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Lincoln Mourning Turns Violent In Philadelphia

Nov 29, 2017
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(Author’s Note: For more than one week, I’ve been commemorating the 145th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, one of the most tragic events in our history. For twenty long days, U.S. citizens poured into cities throughout the northern states to pay their final respects to the nation’s martyred president. I’ve been writing posts to coincide with the particular anniversary of the assassination, death, and funerals along the long trip back to Springfield. Today’s post discusses the funeral and ensuing bedlam in Philadelphia from April 22 to 23, 1865.)

Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Train entered Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 22, 1865 about two hours ahead of schedule. The journey from Harrisburg, the state capital, had occurred without incident. As in the previous cities paying their respects, cannon fire greeted the arrival of the train. Shops were closed that Saturday afternoon as huge crowds lined the tracks. Once the train pulled into Broad Street Station, things began to go terribly wrong.

For starters, it took nearly two hours before Lincoln’s coffin was removed from the Funeral Car and placed onto the hearse for transport to the historic Independence Hall, where Lincoln would lay in state until the next day. Massive crowds of up to 500,000 people, nearly the entire population of Philadelphia, swarmed the streets in hopes of glimpsing the hearse carrying its precious cargo. The sun shone brilliantly in a cloudless sky, making the temperature rise along with those of the tempers in the crowds. The tempers would soon boil over.

The hearse was fabulous. Covered with black fringe, ornate silver work, draped in black mourning, and topped by black and white feathers, the hearse was quite striking in appearance. It was pulled by eight black horses, the most number of the animals to yet pull any of the Lincoln hearses. The funeral procession was equally magnificent, but did not get under way until after darkness had fallen. It was accompanied by eleven divisions of soldiers, to the sounds of yet more cannon fire, church bells tolling, and muffled drum beats. See the image above of an old stereoview card depicting the hearse and the huge crowds surrounding it.

Crowds thronged the streets, making it almost impossible for the procession to continue. Everyone in Philadelphia, it seemed, wanted to see the president and pay their respects. The procession didn’t begin to approach Independence Square until nearly 8:00 p.m. As it passed the Old State House, a huge transparency (like a sign) was uncovered, revealing a picture of Lincoln and the words “He Lives” lit from behind. Finally the procession arrived at Independence Hall and Lincoln’s coffin was placed in the room in which the Declaration of Independence had been signed.

Barely four years earlier in February 1861, Lincoln had spoken at the Hall while on his journey to Washington as president-elect. He told the crowd that day how the Declaration meant everything to him as an American, that its guarantee of an equal chance for all was the principle that held the nation together. But with words that now haunted everyone who remembered his speech that day, he had said: “…But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle….I would rather be assassinated on the spot than surrender it.”

Unfortunately in Philadelphia that night of April 22, 1865, some elite and privileged citizens had more than an equal chance to see the president’s remains first. Given special admittance cards by the mayor’s office, the powerful citizens of Philadelphia were permitted to pay their respects to Lincoln from 10:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. the next morning. Philadelphia papers were harshly critical of this decision by the mayor, stating that the “Champion Of The People” would not have approved of admitting the privileged those first hours.

By the time the doors were opened to the general public at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 23rd, the crowds were lined up for miles. Most of the people had been awake since the previous morning and emotions were on edge thanks to fatigue, grief, and impatience. Never missing on a chance to take advantage, common thieves began to work the crowd, picking pockets and causing panic throughout.

At that point, the crowd in some sections turned into a mob with people pushing beyond the guiding ropes which had been herding them into orderly lines. Then the ropes were cut and chaos took place as the police lost control of the situation. People who were at the front of the lines, which stretched for nearly three miles(!), were sent to the rear by officers, inflaming the situation. In the crush, ladies’ hoop skirts were demolished, dresses literally torn off from other women, bonnets flew off of heads. Injuries reported included broken limbs, and countless people fainted from the commotion. Shrieks, screams, and yells were heard as police desperately tried to regain control of the crowds.

Finally, some semblance of order was restored and the Philadelphia mourners were given the opportunity to pay their respects until 1:00 a.m. Monday April 24. Police estimates ranged from 120,000 to as much as 300,000 citizens who filed past Lincoln’s remains that day. Even at that early hour of the 24th of April, many thousands of people were still in line waiting to see the deceased president. Once Lincoln’s remains were removed from Independence Hall at 2:30 a.m., the doors were once more re-opened and the remaining mourners were granted access to at least see the room where Lincoln had laid in state.

The procession back to the train station was subdued, but still accompanied by hundreds of mourners holding candles in the night air while funeral dirges were played by a band. The Lincoln Funeral Train departed Philadelphia the morning of April 24, 1865 at approximately 4:00 a.m.

The next stop was New York, which planned funeral ceremonies so grand that they would require a full two days. Even in those days, New York had to do every thing more grandly than the rest of the country. Those two days of solemn majesty will be the subject of my next posts.

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