Townsend describes the ‘celebration of a beloved president’

Date Published: 
December 27, 2013

On April 19, 1865 — two days after he wrote about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln — New York World journalist George Alfred Townsend described Lincoln’s funeral in his second “letter” to the public. He considered the funeral “the most representative, spontaneous and remarkable testimonial ever rendered to the remains of an American citizen.”

On the previous day, thousands of mourners had had an opportunity to pass by the coffin to show their respects for the slain president. Now, as a correspondent based in the capital, Townsend — a Delawarean by birth — was among the select few reporters who gained access to the White House and Lincoln’s catafalque prior to arrival of the ranking members of official Washington.

During this period of quietude, Townsend observed that the president “lies like one asleep … but it is the sleep of marble. All that made this flesh vital … is gone forever.”

The typically bright and gay East Room with “eight lofty mirrors” was now in “half-light” from the shrouded chandeliers. Townsend conveyed his impression that “Death has fastened into his frozen face all the character … of life ... has not changed one line of his grave … countenance, nor smoothed out a single feature.”

Also present during this solemn interim were Gens. David Hunter and Alexander Dyer, Hunter “in full uniform, his bright buttons and sash and sword contrasting with his dark blue uniform, gauntlets upon his hands, crape on his arm and blade … two silver stars upon his shoulder shine dimly in the draped apartment.”

The “funeral guns … booming from the far forts” encroached on the stillness inside in the White House, as did “the tap of drums in the serried street without, where troops and citizens are forming for the grand procession.” From a window on an upper floor, Mary Lincoln was “seeing all this through her tears … the [husband] of her affection and ambition has passed from life into immortality.”

Townsend described the arrival in the East Room of “the representative intelligence of the entire nation.” Governors, mayors, councilmen and corporate officers intermixed with soldiers bearing the scars of war, to “stand before [the man] they loved in quiet civil reverence.”

Sitting near his departed commander-in-chief was the heroic figure of Ulysses S. Grant, who added “his iron face to this thrilling and saddened picture.” In Townsend’s depiction of the militarily aggressive but personally reticent three-star general, who 10 days earlier had accepted the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee, “I seem to read upon his compact features the … obstinate will to fight … [for] the honor of the country through any peril, as if he had sworn it by the slain man’s bier.”

Newly sworn-in President Andrew Johnson and former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin stood near the coffin. Behind them were members of the cabinet, including the “short and quicksilvery” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “tall and snow-tipped” Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and “handsome and dignified” former Secretary of Treasury, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase.

Ironically, beside his immediate family, no blood relatives of Lincoln could be found — only sons Robert (a captain in the army) and “Tad,” the youngest surviving child who, with “his face red and heated, cried as if his heart would break.” His wife, Mary, “weak, worn and nervous,” did not make an appearance during the vigil, nor would she accompany the cortege.

At noon, the religious services began “full of feeling and expressed all the intense concern of the country.” At its conclusion, a procession “several miles long” solemnly made its way from the White House to the Capitol. Townsend viewed the “silent and affected crowds” along the route that “clustered beneath half-mast banners … to reverentially uncover as the dark vehicle [drawn by six white horses] … swept along” … past the mourners that lined “the entire width of the avenue.”

Upon arrival at the Capitol, an honor guard was posted at Lincoln’s casket under “the bright concave” of the dome: “This was a wonderful spectacle. The man most beloved and honored [lay] in the ark of the republic.”

On the 20th, another 25,000 enduring mourners slowly filed by in silent tribute to the president. The World reporter concluded that the “most significant and most creditable celebration ever held in Washington has just transpired.”

The next day, a train carrying its revered passenger began a two-week-long meandering journey through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Indiana to a final resting place in Springfield, Ill.

Having fulfilled his intention to narrate the assassination and the funeral under the headings of “The Murder” and the “Obsequies in Washington,” George Alfred Townsend would next focus his attention on “The Murderer,” John Wilkes Booth.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.