06 September 2010 by Published in: General musings 14 comments

Susan and I visited some friends in Springfield, Illinois this weekend. We just got home. They only moved there a few months ago, so this was our first time out to visit them. It was also my first visit to Springfield, which means it’s the first time I’ve seen any of the Lincoln sites there.

Springfield, of course, was Abraham Lincoln’s home for something like 17 years before his election as President of the United States, and his body was returned there for entombment after his assassination. He lived there, practiced law there, and raised his family there. Even though Springfield is the capital of Illinois to this day, Abraham Lincoln’s presence is everywhere there. It’s unavoidable.

In downtown Springfield, you will find the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, the Abraham Lincoln home and preserved neighborhood, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, the Old State Capitol Building (where the Lincoln/Douglas debates occurred), and, of course, the magnificent Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery. There are multiple statues of him throughout the downtown. Not far away–just a few miles–is Lincoln’s New Salem, where he operated a general store for several years before beginning his legal career in Springfield.

We had limited time, so we didn’t get to see everything. We decided to reserve a visit to the Lincoln home and preserved neighborhood, New Salem, and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office for our next visit. We began our visit to the Lincoln Tomb, which is our second presidential tomb in three weeks (we visited Grant’s Tomb in New York City last month). The Lincoln Tomb is very beautiful, and a very appropriate tribute to the greatest American President. President Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their two younger sons, Willie and Tad, are entombed there. The monument features a standing figure of Lincoln, surrounded by the soldiers who preserved the Union. The temporary crypt where he was buried–and his body was nearly stolen from–also still exists. It’s on the hillside behind the main tomb. I left there with a real sense of awe. I’ve visited a number of presidential graves before, but I have never come away with the feeling that I left Lincoln’s Tomb carrying. On one hand, it was deep sadness, knowing that our greatest President was assassinated at his greatest moment of triumph, but with a deep respect for the fact that I had just visited the final resting place of a truly great man.

When we left there, we then drove by the site of the Lincoln Home and neighborhood (and the Herndon-Lincoln Law Office), just to get a look, and then we went to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. For those unfamiliar with it, the Museum opened in 2005, and it’s quite a facility. It’s enormous, and someone spent a vast amount of money building it. It’s filled with very accurate reproductions of various important scenes from Lincoln’s life, from the cabin where he spent his boyhood, to his law office, to the White House, to Ford’s Theater, and finally, to his catafalque at the Illinois State House. It thoroughly documents his life, and is very informative, especially for those not familiar with his life. As far as that goes, it kind of sets the gold standard for this sort of interactive museum. At the same time, I was somewhat disappointed with how few actual artifacts pertaining to the 16th President are there. There’s a small room, called The Treasures Gallery, that has some tremendous items, such as one of the five handwritten drafts of the Gettysburg Address, written out by Lincoln himself for Edward Everett. This small collection also includes the kid gloves that Lincoln had in his pocket when he was shot, and the feathered fan that Mrs. Lincoln was carrying that night. The few real artifacts are remarkable, but there are very few of them. I frankly expected more of them and was surprised with how few there were.

There is also a very impressive gift shop in the museum. When I got there, I realized that it’s been many years since I purchased or even read a Lincoln biography, so I purchased Ronald C. White’s well-received 2009 Lincoln bio, which I will read shortly. Susan, who can’t resist this sort of thing, purchased the very silly Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

On another note, I have long maintained a fascination with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the great architect. The Dana-Thomas House, which was one of Wright’s last prairie houses, and the largest and best preserved example of the prairie houses, can also be found in downtown Springfield. We made a quick visit to the site, long enough to spend some money in the gift shop, but didn’t have time to take a tour of the house. I definitely want to go back and take the full tour of the house, as it’s really spectacular.

As I said, Abraham Lincoln’s presence in Springfield is palpable, and it’s everywhere. There’s so much of it to see that it’s actually a little overwhelming. I will have to see the rest of it on our next visit. I left Springfield with an even greater appreciation of our greatest President, and for his towering presence that still lingers over the city 145 years after his tragic death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. It’s almost as if he’s still there.

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Comments

  1. Steve Basic
    Mon 06th Sep 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Eric,

    Glad you both got to make the trip to Springfield. Have always wanted to go there and pay my respects to Mr. Lincoln. I understand the feelings of awe as I felt that way when I paid my respects to Grant here in NYC and Lee in Lexington, VA. While at both places I just stared for quite some time and reflected.

    Great photo of you with the Generals. LOL..You tower over McClellan, and obvious the nickname “Little Mac” still fits today after all these years. :)

    Take care.

    Steve

  2. Rob Wick
    Mon 06th Sep 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Eric,

    I’ve always joked that being from Illinois, it was state law that you had to visit Springfield at least once a year when you were in grade school. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been there (I will be there in October to present my paper at the Conference on Illinois History), but I can say I’ve always enjoyed my visits. The Lincoln Museum is fascinating although as I’ve told you I think the election of 1860 thing with Tim Russert is a bit cheesy, but still much of it is amazing. Just a note, if you want a really good place to eat try the Feed Store which is near Prairie Archives across from the Old State Capitol. They are not open on Saturday or Sunday but they have amazing soups and sandwiches for a very reasonable price.

    I’ve also joked that as close as I was to a Frank Lloyd Wright house, I had to travel to Pennsylvania to see my first (Fallingwater). Someday I’ll make it to the Dana-Thomas house.

    Best
    Rob

  3. Chris Evans
    Mon 06th Sep 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Excellent article on Lincoln and Springfield. I too want to eventually go and pay my respects to him there. Ironic that you mention how few real artifacts there are at the Lincoln museum. Andrew Fergurson talks about that in his very good (and funny) Lincoln travel book ‘Land of Lincoln’.

