The Lincoln funeral film
You were there? You should see the movie.
On Sunday, May 3, 2015 – a year ago – my family and I staked out a spot on North Fourth Street to watch the reenactment of Lincoln’s funeral procession pass by. I was well aware that the event currently taking place was the product of several years’ worth of planning and coordination. I knew that the vision for this reenactment was ambitious, and, like many people in town, I wondered if the reality would manage to live up to the expectations. Would this truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Or, to borrow a 19th-century phrase, would it be a “perfect fizzle”?
When the roll of drums first became audible, my heart leapt with anticipation. The hundreds of people lining the streets all leaned forward and craned their necks to catch the first glimpse of the soldiers in blue as they marched solemnly up the street.
And then it was there – the magnificent hearse, resplendent in gleaming black, accented with gold, its ostrich feathers bobbing majestically. As it passed by – slowly, slowly – accompanied by the sounds of a funeral dirge, I felt tears come to my eyes. I felt then what my 19th-century counterparts must have felt as they lined the streets to say goodbye to a man who had been their lawyer, their neighbor, their friend, and he had given his life in service to them all. At that moment, my throat tight with emotion, I could say emphatically that the years of planning had all been worth it, and that this event was a success.
My little patch of North Fourth Street was, of course, only a tiny part of the mosaic of locations and activities that comprised the funeral weekend. Due to the pesky constraints of time and space, I could only view the procession from one place, and thus missed everything that happened prior to and after that moment.
That’s why the video recording of the funeral produced by the City of Springfield in conjunction with the Central Illinois Film Commission is such an incredibly important document. It affords the viewer an opportunity to watch the event as it unfolded, from the moment Lincoln’s coffin was unloaded from the custom replica train car on Saturday, through the myriad events that followed, to its final placement in the receiving tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery on Sunday.
The video is formatted as a documentary, with footage of the funeral event interspersed with still shots of historical photographs as well as interviews with the funeral’s coordinators and participants. At times the narration becomes a little confusing, as it’s unclear whether the events being described actually happened in 1865, or happened during the reenactment in 2015. Still, watching this video, one gets a sense of the magnitude of the planning, research and organization that went into orchestrating this event.
From my perch on North Fourth Street, I was unaware how much attention to historical detail had been observed. The video filled in these gaps, explaining how the hearse, coffin and even the flag draping the coffin replicated the 1865 versions. Particularly interesting was the information about the participants in the modern funeral procession, each of whom portrayed an individual or group represented in the 1865 procession.
In fact, if the video has a shortcoming, it is that it could have used even more information on the historical details researched and replicated for the 2015 event. The funeral train car, for example, gets only a brief mention, as does the restoration of the east entrance gate to Oak Ridge Cemetery, and both of those topics are interesting enough to merit a documentary all their own.
It would also have been nice to explore a bit more of the historical research that informed the process of recreating the funeral. We are told who participated in the 1865 funeral procession, but not how we know. The reasons for slight deviations from the historical funeral, such as the decision to have Lincoln’s coffin lie in state on the Old State Capitol Plaza rather than in the Old State Capitol, are not explained.
As a live witness to the funeral reenactment last year, the event was immersive: you felt the solemnity and the pathos of what you were witnessing. That emotional punch did not completely translate to the video, which is unfortunate but also to be expected. The funeral reenactment was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and truly, you had to be there. What the video does offer is an appreciation of the sheer scope and success of the modern undertaking in terms of research, manpower, coordination, attention to detail. Springfield should be proud of having pulled this event off, and it is fitting and necessary to have a video to commemorate the occasion. Everyone who was there on that historic day should own a copy of this DVD.
DVDs retail for $24.99 and can be purchased at the Eastern National Bookstore in the visitors center of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site as well as from the Central Illinois Film Commission.
Erika Holst is the Curator of Collections at the Springfield Art Association. She watched the reenacted funeral procession from the Art Association’s lawn last May.