The East Room / April 20, 1865, 3:00 AM

1116a_transparencyIt was only a still night if the weather was what counted. The White House, draped inside and out with mourning, was surrounded by military guards, and citizens who ranged from morbidly curious to brokenhearted. Even at such an hour, people milled around the grounds of the residence, perhaps hoping for a glimpse of Mary Lincoln, who had not left her bedroom since last viewing her dying husband six days earlier, or of young Tad, who had stayed in the capitol with his mother.

The afternoon before, April 19, Lincoln’s remains had been moved from the East abraham-lincoln-funeral-processionRoom, where his embalmed body had lain in state for three days, to the Capitol   Rotunda, for a last round of public viewing. The great black coach, pulled by six white horses, had borne the casket forward, flags muffled and tied with black ribbons, silent but for the tramp of marching soldiers and the occasional strangled cry of grief. Ward Hill Lamon, Marshall of Washington City and Lincoln’s close friend, had carefully choreographed the procession, and had given strict orders that anyone making an outcry in support of the Confederacy’s now-lost cause be dealt with immediately and firmly. The cavernous East Room itself stood empty, while outside the Army protected the White House and its broken hearted inhabitants from prying eyes, and prying fingers.

In December 1861, eight months after the funeral of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the East Room had finally been opened to the public in newly refurbished splendor. Mary and Abraham Lincoln had held their first levee, which opened the capital’s winter social season. The company was spangled, hooped, and feathered. There was a large contingent of shoulder straps and swords. General McClellan was the evening’s guest of honor, accompanied by his staff officers and, almost as an afterthought, his small, hazel-eyed wife, Ellen.

imagesGone were the shabby ornaments of Buchanan’s time. All the old furniture had been reupholstered in heavily figured satin of deep crimson, tucked and folded in the latest decorating fashion. The wood had been cleaned and freshly varnished. The crystal drops and garlands of the gas chandeliers had been removed and polished, then rehung to glitter like winter stars above the heads of the crowd at the Lincoln’s reception. The walls of the East Room had been newly covered in heavy Parisian velvet paper. Its complex floral pattern was picked out in colors of crimson, garnet and gold, and had cost over eight hundred dollars. A new woolen carpet from the mills of Glasgow, Scotland covered the old floor. It was made all in one piece, with designs of fruit and flowers in vases, wreaths, and bouquets. Buchanan’s old velvet draperies had been replaced with new ones in crimson French brocatelle. They were trimmed with gold fringe and tassels, and hung from newly gilded cornices. Beneath the luxurious drapes hung inner curtains of white, needlepoint Swiss lace. Several large ornamental shields were scattered along the walls of the East Room, honoring those now serving in the Union Army. The refurbishments were referred to as “flub dubs” by the President, but Mrs. Lincoln was an extravagant woman.

By 1864, the open door policy of the White House had ruined the First Lady’s efforts. The public had pulled the velvet paper from the walls, and cut it into strips and squares for souvenirs. Large pieces of brocade and damask drapery material had been sliced from the curtains. Small pieces of the elegant French upholstery had been cut from almost every piece of furniture. Memento seekers had stolen the heavy gold cords and tassels that held back the floor-to-ceiling crimson drapes, as well as a few of the white lace under-curtains. The remaining curtains hung in rags from the depredations of sightseers who had clipped the flower designs out of the lace for who-knew-what purposes. The red, blue and gold ornamental shields had almost all been stolen. General McClellan was gone as well.

For the last few days however, none of the damage could be seen. It all lay under yards and yards of black crepe. Earlier in the week, carpenters had been called to the White House to build a fifteen-foot high catafalque, an elevated platform resting on a stair-stepped dais, to hold the coffin of the President. The black-swathed canopy over the bier was so tall that the center chandelier of the East Room had been removed to accommodate its height. Other carpenters had built risers around three of the walls, so that as many people as possible could be seated for the funeral on the evening of April 19.president-lincoln-lying-state

Although the casket had been taken to the Capitol building by 3:00 PM the afternoon before, the seating was still there, covered in black. A few chairs were scattered over the carpet. Under the risers and along the East Room walls were the remains of black ribbon badges with printed pictures of Lincoln glued to them, small American flags, black-edged mourning ribbons, and a handful of crumpled tickets to the funeral, also bordered in black–the abandoned detritus, broken underfoot, of the almost seven hundred people invited to the official religious service.

Assistant Secretary of the Treasury George A. Harrington had planned Lincoln’s state funeral in just sixty-eight hours. Among those helping him were Major General and Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, and Major General C. C. Augur, Commander of the Military District of Washington. Even with help, the job had seemed overwhelming. “What shadows we are and what shadows we pursue . . . the whole charge of the funeral fixed for Wednesday has been put on me.” Harrington wrote in a letter to his friend and former Treasury Secretary William Fessenden. Still, it all had gotten done.

The East Room had only been used one other time for a Presidential funeral: Zachary Taylor died in office, and lay in state in July 1850. Now the great public chamber had been changed from a reception area for America to a chapelle ardente, a fiery Vault of Gloom, and in this dark hour, even the candles were extinguished. The towering catafalque still stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by bits of flowers and greenery. The domed canopy, made of black crepe lined in fluted white satin, still hung over the empty bier. Its four pillars were festooned in translucent black silk. No window was open this night to admit the soft, early spring breezes that might have set the black draping into gentle motion. The fragrance of the lilies from the cross that had stood at the head of Lincoln’s silver-starred casket mixed with the scent from the anchor of roses that had been at its foot. No door was open to let the funereal sweetness escape.

