Saturday, July 16, 2011

Springfield -- Lincoln's tomb

The little "Field trip! Springfield" seems to have been, in hindsight, a sort of severance package for the end of a marriage. He wanted a room with a relaxing Jacuzzi. A month later, he wanted to leave. As we say in the vernacular, who knew?

Lincoln's tomb: note the young boys' faces, present in all the sculpture groups around the monument. We still sometimes call soldiers "boys," but in the Civil War, many of them really were children, and serving in the thick of it. Lincoln's face, too, is sculpted differently here at his gravesite from the way it is made now in the many representations of him all over Springfield. In majestic nineteenth-century bronze, he is leonine, heavy-featured, fearsome, all black. In the new depictions of him -- including wax, or whatever dioramas are made of -- his face is thinner, blander, and of course happier.

And speaking of new ways of looking. I had forgotten to note that, in the Lincoln Museum in downtown Springfield, the tourist is guided through a series of floodlit dioramas showcasing lifesize wax figures of scenes from the President's life. In one, a slave couple are shown in the act of being forcibly separated and sold away from each other at a slave market in New Orleans. "This is something the young Lincoln might have seen on his first trip to New Orleans," the plaque beside it says. We are naturally invited to think how it might have affected him.

Ah, but what did happen to him on his first trip south in 1828? David Herbert Donald quotes him.
" 'One night,' as Lincoln remembered, 'they were attacked by seven negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the melee, but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, and then cut cable, weighed anchor, and left.' " (See Lincoln, p. 34.)
But that story is not to be thought of when making dioramas nowadays. Political correctness is so much more useful in them than the truth.   

Looking at this massive monument, at the entrance to an otherwise obscure nineteenth-century cemetery in an Illinois town that would have been completely obscure were it not for Lincoln's own presence here, one gets a sense of the emotions, the shock and disbelief people must have felt at provisions having to be made for President Lincoln -- Lincoln -- to be buried here within days of Union victory in the Civil War. Every place where his body rested before final interment in the great crypt is noted: below, the small house-shaped structure cut into the hill is the public vault where anyone's body could be placed temporarily. Once it happened to be used for him, in May of 1865, it seems rarely to have been used again.

Inside this quiet barred cell, there are dignified, nineteenth-century curlicues of stone and metal gracing the plain metal doors of the vaults, now forever empty. Ladies in black hoop skirts and gentlemen in stovepipe hats looked at them and were comforted, perhaps, not just in May of 1865 but in earlier seasons when mourning other dead. Last year's leaves nestle in the corners, as no doubt they do every year. Farther up the hill to the left, a mute stone marker stands where Lincoln's body was moved again (in December 1865), from the public vault to a second resting place before the real, giant's tomb was finished. Construction on that took nine years. For nine years he lay simply in the side of the hill.   

When at last the tomb was finished and dedicated, it must have been a point of great pride and honor, as the years went by, for other Springfield veterans to be buried one by one in Oak Ridge, almost at the feet of the Emancipator. Below, veterans' headstones lie in concentric circles around a monument made of (ersatz?) cannon balls, the circles rippling out, the death dates of old men falling later and later. The 1880s, 1890s, and so on into the 1900s.

Here we are looking up at the back of the tomb from behind its hill, the obelisk framed in a graceful tree. Behind us in turn, on a warm if barren-looking April morning, the rest of Oak Ridge rolls and stretches, in softly shaded, quiet wooded hills, into an oblivion of unvisited Victorian American graves. 

And then, the trip home. Why need there be so many very 21st-century-looking windmills outside Odell, Illinois?

They whirl and spin, and the trees turn green, and life goes on. It's blazing hot summer there now.

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