History

A Long Journey into Night: Abraham Lincoln’s Corpse at Rest

The exhumation of Lincoln’s body in 1901.
A Long Journey into Night: Abraham Lincoln’s Corpse at Rest

Although Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his final burial didn’t occur until 1901, and only after his coffin had been moved and opened several times.

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April of 1865 was a month of triumph and tragedy in Washington D.C. The surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on the 9th of April marked a formal end to the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil. Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious general once ridiculed as an abject failure at life and a perpetual drunk, was a national hero held in such high regard that he would go on to serve two terms as President of the United States. But it was another man of humble origins who would, as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton so eloquently stated, “belong to the ages,” a modest yet brilliant lawyer and politician from Springfield, Illinois. This man, whose likeness is etched into the national consciousness on coin and currency, in marble and in stone, was the 16th President of the United States, the great emancipator, savior of the Union, Abraham Lincoln. And on the 15th of April 1865, he died a martyr’s death.

Justice was swift. The assassin, an actor and Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth, was tracked, cornered, and shot by the 26th of April. The larger failed conspiracy was investigated, arrests were made, and four conspirators were executed by hanging on the 7th of July. But the mourning endured. From verses of Shakespeare’s “King Henry VIII” published in a letter proclaiming Lincoln a martyr to the New York Times on the 26th of April 1865, to the classical poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” written by Walt Whitman in 1865 to eulogize Lincoln and learned in schools across the nation to this day, the nation grieved for the greatest and most beloved president since General George Washington. So it is no wonder that unscrupulous citizens would believe a successful kidnapping plot involving the post-mortem Lincoln might be a lucrative endeavor.

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A failed attempt to steal Lincoln’s corpse for ransom occurred on the 7th of November in 1876. A band of counterfeiters broke into Lincoln’s tomb, removed the marble lid from his sarcophagus, and arduously attempted to make off with the coffin before police were alerted and the plot quickly thwarted. The coffin was moved and stored in various discreet locations in the cemetery over the following years. The unsecured and deteriorating tomb at Oak Hill Cemetery was replaced with a new tomb in 1901. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, decided to encase the president’s coffin in steel and concrete to prevent future disturbance.

Before the final interment, and unbeknownst to Robert Lincoln, workers re-interring the president decided it was necessary to once again view Abraham Lincoln’s remains to prevent future rumors that the body was not resting in the soon to be permanent grave. A portion of the lead-lined coffin was removed from above Lincoln’s face and shoulders to reveal the intact features of the 16th president, minus eyebrows and with the addition of some mold and mildew. The frequent embalming required for the deceased president’s seven-state funeral procession probably accounted for the impressive extent of the corpse’s preservation. Witnesses unanimously agreed that the coffin contained Lincoln’s remains.

The coffin was placed in a steel cage, buried 10 feet below the ground, and encased in concrete—permanently interred in a monument befitting Lincoln’s status. There Abraham Lincoln remains, at rest only after his coffin was moved 17 times and opened five. His final resting place, located in Oak Hill Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois, is and will continue to be one of the most sacred of historical landmarks in the United States.

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History

Randal A. Burd Jr. is a freelance writer, educator, and poet from Missouri. He is also a Kentucky Colonel and a genealogy enthusiast.

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