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President Lincoln Mourned at the U.S. Capitol

Lying in state at the U.S. Capitol has been an American tradition since Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky died in 1852. But it was the body of Abraham Lincoln, the first president to be assassinated, which has made this spot the most memorable.

On April 19, 1865, President Lincoln's remains arrived here at 3:00 p.m., following a White House funeral and procession down Pennsylvania Avenue. While artillery thundered a salute, soldiers bore the coffin up the eastern steps where six and one-half weeks earlier he delivered his famous Second Inaugural Address.

A New York Herald reporter contrasted the two events. "Then the President lived and now he lay in his coffin, murdered by an assassin. Then he spoke pious words of peace and good will, and of his steadfast determination to preserve the Union. Now he spoke still more powerfully in his death, and every man felt the force of the lesson..."

The services in the great rotunda would be private on this day, but crowds had flocked to the grounds since morning, anticipating the great procession. One reporter noted, "The people gathered in groups, picnicked on the grass or covered the marble steps."

Meanwhile, under the great dome workmen had draped the massive paintings and sculpture in black cloth, adding a black sash to the statue of George Washington. In the center of the room stood a catafalque, now ready to receive Lincoln's body. This small wooden platform later became modified to hold modern caskets, but on this day it was covered with black broadcloth trimmed with silver fringe and stars. To honor Lincoln, the wartime president, two muskets with bayonets and two sword bayonets stood crossed on either side.

At 3:30 p.m. twelve soldiers from the Veteran Reserve Corps laid the president's coffin on the catafalque, and invited dignitaries took their places nearby. They included guests such as Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's eldest son, the new president and most of his cabinet, high-ranking military men, delegations from Illinois and Kentucky, and members of the press.

A reporter wrote, "No flag was displayed in the rotunda. On every hand were the black hangings and the black crepe, and the effect was inexpressively gloomy." Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, the Lincoln family's Washington pastor, read a burial service which moved many listeners to tears, then offered a prayer and benediction. By 4:00 p.m. the service concluded and guests began to drift away. A reporter noticed that the president's son Robert and President Andrew Johnson were among the first to leave and Lieutenant General Grant and Vice Admiral Farragut were among the last.

As visitors moved out of the room, James Nokes, the public gardener, arrived with baskets of flowers which he arranged around the coffin. Then the rotunda was cleared and soldiers were stationed by the doors leading to the room and elsewhere in the building. During the evening the 24th Veteran Reserve Corps guarded the remains and the building, relieved the next morning by members of the 12th Veteran Reserve Corps.

A reporter wrote that after the burial service concluded the city resumed a more normal pace. "Still, no one forgets that in the heart of the Capitol our murdered President sleeps to-night, beneath the statue of that liberty for which he died, and that to-morrow the people of this city, whom he protected and who loved and honored him, are to see his face for the last time."

Public Viewing at the Capitol

Finally, at 8:00 a.m. on April 20, the public was allowed to view President Lincoln in the rotunda. The brilliant sunshine of the previous day had given way to rain, soaking those who endured the wait. A New York Times reporter wrote, "thousands wended their way up the Capitol steps, into the grand rotunda, by the bier and coffin of the President, and then out at the eastern entrance. The people clung to their friend with tenacity, and their silent homage was deep and tearful."

A Washington reporter observed, "The number viewing the remains is very large, the crowd passing through at the rate of 3,500 per hour." He said the total was about 40,000, but if the weather been better "the number would have been probably twice as many. The coffin was covered with a profusion of natural flowers, from the hand of affection."

Reporter Noah Brooks, who knew the Lincoln family well, was allowed to view the spectacle from atop the Capitol dome. He wrote, "Looking down from that lofty point, the sight was weird and memorable. Directly beneath me lay the casket in which the dead President lay at full length, far, far below; and, like black atoms moving over a sheet of gray paper, the slow-moving mourners, seen from a perpendicular above them, crept silently in two dark lines across the pavement of the rotunda, forming an ellipse around the coffin and joining as they advanced toward the eastern portal and disappeared."

Early the next day Lincoln's body would arrive at a railroad depot, bound for the long journey to his burial site in Springfield, Illinois. The black-draped railroad car also contained the coffin of his son Willie, who died in the White House at age 11. A reporter noted that Lincoln came to Washington as "untried, unpopular, and almost despised," but was now "the recipient of an homage and devotion unexampled in the history of the nation."

US Capitol Rotunda
U.S. Capitol Rotunda
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Text of April 19 Burial Service by Dr. Gurley

It is appointed unto men once to die. The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit to God who gave it. All flesh is but as grass, and the glory of man as the flower of grass; the grass witherith, and the flower thereof fadeth away. We know that we must die and go to the house appointed for all living. For what is our life? It is even as a vapor that appeareth for a little time and then vanishes away. Therefore, be ye also ready; for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh. Let us pray. Lord, so teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Wean us from this transitory world. Turn away our eyes from beholding vanity. Lift our affections to the things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. There may our treasure be, and there may our hearts be also. Wash us in the blood of Christ. Clothe us in the righteousness of Christ. Renew and sanctify us by His word and spirit. Lead us in the paths of piety for his namesake. Gently, Lord, so gently guide us through all the duties and changes and trials of our earthly pilgrimage. Dispose us to pass the time of our sojourning here in fear, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, and living soberly, righteously and godly in this present world; and when, at the last, our time shall come to die, may we be gathered to our fathers, leaving the testimony of a good conscience in the communion of the Christian church, in the confidence of a certain faith, in the comfort of a reasonable religious and holy hope, in favor with Thee, our God, and in perfect charity with the world, all which we ask, through Jesus Christ, our blessed Lord and Redeemer. Amen.

For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God, in His wise providence, to take out of this clay tabernacle the soul that inhabited it, we commit its decaying remains to their kindred element -- earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- looking for the general resurrection through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming to judge the world earth and sea shall give up their dead, and the corruptible bodies of them that sleep in Him shall be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able to subdue all things unto Himself. Wherefore let us comfort one another with these words.

And now may the God of Peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work, to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, our Redeemer and our hope, to whose care we now commit these precious remains, and to whose name be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Related Reading

  • Brooks, Noah, ed. by Mitgang, Herbert. Washington in Lincoln's Time. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1958.
  • Kunhardt, Dorothy Meserve and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. Twenty Days: A Narrative in Text and Pictures of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Reprint edition, 1994.
  • New York Herald, April 20, 1865.
  • New York Times, April 22, 1865.
  • Temple, Wayne C. Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet. Mahomet, Illinois: Mayhaven Publishing, 1995.
  • Washington Evening Star, April 20 & 21, 1865.

    Related Links

    Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Capitol
    Assassination Links
    Lincoln at the U.S. Capitol Photo Tour
    Lincoln White House Funeral
    Lincoln White House Funeral Sermon

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