
    But nearer down, and just opposite the catafalque so that it is perpendicular to the direction of vision, stand the central powers of our government, its President and counsellors. President Johnson is facing the middle of the coffin upon the lowest step; his hands are crossed upon his breast, his dark clothing just revealing his plaited shirt, and upon his full, plethoric, shaven face, broad and severely compact, two telling gray eyes rest under a thoughtful brow, whose turning hair is straight and smooth. Beside him are Vice-President Hamlin, whom he succeeded, and ex-Governor King, his most intimate friend, who lends to the ruling severity of the place a half Falstaffian episode. The cabinet are behind, as if arranged for a daguerreotypist, Stanton, short and quicksilvery, in long goatee and glasses, in stunted contrast to the tall and snow-tipped shape of Mr. Welles with the rest, practical and attentive, and at their side is Secretary Chase, high, dignified, and handsome, with folded arms, listening, but undemonstrative, a half-foot higher than any spectator, and dividing with Charles Sumner, who is near by, the preference for manly beauty in age. With Mr. Chase are other justices of the Supreme Courts and to their left, near the feet of the corpse, are the reverend senators, representing the oldest and the newest states —splendid faces, a little worn with early and later toils, backed up by the high, classical features of Colonel Forney, their secretary. Beyond are the representatives and leading officials of the various departments, 'with a few odd folks like George Francis Train, exquisite as ever, and, for this time only, with nothing to say.
    Close by the corpse sit the relatives of the deceased, plain, honest, hardy people, typical as much of the simplicity of our institutions as of Mr. Lincoln's self-made eminence. No blood relatives of Mr. Lincoln were to be found. It is a singular evidence of the poverty of his origin, and therefore of his exceeding good report, that, excepting his immediate family, none answering to his name could be discovered. Mrs. Lincoln's relatives were present, however, in some force. Dr. Lyman Beecher Todd, General John B. S. Todd, C. M. Smith, Esq., and Mr. N. W. Edwards, the late President's brother-in-law, plain, self-made people were here and were sincerely affected. Captain Robert Lincoln sat during the services with his face in his handkerchief weeping quietly, and little Tad his face red and heated, cried as if his heart would break. Mrs. Lincoln, weak, worn, and nervous, did not enter the- East room nor follow the remains. She was the chief magistrate's lady yesterday; to-day a widow bearing only an immortal name. Among the neighbors of the late President, who came from afar to pay respect to his remains, was one old gentleman who left Richmond on Sunday. I had been upon the boat with him and heard him in hot wrangle with some officers who advised the summary execution of, all rebel leaders. This the old man opposed, when the feeling against him became so intense that he was compelled to retire. He counselled mercy, good faith, and forgiveness. To-day, the men who had called him a traitor, saw him among the family mourners, bent with grief. All these are waiting in solemn lines, standing erect, with a space of several feet between them and the coffin, and there is no bustle nor unseemly curiosity, not a whisper, not a footfall—only the collected nation looking with awed hearts upon eminent death.
    This scene is historic. I regret that I must tell you of it over a little wire, for it admits of all exemplification. In this high, spacious, elegant apartment, laughter and levee, social pleasantry and refined badinage, had often held their session. Dancing and music had made those mirrors thrill which now reflect a pall, and where the most beautiful women of their day have mingled here with men of brilliant favor, now only a very few, brave enough to look upon death, were wearing funeral weeds. The pleasant face of Mrs. Kate Sprague looks out from these; but such scenes gain little additional power by beauty's presence. And 
    this wonderful relief was carved at one blow by John Wilkes Booth.
    The religious services began at noon. They were remarkable not only for their association with the national event, but for a tremendous political energy which they had. While none of the prayers or speeches exhibited great literary carefulness, or will obtain perpetuity on their own merits, they were full of feeling and expressed all the intense concern of the country.
    The procession surpassed in sentiment, populousness, and sincere good feeling, anything of the kind we have had in America. It was several miles long, and in all its elements was, full and tasteful. The scene on the avenue will be alway remembered as the only occasion on which that great thoroughfare was a real adornment to the seat of government. In the tree tops, on the. house tops, at all the windows, the silent and affected crowds clustered beneath half-mast banners and waving crape, to reverentially uncover as the dark vehicle, bearing its rich silver-mounted coffin, swept along; mottoes of respect and homage were on many edifices, and singularly some of them were taken from the play of Richard III., which was the murderer's favorite part. The entire width of the avenue was swept, from curb to, curb, by the deep lines.
    The chief excellence of this procession was its representative nature. All classes, localities and trades were out. As the troops in broad, straight columns, with reversed muskets, moved to solemn marches, all the guns on the fortifications on the surrounding hills discharged hoarse salutes—guns which the arbiter of war whom they were to honor could hear no longer. Every business place was closed. Sabermen swept the street of footmen and horsemen. The carriages drove two abreast.
    Not less than five thousand officers, of every rank, marched abreast with the cortege. They were noble looking men with intelligent faces, and represented the sinews of the land, and the music was not the least excellent feature of the mournful display. About thirty bands were in the line, and these played all varieties of solemn marches, so that there were continual and mingling strains of funeral music for more than three hours. Artillery, consisting of heavy brass pieces, followed behind. In fact, all the citizen virtues and all the military enterprise of the country were evidenced. Never again, until Washington becomes in fact what it is in name, the chief city of America, shall we have a scene like this repeated—the grandest procession ever seen on this continent, spontaneously evoked to celebrate the foulest crime on record. If any feeling of gratulation could arise in so calamitous a time, it would be, that so soon after this appalling calamity the nation calmly and collectedly rallied about its succeeding rulers, and showed in the same moment its regret for the past and its resolution for the future. To me, the scene in the White House, the street, and the capitol to-day, was the strongest evidence the war afforded of the stability of our institutions, and the worthiness and magnanimous power of our people.
    The cortege passed to the left-side of the Capitol, and entering the great gates, passed to the grand stairway, opposite the splendid dome, where the coffin was disengaged and carried up the ascent, it was posted under the bright concave, now streaked with mournful trappings, and left in state,. watched by guards of officers withdrawn swords. This was a wonderful spectacle, the man most beloved and honored in the ark of the republic. The storied paintings representing eras in its history were draped in sable, through which they seemed to cast reverential glances upon the lamented bier. The thrilling scenes depicted by Trumbull, the commemorative canvases of Leutze, the wilderness vegetation of Powell, glared from their seperate pedestals upon the central spot where lay the fallen majesty of the country. Here the prayers and addresses of the noon were rehearsed and the solemn burial service read. At night the jets of gas concealed in the spring of the dome were lighted up, so that their bright reflection upon the frescoed walls hurled masses of burning light, like marvelous haloes, upon the little box where so much that we love and honor rested on its way to the grave. And so through the starry night, in the fane of ths great Union he had strengthened and. recovered, the ashes of Abraham Lincoln, zealously guarded, are now reposing. The sage, the citizen, the patriot, the man, has reached all the eminence that life can give the worthy or the ambitious. The hunted fugitive who struck through our hearts to slay him, should stand beside his stately bier to see how powerless are bullets and blades to take the real life of any noble man! 
    How to Cite This Page: "George Alfred Townsend, "The Obsequies in Washington," April 19, 1865," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,