Summer Vacation and Abraham Lincoln
In July I always take a three day mini vacation with my family. Since it opened in 2005, one of our destinations is the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, adjacent to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Yesterday we traveled down to the Museum for our latest dose of Lincolnia.
Springfield, the capital of Illinois, is an overgrown small town of 110,000 people nestled in the endless corn and soy bean fields of Central Illinois. I’ve always loved the town. You can still park on the street for a quarter for 30 minutes, and walking around downtown Springfield where most of the Lincoln sites are located is a pleasant experience. Lincoln is Springfield’s main claim to fame, so there are plenty of signs pointing out the Lincoln sites and they are quite easy to locate.
The Lincoln Museum tells the story of Lincoln’s life. You begin in a mock cabin with Lincoln as a boy reading by the fireside, with a sleeping dog snoring beside him. The models used are nicely done and the sound effects are accurate. Leaving the cabin, you proceed to see a the depiction of a slave auction with the auctioneer looking appropriately demonic. (His face is even bathed in a red light!) A family is being broken up with the father being sold away from his grieving wife and son. It is an effective commentary on the horror of human slavery.
Then its off to Lincoln in his general store. He is depicted waiting upon a female customer while resting his hand on a grammar book that he has been reading. Ironically there is a poster for a fugitive slave in a corner of the store. Historically the store went bust, largely due to the improvidence of Lincoln’s business partner. Lincoln struggled for years, ultimately successfully, to pay off the debt which was amassed from the store, a debt he deemed ruefully “The National Debt.”
Then we see a young Mr. Lincoln and a young Ms. Todd sitting together on a couch, courting.
On the way to Lincoln’s law office, the original tombstone of Eddie Lincoln, Lincoln’s beloved son who died at 4 in 1850 is displayed. Two of Lincoln’s four sons died before reaching adulthood, both during Lincoln’s life, and a third shortly after his 18th birthday. For any parent, it is hard to imagine anything worse than the death of a child.
In the law office we see Lincoln’s desk piled high with legal briefs. (Although I do believe Lincoln’s desk is a bit more orderly than mine, something I try not to think about when I am on vacation!) Lincoln is reading a paper, oblivious to two of his sons playing stickball with inkwells and spattering ink over the walls of the office. Herndon, Lincoln’s partner, would refer to Lincoln’s sons as hellions and dread their visits to the office. Lincoln was never much of a disciplinarian with his kids, and I think this was a valid complaint of Mary Lincoln who found that onerous task falling to her by default.
We then walk by Lincoln debating “the Little Giant”, Stephen A. Douglas, during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln and Douglas had the two keenest political minds of their generation and they each had a healthy, albeit wary, respect for the abilities of the other.
1860 has arrived and we see a sample of what 1860 campaign commercials done with twenty-first technology would look like. The late Tim Russert narrates. The commercials are amusing and do effectively highlight the differences between the four candidates for President that year.
Lincoln wins, and it is on to the White House. At the White House the first display is of inaugural ball gowns which my wife and daughter always find fascinating. We pass by a large mural of Fort Sumter and the war is on. You then pass through one of the cleverer displays at the museum. Walking through a winding hallway filled with hostile period cartoons of Lincoln in distorted frames, you hear whispers of attacks against Lincoln by his critics. The cartoons are worth a careful look. Vicious political attacks on the American political scene are nothing new and some of the attacks on Lincoln, especially of a racial nature, have to be seen to be believed.
Tragedy and the Lincolns never seemed to be strangers. Willie Lincoln died in the White House in 1862 and we see him sick in his bed being waited upon by his worried parents. We then witness Mary Lincoln, seated, looking out a rain streaked window, shattered by grief. In the kitchen of the White House we hear unseen kitchen help gossiping about Mrs. Lincoln’s grief having affected her mental stability.
Then we pass through a cabinet meeting in the White House discussing the Emancipation Proclamation. Some years there is a volunteer there in period dress to discuss the meeting and who the various cabinet members are.
The next display is my favorite. We see Lincoln standing at his desk looking at the Emancipation Proclamation, while shadows appear to his right and left who give him conflicting advice as to whether he should issue the Proclamation. I have never seen a better depiction of the loneliness and doubt of someone attempting to make a critical decision for his nation and the burden of responsibility that comes with power.
Back to the war. A large mural depicting the heroic attack of the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner movingly retold in the film Glory. The Civil War in four minutes is a video where you witness the progress of the war as the casualties mount. Lincoln is then shown sitting grimly in the telegraph office in Washington as he receives news of battle casualties. A huge mural depicts Gettysburg and smaller paintings depict the events of the war as it ends in victory for the Union.
Ford theater is our next stop where we see Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln in their box just prior to the assassination.
Lincoln is then seen, or rather his casket, at his lying in state in Springfield before his internment.
There are more features at the museum, but I will leave them for another day. If any of you who have not been to the Museum are ever in Springfield, please take the time to do so, especially if you have kids. It is one of the more worthwhile commemorative efforts of a great American I have witnessed, and I hope will encourage people, especially kids, to read and think about the life of this remarkable man.
After the Museum we stopped by the Prairie Archives, a fantastic used book store in downtown Springfield, which, as you might expect, has an extensive section on Lincoln and the Civil War. We had lunch and then finished off, as we always do, at Lincoln’s Tomb. We said our usual prayers before Lincoln’s vault for the repose of his soul and for the souls of Mrs. Lincoln and their children. It says something wonderful about this country that the tomb of a President who led the country through a bloody civil war needs no armed guards about it and no security. You simply go in, look around and walk out. There are signs requesting silence and respectful behavior in the tomb.
Outside don’t forget to rub the nose of the huge bust of Lincoln. Busts of Lincoln in Illinois always have shiny noses that we Illinoisans rub for luck. It is rank superstition and I gleefully participate in it.
Leaving Springfield we spent the two hour drive home listening to an audio book on Lincoln and the Second Inaugural Address. A good day for the McClarey family.