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Sketch of President Lincoln's East Room Funeral
East Room Funeral Scene
Harper's Weekly, May 6, 1865

President Lincoln's White House Funeral

"Death, it has been said, canonizes a great character. It has preeminently had that effect in the case of Abraham Lincoln." So wrote a New York Times editor on April 19, 1865, the day of President Lincoln's funeral in the White House East Room. Just as Lincoln's life evoked rich dramatic elements, so his death produced a pageant unequalled in American history. Not only was he the first assassinated president, but his shocking death on April 15 dashed the previous week's euphoria when the long, bitter war had effectively ended.

The nation's capital mourned the president's death with several state functions. On Tuesday, April 18, huge crowds pressed through the White House gates to catch a glimpse of the president lying in state in the East Room. Then a work crew prepared the chamber for the next day's funeral. Immediately following the funeral a massive procession worked its way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, witnessed by immense crowds. Inside the darkened Capitol Rotunda a select group of mourners attended a private burial service. On the following day the great Rotunda doors opened to all, allowing a brief opportunity to see the assassinated president.

On April 21 after early morning prayers and a final farewell from Cabinet members, veterans carried the president's coffin down the Capitol steps. Only blocks away a large crowd awaited the cortege at the railroad station. A special train bore the remains of Lincoln and his son Willie to Springfield, Illinois. It slowly passed along a similiar route to the one the president-elect took to Washington in 1861. Even more funerals honored the president in major cities such as New York, Indianapolis and Chicago. By the time the door to the cemetery's receiving vault clanged shut, millions of Americans saw some portion of the grand funeral drama.

Lincoln's East Room funeral generally followed customs dating from the rites for Presidents Harrison and Taylor, who died in office in 1841 and 1850, respectively. However, for one reporter old enough to remember, "the arrangements on those occasions were far inferior to the present." President Lincoln's funeral was the last of three held in the East Room during the war. The first, in 1861, memorialized 24-year-old Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of the family who was assassinated in Alexandria, Virginia. The second, in 1862, was a particularly heart-breaking service for the president's 11-year-old son Willie.

April 19 opened bright and beautiful, the loveliest day of the season, some observers said, and the public responded accordingly. "Every house top thus early was freighted with spectators; and the trees bordering the avenue and the public grounds bore a perilously heavy burden of human beings," wrote a local reporter.

These crowds expected to watch the funeral procession move from the White House to the Capitol; only about 600 ticket-holders could attend the East Room services. The invited guests, with allotted spaces in the 3,200-square-foot room, entered the White House in groups at orderly intervals from the nearby Treasury building.

George Templeton Strong, a New York lawyer who was invited as a representative of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, recognized the profoundly historic nature of the occasion. "I count it a great privilege to have been present," he wrote in his now-famous diary. "There will be thousands of people ten years hence who would pay any money to have been in my place."

Strong marched with his associates across the White House grounds to the East Room shortly before noon. About this time everyone could hear the tolling of bells and the boom of minute guns from forts around the city. Strong said his group "took our appointed place on the raised steps that occupied three of its sides -- the catafalque with its black canopy and open coffin occupying the centre. I had a last glimpse of the honest face of our great and good President as we passed by. It was darker than in life, otherwise little changed."

The sunny spring day contrasted sharply with the darkened Executive Mansion, draped in mourning cloth inside and out. Little of the luxurious carpet could be seen under the black-wrapped risers, constructed to allow guests to see the coffin and the officiating ministers. More black fabric hung at the windows, covered the chandeliers, and wrapped around the huge gilt mirror frames.

All eyes focused on the "grand and gloomy" catafalque, the black and white-draped wooden structure holding Lincoln's coffin. In the space immediately surrounding it sat four clergymen, Lincoln's secretaries, his two sons, and a handful of relatives and household employees. Mary Lincoln remained upstairs in the family living quarters, too upset to attend this or any future tribute to her husband. The drawing above erroneously depicts her beside the coffin.

The distinguished audience included a cross-section of leaders from many quarters: military and naval officers such as General Grant and Admiral Farragut, Supreme Court justices, mayors, governors, senators and representatives, businessmen, federal department heads, clergymen, Union League officials, Cabinet members, and foreign diplomats. The latter wore full court costume, prompting a reporter to say their attire "rendered them a glittering group in an assemblage dressed in sombre black." Strong thought they looked like "gorgeously liveried flunkies."

The new president, Andrew Johnson, and members of the Cabinet entered the room last. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote that the funeral was "imposing, sad, and sorrowful. All felt the solemnity, and sorrowed as if they had lost one of their own household." Grief for Cabinet members mixed freely with terror on assassination night, when their own lives were in danger, for the assassination plot attempted to shut down the federal government by killing its leaders. On this official day of mourning, Lincoln's assassin and some associates remained at large.

William Seward
Library of Congress
Conspicuously absent from the funeral was Secretary of State William Seward. Both he and his son Frederick barely clung to life in their home near the White House. They eventually recovered from stab wounds inflicted by an assassination conspirator. Only Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor and Confederate sympathizer, successfully executed his intended victim.

At 12:10 p.m. the Lincoln family pastor appeared beside the head of the coffin and announced the order of the funeral exercises. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley conducted young Willie Lincoln's funeral three years before and spent an exhausting night with the family when the president lay dying. He served the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church a few blocks east of the White House where the Lincolns rented a pew.