HD_WHFnrlFL650506p104c.previewThe two remaining chandeliers, one at each end of the large room, were also swathed in mourning. The frames of the huge side mirrors were similarly darkened, and white crepe was hung over the reflecting glass. Black draperies had been rigged to completely cover the ruined crimson curtains, and no light entered the room at all, even if there had been much of a moon to reflect a sepulchral whisper from the veiled mirrors. Having risen only an hour ago, the pale moon hung like a fingernail paring in the black sky.

On the previous Saturday, April 15, Lincoln’s body had been brought from the Peterson House, a residential boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater, to the White House. His remains had been carried in a temporary casket by six young men from the Quartermaster’s Department, and placed in a carriage. An escort of Union Light Cavalry, under the command of James B. Jameson, accompanied the casket. Behind the cavalry came General Augur, with General Rucker, Depot Quartermaster, Colonel Pelouze, of the War Department, Captain Finley Anderson, A.A.G. Hancock’s Corps, Captain D.G. Thomas, Clothing Depot, Captain J.H. Crowell and Captain C. Baker, all walking bareheaded. The coffin was taken to the second-floor Guest Room, where Army pathologist Doctor J. Janvier Woodward and his assistant Edward Curtis performed the autopsy.

After the embalming, on Monday evening, April 17, Lincoln’s body was brought to the East Room, which had already been prepared under the supervision of John Alexander, decorator and assistant to George Harrington. The public viewing had been held the next day, from 9:30 in the morning until 5:30 that afternoon. Tens of thousands of grief-stricken mourners, after waiting in line all night, had filed past the single reliquary, mounting the steps to look upon Lincoln’s face one last time. Black and white, they had stood in line for hours for a chance to say goodbye to the man who had led the nation back to unity. The silence and the grief were profound.

Later that evening, two hours had been set aside for the official funeral, attended by Lincoln’s cabinet, invited guests, and the military commanders, including Generals Meade and Grant, who had gathered in Washington to celebrate the end of the War, but had stayed for the sad business of burial. They had all seen death many, many times, but never one that shook the entire country to its foundations as this one had.

presidential-funerals-abraham-lincolnThe Reverend Mr. Hall, Bishop Matthew Simpson and Lincoln’s own minister, the Reverend Dr. Phineas Gurley, spoke for almost two hours, attempting to make sense of the nonsensical. Outside in the cool of the late evening, over fifty thousand people lined Pennsylvania Avenue, waiting for the procession to the Capitol. Another fifty thousand marchers and riders were lined up to escort the funeral cortege, assembled in the line of march assigned to them by the War Department’s printed order.

It would not end at the Capitol. Abraham Lincoln’s grief-stricken friend, Ward Lamon, planned the journey back to Springfield. Lincoln’s body, along with that of his son Willie, who died three years earlier, would have a funeral train of their own. Much grander than Ellsworth’s funeral train, the coffins–one impressive and majestic, one plain wood–made Lincoln’s now-famous Inaugural Express journey of 1861 in reverse, stopping at many of the cities on the original route for viewings and cannonades. All along the route from Washington to Springfield, Americans stood beside the train tracks, often in abysmal weather, to pay their respects to Father Abraham. As the train journeyed along the tracks, it was met with bonfires and illuminations of all kinds. After the train passed, darkness fell behind it.

From the time the body had been made ready for burial until the last service in the East Room, it had been watched night and day by a guard of honor, the members of which were one major general, one brigadier general, two field officers, and four line officers of the Army and four of the Navy. The coffin, the mourners, the military Honor Guard, the flowers–everything was gone, now. The large room was empty of all the spirit and excitement it had ever held.

Ten days before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, he told Ward Lamon about a dream he had:

            About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important     dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-        like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same          mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were   grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed             soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud             burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.


The American Civil War began with the death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. His funeral, appropriate for the first fallen, had been held in the East Room of the White House. Noah Brooks, a journalist and Lincoln biographer, wrote that Ellsworth, “ . . . was among the very first martyrs of the War, as he had been one of its first volunteers.”

President Lincoln had been overwhelmed with sorrow by Colonel Ellsworth’s death. He sat alone, in grief-stricken meditation in the East Room, at the bier of his friend. Now, once again, the East Room had been a place of national sorrow. The Civil War had opened with a funeral, had seen an uncountable number of funerals across five American springtimes, and now it would close with a funeral.

John Langdon Kaine, an original member of the New York Fire Zouaves, with whom he served as a drummer boy, summed it up when he wrote, “Colonel Ellsworth was the war’s first conspicuous victim; Lincoln himself, the last.”

These two, now dead, along with perhaps 750,000 more. And in the silence of the great East Room, only the ghosts remained.

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2 Responses to The East Room / April 20, 1865, 3:00 AM

  1. Thanks for a quiet, contemplative piece. It is good to be reminded about the larger, and more personal meanings–and personal tragedies–of something that’s become so mythologized.

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