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Thursday, June 3, 2004 04:51 am

Discovering the man behind the myth

Photo by Nick Steinkamp
Nearly two centuries after his birth, Springfield’s best-known resident remains a revered icon, a leader who bore the weight of destiny to his untimely demise. Born in dire poverty and self-educated, Abraham Lincoln rose to lead our nation during its darkest time. His words inspired Americans during the Civil War, and they inspire us today.
Lincoln was born in Kentucky, grew up in Indiana, and came into his own in Illinois. As a young man, he arrived in New Salem. A year later, he was elected captain of a militia company in the Black Hawk Indian wars. When the pioneer village helped elect Lincoln to the Legislature, he had to borrow money to purchase a suit. At the age of 28, he moved to Springfield without enough money to buy a bed. Through initiative, hard work, and talent, he became an established, respected lawyer; was elected to the U.S. Congress; debated Stephen Douglas in an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate; and, in 1860, was elected the 16th president of the United States.
As Lincoln left for the nation’s capital in 1861 and the Civil War appeared imminent, he prophetically told a crowd assembled at the train station: “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested on Washington.”
After Lincoln’s assassination, a grieving nation cast him as a mythic figure, and over the years Springfield became a destination for many American pilgrimages. But in Lincoln’s hometown you’ll find not only the remnants of Honest Abe, the rail-splitter, you’ll also discover a more complex, shrewd, and wondrous man than the one you likely encountered in your high-school textbooks.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is intended to serve current and future generations as both a first stop on a learning journey and the last. Whether you’re a Lincoln researcher or just curious about the life of the Great Emancipator, for maximum enjoyment you should begin your visit at the museum, on the north side of Jefferson Street. Parking is available across the street to the northwest, on Sixth Street. You will want to plan three hours or more for your visit to the museum and a half-hour to an hour more for a first visit to the library. The museum exhibits are all located on the ground floor, and all facilities are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. On the entryway floor is a compass point that directs visitors to the plaza where the historical tour begins. Visitors see a replica of Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana and the front of the White House as it appeared in 1861. From that sunny atriumlike area, with its 70-foot ceiling, visitors may proceed to any of six display areas. Many will be drawn naturally to the more rustic setting of the log cabin, where “The Journey” — the title of this odyssey through Lincoln’s life — begins. Young people who are not as fascinated with Lincoln lore as their elders are may enjoy a visit to Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic, a supervised playroom where they may participate in a variety of hands-on activities, including dress-up, playing with giant Lincoln Logs, and exploring a large dollhouse version of the Lincoln Home. Part one of “The Journey” begins with a visit to the circa-1820s replica of Lincoln’s boyhood cabin. Lincoln’s life story is depicted with the use of full-size replicas of a slave auction; life in New Salem; the future president’s interest in Ann Rutledge and his courtship of Mary Todd; Lincoln’s law office, with sons Willie and Tad playing on the furniture; the 1860 presidential campaign debate at Galesburg; and Lincoln’s farewell to Springfield. Professional actors read Lincoln’s words. One highlight: a simulated television director’s studio where news stories and commercials for Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign are continuously played on video monitors as though the election were being held in modern times. Part two of “The Journey” begins in a replica of the White House’s Blue Room, where Mary Todd Lincoln appears to extend her arms in welcome. Most of this part of the tour is focused on the Civil War. In the Whispering Gallery, visitors hear the whispering voices of Lincoln’s detractors and see editorial cartoons depicting Abe in ways that make modern editorial images seem tame. In a reproduction of what is now known as the Lincoln Bedroom, a gravely ill Willie is shown with his parents at his side as a White House ball goes on just outside the open door. Also included are replicas of the White House kitchen in the basement and the Cabinet Room, where Lincoln discussed his thoughts about his forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation with a divided cabinet. In one room visitors see the president standing at his desk before signing the proclamation as a barrage of words and projected images depict the world that surrounded him when he put pen to paper. The journey concludes with a reproduction of Lincoln’s coffin as it lay in state on the second floor of the first Springfield state Capitol.
In the 250-seat Union Theater, a 17-minute layered-projection show, “Lincoln’s Eyes,” depicts the president as each side of the divided nation saw him. The seats tremble when cannons are “fired” into the audience, and other special effects add dimension to the story. Although the show presents the entire picture, the message is intended to inspire viewers by revealing the obstacles Lincoln overcame in his effort to serve his country. The theater is also available for rent to organizations that want to use it for activities.
A climate-controlled Treasures Gallery displays priceless artifacts from Lincoln’s life. These displays change throughout the year, so what you see in April may have been replaced by something else by September.