    The sense of a President at a place reminds me of my visits to Warm Springs, Georgia and the ‘Little White House’ of Franklin Roosevelt located there. It is truly awe inspiring to be at a place that meant so much to a President and also see the actual final portrait that was being painted at the time of his death and stand in the ‘Little White House’ and think of Roosevelt’s life and death there.
    Chris

  4. James F. Epperson
    Tue 07th Sep 2010 at 9:42 am

    As you well know, one problem w/ the Internet is that your every mistake is out there for picky people to find. The Lincoln-Douglas debates did not occur in Springfield, but in a variety of towns throughout the state, and Springfield was not among them. Sorry.

  5. Tue 07th Sep 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Sounds like a great visit. I hope to make that trip in the next couple of years.

    I really enjoyed White’s book – I thought it was just about the best Lincoln book I’ve ever read. “Lincoln at Peoria” by Lewis Lehrman might beat it out, but I seemed to like both better than any others, including David Donald’s biography of him. (Of course, I read that so long ago, it’s not fair to compare them, I suppose.)

  6. Jim Coyle
    Tue 07th Sep 2010 at 7:21 pm

    Went there in June of 2005, at that time, there was an exhibit that had one of his stove top hats. It was put on temperory display by a women who had been collecting lincoln memorabilia. I read that they bought some of her memorabilia. They had her on the live opening of the Lincoln library covered by C-SPAN, which I made a copy of.
    I thought it to be great, but am saddened that they no longer display many of the artifacts

  7. Tue 07th Sep 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Jim,

    The hat is still there and still on display. But it’s one of only a handful of items.

    Eric

  8. Chris Evans
    Tue 07th Sep 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Jim,

    That lady ,Louise Taper, is chronicled in a chapter in the book ‘Land of Lincoln’. She has and an absolutely incredible collection of Lincoln artifacts. I really can’t believe that the Lincoln museum does not use more of them that they got from her. People want to see the actual items associated with Lincoln not a laser light show or reproductions. That hat is incredible as you can still see the mark left by Lincoln when he tipped it to passerby. That is what history is about.

    Chris

  9. Ken Noe
    Wed 08th Sep 2010 at 10:16 am

    The law office often gets overlooked, but shouldn’t be. It’s a real jewel. My favorite part is the trap door in the floor that opened into the US Circuit Court a floor below. Lincoln used to lie down next to it to listen to trial proceedings, and supposedly once dropped into the court from above to defend Edward Baker.

    New Salem is entirely a recreation, but I always enjoyed it nonetheless, probably because I enjoy that part of the Lincoln story so much. I particularly remember a camping trip there back in the eighties. Searching for firewood I ran across huge Nazi flag on a stage. “Good gravy,” I thought, “Neo-Nazis in the woods!” I was much relived to discover that it was only a prop for the evening play.

  10. john popolis
    Wed 08th Sep 2010 at 11:09 am

    One other, minor, quibble… three of the four Lincoln children are buried at the Tomb: you forgot Eddie (their second oldest, died in 1850, just shy of four years old, was exhumed and moved to the Tomb by 1871). Robert, the eldest, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

  11. Thu 09th Sep 2010 at 7:02 am

    Eric,

    Glad to see you enjoyed “Lincolntown.” I use the library quite often, as it houses the old State Historical society as well. Lots of ACW manuscripts to dig through.:)

    A visit to the Lincoln home is a must, I think. The new Museum (which stirred quite a bit of controversey when it opened, for all the interactive stuff, but has since become more accepted) is great, but the home and law office give you a good counter-point to all the flash in the Museum.

    New Salem is fun, but not critical to the experience.

    In the past couple of years, I have started to hit other Lincoln sites – the birthplace, in KY, some of the Lincoln-Douglas debate sites, which are in various towns around the state and usually have a park with interpretation, etc. There is a homesite in Indiana that I want to see, though I understand it is not very elaborate.

  12. Fri 10th Sep 2010 at 9:22 am

    Thanks for this interesting post; you have made me wish to visit Springfield even more than I already did – wish to visit Springfield.
    Do you know the circumstances surrounding Lincoln’s drafting a copy of his address for Everett? I am an actor of solo history & Edward Everett is one of my men.
    Should your travels bring you to New England – visit Plymouth Notch, Vermont – the birthplace and grave site of 30th President Calvin Coolidge. It is the best preserved of all such sites. “Silent Cal” is yet another one of “my” men.

  13. G.E. Colpitts
    Sat 11th Sep 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Eric,
    Nice to hear you got to Springfield and got to spend time in Oak Ridge at the Lincoln Tomb. I agree with your thoughts; had much the same experience when I visited a few years ago. Lincoln`s tomb is one of only two federal sites here in Illinois (the other being the Stephen Douglas Tomb on Chicago`s South Side). I`ve spent time at the Dana-Thomas House, as my undergrad advisor (Dr. Donald Hallmark) was the site superintendent there for many years until Blago shut the facility down — right before the big money-making holiday season, go figure. (Lincoln to Blago — the sublime to the ridiculous.) The inside of the house is really amazing and the state spent a lot of time and effort to locate original fixtures and furniture, so it is probably the best-preserved and restored of numerous FLW locations. Oak Park, Illinois, though, is the best place to see early FLW, mainly because there is so much of it. (Even my little town of Belvidere has an FLW — Pettit Chapel in the Belvidere Cemetery.)

    The only remaining intact Lincoln-Douglas debate site is in Galesburg at Knox College; there are bronze plaques on either side of the doorway where the stage for the debate was set up. I had the privilege of hanging out there while an artist-in-residence through Studios Midwest. The Chicago Tribune published an article on Lincoln`s law circuit a while back; there are bronze posts marking the route through central Illinois.
    GE

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