There has been a recent surge of interest in Columbus’ role in the funeral procession of President Abraham Lincoln.
A large American flag flown at that time has been restored, and its display reminds us of the remarkable time of Lincoln’s final visit to Columbus.
The Lincoln funeral train arrived in Columbus on April 22, 1865, and stayed in town for one day. Lincoln’s casket was opened in the Statehouse rotunda, and in the course of the day, more than 50,000 people passed by, four abreast, to view the president’s body.
People who came to the Statehouse that day likely held the memory of it vividly for the rest of their lives – as well they should have. Twenty-day funeral processions by train are not a common occurrence.
However, a focus on that one day in April 1865 and the extraordinary and genuine grief of that time may lead us to overlook the emotional shift that took place so quickly in that month that ended the Civil War.
The war was a transformative event like no other in the American experience. In the course of four years of conflict, more than 600,000 men had died in a country of only 30 million people. Thousands of other men had been grievously wounded, and an uncounted number of civilians had died as well.
Ohio had provided more young men to the war per capita than any other state in the Union, prompting Lincoln to say, “Ohio has saved the Union.”
A railroad hub and capital city of 18,000 people had become a training center of more than 30,000 Union troops at camps located around the city. By early 1865, Columbus was ready to see an end to all this.
When the end came in April 1865, the city of was ready to celebrate.
The Confederate capital of Richmond fell to Union forces April 2, 1865.
An early local history described the celebration: “When the news of Richmond’s fall flashed over the wires in the course of the next day, flags were flung out all over the city, even vehicles on the street were dressed with them, and the first dashes of an ocean of enthusiasm swept over the community. In the evening a great crowd assembled as by common impulse at the West Front of the Capitol where so many meetings had been held during the gloomy episodes of the war, and there listened to the latest dispatches, read by Governor (John) Brough, who also addressed the people and interpreted the good news.”
A week later, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. In Columbus, according to the history, “churches gave up their congregations, hotels their occupants, and one grand, loud, continued, shouting song told the people’s joy. Cannon thundered, bells clanged, bonfires blazed. A monster crowd collected and was addressed by Governor Brough … ”
The collective celebration continued through the week, culminating in a major rally April 14, honoring Grant’s victories in Virginia:
“The day was opened with the ringing of bells, blowing of whistles and firing of cannon, and at an early hour, the streets were thronged with people. Business was generally suspended. The day was one of thanksgiving, as well as joy, and services were held at the principal churches … In the evening the whole city was illuminated, there being scarcely anywhere a single dark window.”
In the evening, “a torchlight parade passed through the streets, led by the 88th Ohio Volunteer Infantry ... a large and highly enthusiastic evening meeting, on the Capitol Square, opened with the song of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ … Various patriotic songs intersperse the speaking, while from a platform on the grounds a brilliant display of fireworks was made.
“At the close of the meeting, the people sang the doxology, and dispersed we are told, full of ‘joyous emotions.’
“On the following morning – Saturday, April 15, while the city was yet dressed with the Insignia of Rejoicing, the whole community was startled with the news that President Lincoln had been assassinated the preceding evening at a theatre in Washington. A suspension of business immediately ensued, and the people, eager for particulars, gathered in great crowds around the newspaper bulletin boards.”
Mourning continued for several days, culminating in the visit of the funeral train April 22. After the funeral train left town, the mourning continued: “Every morning until the fourth of May (and Lincoln’s funeral at his home in Illinois) fresh flowers were placed around the dais where the President’s coffin had rested, and thousands of men, women and children, visited and re-visited the catafalque ... ”
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.