The “SBC Ghosts of the Library” theater presentation shares stories about other lives in Lincoln’s era. “Ask Mr. Lincoln” is a touch-and-learn display that allows visitors to make selections from a variety of questions about the man and his family and hear the answers spoken as the appropriate images appear on screen. The Illinois Gallery hosts a changing variety of presentations about Illinois history and art. On the south side of Jefferson Street from the museum is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Admission is free, but all visitors must sign in. First-time visitors should take the guided tour, which is the best way to become acquainted with what the library offers to serious students and historians. Those assets include the Steve Neal Reading Room, featuring thousands of books about world history and historical figures. The Newspaper Microfilm Area offers access to more than 5,000 newspaper titles from every Illinois county, many from the 19th century. The audiovisual department preserves photographs, broadsides, posters, oral history, and more. Unpublished resources are accessible through the Manuscript Reading Room. Copies of all resources are available by special arrangement.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, 212 N. Sixth St., 217-558-8844, www.alplm.org. Museum hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sun. (last museum admission at 4 p.m.) and 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Wed. (last museum admission 7 p.m.). Library hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon., Tue., Thu., and Fri.; 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Wed.; 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sat.; closed Sun. Admission to the library and gift shop is free. Museum admission is $7.50 for visitors ages 16-61; $5.50 for seniors 62 and older, $3.50 for children 5-15; $5.50 for students (with school/college ID); children under age 5, free.
Across the street from Lincoln’s law office is the Old State Capitol. It’s located off the Adams pedestrian mall, between Fifth and Sixth streets. Before the current state Capitol opened in 1877, this was the seat of Illinois state government. Behind its massive oak doors, Lincoln tried hundreds of cases and spent countless hours bent over books in the state library. More to the point, he delivered his famed “House Divided” speech here. After Lincoln was assassinated, his casket was brought to the Old State Capitol, and 75,000 mourners filed past it to pay their last respects.
As a state representative, Lincoln had a hand in moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. In 1834, a popular vote was held on six sites for the capital. When the vote came in, Alton was first, Vandalia second, and Springfield third, at which point the Legislature decided to repeal the referendum and vote on where the capital should be. By the time the ballots were cast, Springfield had the most votes, and soon it had a clear majority. Old State Capitol, 1 Old Capitol Plaza, 217-785-7960, www.illinois-history.gov. Open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, April 15–Labor Day (Sept. 3), and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., Sept. 4–April 20, 2008; the last tour begins 45 minutes before closing. Admission is free, but a donation of $2 for adults and $1 for children is suggested.
THE LINCOLN TOMB Within hours of Lincoln’s death, the Springfield City Council had passed a special resolution seeking to secure the return of the city’s favorite son. During the Washington, D.C., funeral, about 400 people from Illinois attended a special meeting in the White House’s East Room to lobby for the body. Through Robert Todd Lincoln, state politicians convinced Mary Todd Lincoln that her late husband belonged in Springfield. Mary initially resisted: Her first choice was Chicago, followed by Washington. Eventually she relented, and only then was she told that a Springfield committee had already purchased land downtown on which to construct a monument. She put her foot down, and the president was buried at a quieter resting place, in Oak Ridge Cemetery. Oak Ridge is the largest cemetery in Illinois and the second most visited in the nation (after Arlington National in Washington, D.C.). The striking tomb containing Lincoln and his family (except for Robert, who is buried in Arlington) was designed by Larkin Mead and completed nine years after Lincoln’s death, but it has been restored several times since. Tours are available, and special events are held throughout the year. Enter the cemetery by going north on Monument Avenue, which lies off North Grand between First and Second streets. While you’re there, you may want to visit the gravesites of several prominent Illinoisans, including governors, poet Vachel Lindsay, and United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis. Lincoln Tomb, 1500 Monument Ave., Oak Ridge Cemetery, 217-782-2717, www.showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/sites/tomb.htm Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, March-October, and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Nov.-Feb. Admission is free

LINCOLN-HERNDON LAW OFFICES From the Lincoln Home, walk a few blocks west, to the corner of Sixth and Adams. On the third floor, Lincoln and his future biographer William Herndon practiced law, 1844-1852. After Lincoln’s death, Herndon traveled the state, pulling Lincoln’s original writings from the files of county courthouses and leaving copies as he visited. Herndon’s published recollections provide a more intimate look at Lincoln’s life. He had a low opinion of Mary Todd Lincoln, but the feeling was mutual. Herndon believed that the Lincoln children were indulged; they had free run of both the house and their father’s law office, where, to Herndon’s dismay, Lincoln ignored their trashing of his already messy office. Lincoln’s law cases have been the subject of a decade-long project, the Lincoln Legal Papers, which will eventually publish all of Lincoln’s legal writings. Though popular legend concentrates on Lincoln’s sticking up for the underdog, he collected his biggest fees from the Illinois Central Railroad, which hired him to keep the people of McLean County from taxing the corporation’s land. As Henry Whitney said in the 1880s, “As attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad, I had authority to employ additional counsel whenever I chose to do so, and I frequently applied to Lincoln when I needed aid. I never found him unwilling to appear in behalf of a great soulless corporation.”
