Unexpected London Run-In with President Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln looks over Parliament square and the center of the UK’s political power. Directly behind him is the country’s supreme court building.

I recently had the privilege of taking a long-awaited trip to Europe, the first stop being England. It was a greatly expected trip, as my wife and I originally had it planned for the summer of 2020. Needless to say, we were both anxious all the way up to our arrival at Heathrow Airport in greater London. We then spent a few days seeing the area’s many sights. One overcast, but relatively warm, morning we walked east from our hotel near Buckingham Palace to the Thames River. The sights along the river were plentiful: Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster (the UK Parliament building), and the London Eye to name a few. It was here we had an unexpected encounter with President Abraham Lincoln.

Parliament Square is an open section of the city right in the middle of this political center of the United Kingdom. It sits across the street from Westminster Abbey, across the street from where the UK Supreme Court meets, and across the street from the Palace of Westminster. We almost overlooked the square completely but decided to cross the street from Westminster Abbey to get a better photo opportunity of the UK’s Parliament building. Numerous statues dotting the square immediately caught my eye. My wife took to her camera for the best photos of the Palace of Westminster she could take. I began investigating the statues.

I found many of British leaders: Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and Prime Minister David Lloyd George among them. The statue my wife was closest too as she took pictures of across the street, however, was not a British leader. It was a statue of Nelson Mandela. Nearby was another statue, this one of Mahatma Gandhi. Then I noticed one statue set behind the rest, a figure standing next to a chair. Squinting, I made out the name: Abraham Lincoln.

Civil War veterans stand before the Lincoln statue in London on Memorial Day. In the background of the image is Westminster Abbey. (Library of Congress)

My first thought: What is a statue of President Lincoln doing here? Naturally I moved to get a closer look. The statue is one of President Lincoln standing in front of a chair, left hand on his coat. He is looking down, as if preparing to give a speech. The chair he stands in front of is adorned with a large eagle. The day I saw it, a small wreath was placed in front of the statue, adorned with the words “On Fame’s Eternal Camping Ground,” a line in the first stanza of “Bivouac of the Dead,” a popular poem used by Civil War veterans to commemorate the fallen.

As it turns out, this particular statue is a copy. The original was sculpted in 1887 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and sits in Chicago’s Grant Park. Saint-Gaudens titled it “Abraham Lincoln: The Man.” A replica of the statue was cast and presented to the United Kingdom by the United States in 1920 (other replicas also are in Mexico City and at Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, IL). It was a sign of friendship between the two nations, and “was an occasion of great international significance and of hope for the future.”[1] Former US Secretary of State and Senator Elihu Root presented the statue on behalf of the US Government. Prime Minister David Lloyd George accepted the gift in Parliament, before a full entourage crossed the street to Parliament Square for the official unveiling.

Civil War veterans living in London paraded often in the early twentieth century. (New York Tribune, September 2, 1917)

It was a rainy day in late July 1920, but that stopped no one from marking the occasion. A detachment of “two dozen veterans of the American Civil War now in England, some in old Federal uniforms with old cartridge boxes with ‘U.S.’ upon them” marched down the street in parade.[2] A series of speeches then occurred before the official unveiling. To the tune of “God Save the King” a pair of US and UK flags were removed, presenting the statue for all to see. The US national anthem followed, then the Westminster Abbey choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” before closing with the UK national anthem once again. To end the ceremonies, five wreaths were placed, one each “from the Anglo-American Society, the Pilgrims, the Lancashire Cotton Spinners, the Native Races of Africa (through Bishop Oluwole, the Assistant Bishop of Nigeria), and the veterans of the Civil War in England.”[3]

Another image of London’s Civil War veterans. (Souvenir of Abraham Lincoln)

The Civil War veterans mentioned in the quoted news article from The Times were quite the active group in the early twentieth century. They paraded through London’s streets when the United States entered World War One, published pamphlets, and later held Memorial Day commemorations at the Lincoln Statue.

In Parliament Square, the Lincoln statue stares directly at the UK Parliament building.

Standing there looking at President Lincoln’s statue, I could not help but feel proud. The statue’s placement must have been significant, amidst legendary British leaders, as well as major global leaders of the twentieth century (especially considering the Lincoln statue predates many others in the square). Here President Lincoln stands under the shade of a large maple tree, a stone’s throw from the United Kingdom’s heart of power. Though it does not stand in the center of the square, to me the statue’s positioning represents President Lincoln’s whole career: as an executive leader (a few blocks from Downing Street and the British Prime Minister’s offices), a legislative member (across the street from the Palace of Westminster), and his time working with the judiciary as a lawyer (standing in front of the UK Supreme Court Building).

It just goes to show, you never know where you might run into a piece of history or memory of the Civil War era. Keep those eyes open.

 

Endnotes:

[1] “Lincoln Statue Unveiled,” The Times (London, UK), July 29, 1920.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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4 Responses to Unexpected London Run-In with President Lincoln

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Here in Australia, I was surprised to encounter “street art” dedicated to the writer, and Civil War Veteran, Mark Twain, in Sydney, just a stone’s throw from the Opera House. So, the revelation that a statue of Abraham Lincoln exists in London, for me, was not surprising… but, the TIMING of the presentation (1920) during the Administration of Woodrow Wilson, caused me to investigate further.
    Turns out the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. was under construction at the time; the Lincoln Penny (honouring the 100th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth) had been released to the public in 1909; and Cincinnati had put on display in 1917 a statue of Abraham Lincoln by George Barnard, a copy of which was made with intention of presenting it to the United Kingdom, for display in that park in London. But, Robert Todd Lincoln was still alive in 1919; and he was appalled that a copy of the controversial Barnard statue (known in Cincinnati as “The stomach-ache Lincoln”) was going to get pride of place as the embodiment of his Father. So, Robert Lincoln pushed for the Saint Gaudens copy (original in Chicago) to be sent to London, instead. And Barnard’s “stomach-ache Lincoln” went to a park in Manchester. [More details in 25 July 1920 New York Tribune page 59 https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1920-07-25/ed-1/seq-59/

  2. This is the same statue that Black lives Matter and Antifa defaced with obscenties .

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