Though far less lucrative, the 1858 “Almanac Trial” remains one of Lincoln’s best-known cases. The legend goes that on hearing a witness claim that he saw a murder committed by moonlight, Lincoln produced an almanac showing that the moon wasn’t up at the time. The defendant, “Duff” Armstrong, an acquaintance of Lincoln’s from New Salem, was acquitted. But the case may not have been as open-and-shut as that. Lincoln simply discovered that “moonset,” when the moon falls below the horizon, occurred about an hour after the murder, casting doubt on the witness’ assertion that the moon was directly overhead. Yet, as historian John Walsh has noted, the moon’s position in the sky also depends on the observer’s point of reference — and the moon was, in fact, visible enough to see by. Walsh attributes the famous acquittal less to scientific fact than to the manner in which Lincoln delivered the “evidence,” as well as his closing arguments to the jury. Just what you pay an attorney for — effective representation. Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, 1 S. Old Capitol Plaza, 217-785-7960, www.illinois-history.gov. Open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, April 15–Labor Day (Sept. 3), and 9 a.m.-5p.m. Tue.-Sat., Sept. 4–April 20, 2008. Admission is free, but a donation of $2 for adults and $1 for children is suggested.
LINCOLN’S NEW SALEM STATE HISTORIC SITE To better understand the times in which Lincoln lived, be sure to visit New Salem, northwest of Springfield, near Petersburg. Here you will find the most educational experiences of all the Lincoln sites. Lincoln lived in this pioneer village 1831-1837. New Salem is regarded as one of the main sources for the Lincoln legend. Despite the “rail-splitter” image used during the 1860 election, some historians say that Lincoln went to New Salem specifically to get away from the hard manual labor he grew up with. His general store was a failure, in part because of his business partner, William Berry, an alcoholic who apparently drank more whiskey than he sold at the store. Lincoln was unable to pay off the store’s debts until he moved to Springfield and became a lawyer. While in New Salem, Lincoln boarded at an inn kept by James Rutledge, whose daughter Ann was allegedly Lincoln’s sweetheart. Legend has it that when she died in 1835, at the age of 19, Lincoln nearly lost his mind with grief. Today historians are not convinced — some think that the story originated in a lecture given by William Herndon. At the time of her death, Ann Rutledge was engaged to one of Lincoln’s friends, John McNamar. But historical accuracy is still New Salem’s lure. Though many of the structures were rebuilt over the original sites in the early 1930s, the town adheres to an impressive and painstaking attention to authentic detail. Interpreters in period dress explain how things got done way back when. The 635-acre site also includes gift shops and an indoor museum and theater. During the summer months, Theater in the Park mounts outdoor stagings of plays and musicals. Special events are held throughout the year — check the calendar in the back of this guide for dates and times. 
Maintained by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, New Salem is also home to a nicely equipped campground. You can easily spend at least a day here, if not a weekend, depending on when you’re visiting. New Salem is about 20 miles northwest of Springfield on Route 97, which is called Jefferson Street in town (be careful to follow 97 when the road splits a few miles outside of the city), 217-632-4000, www.lincolnsnewsalem.com, www.illinois-history.gov. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through Oct. 31, 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. Nov. 1-Feb. 28, and 9 a.m.-5 p.m., March-April 15. From April 16 through Labor Day, New Salem is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission is free, but a donation of $2 for adults or $1 for children is suggested.
THE GREAT WESTERN RAILROAD DEPOT No single historical event in Springfield is more poignantly considered than Abraham Lincoln’s “Farewell Address,” which he delivered to thousands of friends and well-wishers from this site on Feb. 11, 1861. From here, he departed for Washington, D.C., to lead a nation that was splitting in two. Visitors to the depot can see a short video about the 12-day train trip to Lincoln’s first inauguration. Authorities were so fearful of a rumored assassination plot in Baltimore that they persuaded Lincoln to leave the train in Philadelphia. He completed the journey unannounced, riding into the nation’s capital in a heavily guarded sleeping car. Great Western Railroad Depot, Tenth and Monroe streets, 217-544-8695 or
217-788-1411, www.nps.gov/archive/liho/ depot/depot.htm. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. April-August. Admission is free.

THE LINCOLN FAMILY CHURCH PEW Located inside the First Presbyterian Church is the family pew rented by Abraham and Mary Lincoln when they attended Sunday services at the church’s original location. Interestingly, the president never joined this, or any, church. The First Presbyterian Church originally stood on what’s now the Springfield Amtrak station. The Lincoln Family Pew may be viewed in the First Presbyterian Church, Seventh Street and Capitol Avenue, 217-528-4311, www.first-pres-church.org. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Thu., June-September. Admission is free.
LINCOLN LEDGER Inside the lobby of the downtown Chase Bank you can look at original bank statements signed by Abraham Lincoln. They include expenditures for such mundane items as grocery bills and his monthly mortgage payments. This very personal glimpse of the Great Emancipator reveals an ordinary citizen who purchased the trappings of upper-middle-class life just like everybody else. What did he buy? Visit and see for yourself!
The Lincoln Ledger is in the Chase Bank lobby, Sixth and Washington streets, 217-527-3860. Open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 8 a.m.-noon Sat. Admission is free.
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