Dr. Charles H. Hall, rector at the nearby Church of the Epiphany, then read from the Episcopal burial service, starting with the words of Jesus in John 11 ("I am the resurrection and the life saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.") and concluding with St. Paul's classic discourse on the resurrection in I Corinthians 15.

Bishop Matthew Simpson of Philadelphia, representing the Methodist Episcopal Church, offered the opening prayer. Known widely for his persuasive speaking ability, he would later preach the burial sermon at Lincoln's grave. Simpson's long prayer, clothed in the Elizabethan English of the King James Bible, irritated George Strong, and he dismissed it in his diary as "whining" and "oratorical," but a New York Times writer considered it "a most eloquent and affecting prayer." Simpson concluded with the Lord's Prayer, said in unison. "All those present were melted to tears under its effect," said another writer.

Dr. Gurley titled his sermon "Faith in God," using Mark 11:22 as the text. From the very first sentence it emphasized the chief tenet of Reformed theology: the sovereignty of God. He urged his listeners to look beyond their sorrow to see "the chastening hand of a wise and a faithful Father," but it was clear that he, too, struggled with the assassination and considered it "a mysterious and a most afflicting visitation."

He characterized Lincoln as a president who deserved the love and confidence of the American people. "His integrity was thorough, all-pervading, all-controlling, and incorruptible." Because of his close association with Lincoln he said that God's "guidance and mercy were the props on which he humbly and habitually leaned; they were the best hope he had for himself and for his country." Gurley believed that God raised up Lincoln "for a great and glorious mission, furnished him for his work, and aided him in its accomplishment."

After citing a long list of Lincoln's virtues, Gurley pronounced the best to be "his abiding confidence in God and in the final triumph of truth and righteousness." Using a concept from the New Testament book of Hebrews, Gurley said this was how Lincoln "being dead, yet speaketh," and challenged his listeners to have faith in God for the future and devote themselves to the "cause of freedom and humanity."

The concluding prayer by Dr. Edwin H. Gray, pastor of the E Street Baptist Church and chaplain of the Senate, must have been regarded as mercifully short, for most the audience had been standing during the ceremonies. One eyewitness commented, "There, we were all so tightly packed as not to be able to stir hand or foot; and there we remained two hours by the clock." Members of the Veterans Reserve Corps then carried the president's coffin to the horse-drawn hearse waiting outside. "So ended the most memorable ceremonial this continent has ever seen," wrote Strong.

Funeral Texts

Episcopal Burial Service -- Dr. Charles H. Hall

I am the resurrection, and the life saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believeth thou this? (John 11:25-26)

For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms shall destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eye shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me. (Job 19:25-27)

Lord, let me know my end, and the number of my days; that I may be certified how long I have to live. Behold, thou hast made my days as it were a span long, and mine age is even as nothing in respect of Thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity. For man walketh in a vain shadow and disquieteth himself in vain; he heaped up riches and cannot tell who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what is my hope? Truly my hope is even in Thee. Deliver me from all my offences; and make me not a rebuke unto the foolish. When thou with rebukes doest chasten man for sin, thou makest his beauty to consume away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment: every man is therefore but vanity. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with thine ears consider my calling; hold not thy peace at my tears: For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength, before I go hence, and be no more seen. Lord, those hast been our refuge, from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, thou art God from everlasting, and world without end. Thou turnest man to destruction; again Thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men. For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday; seeing that it is past as a watch in the night. As soon as Thou scatterest them they are even as asleep, and fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green, and groweth up; but in the evening it is cut down, dried up, and withered. For we consume away in Thy displeasure; and are afraid at Thy wrathful indignation. Thou has set our misdeeds before Thee; and our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance. For when thou art angry, all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told. The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years, yet is their strength but labor and sorrow; so soon passeth it away and we are gone. So teach us to number our days; that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. (I Timothy 6:7 and Job 1:21

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? And why stand we in jeopardy every hour? I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, which advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame. But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this incorruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not vain in the Lord. (I Corinthians 15:20-58)

Opening Prayer -- Bishop Matthew Simpson

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, as with smitten and suffering hearts we come into Thy presence, we pray, in the name of our blessed Redeemer, that Thou wouldst pour upon us Thy Holy Spirit, that all our thoughts and acts may be acceptable in Thy sight. We adore Thee for all Thy glorious perfections. We praise Thee for the revelation which Thou has given us in Thy works and in Thy Word. By Thee all worlds exist. All beings live through Thee. Thou raisest up Kingdoms and empires, and castest them down. By Thee kings reign and princes decree righteousness. In Thy hand are the issues of life and death. We confess before Thee the magnitude of our sins and transgressions, both as individuals and as a nation. We implore Thy mercy for the sake of our Redeemer. Forgive us all our iniquities. If it please Thee, remove Thy chastening hand from us; and, though we be unworthy, turn away from us Thine anger, and let the light of Thy countenance again shine upon us.

At this solemn hour, as we mourn for the death of our President, who was stricken down by the hand of an assassin, grant us also the grace to bow in submission to Thy holy will. May we recognize Thy hand high above all human agencies, and Thy power as controlling all events, so that the wrath of man shall praise Thee, and that the remainder of wrath Thou wilt restrain.

Humbled under the suffering we have endured, and the great afflictions through which we have passed, may we not be called upon to offer other sacrifices. May the lives of all our officers, both civil and military, be guarded by Thee; and let no violent hand fall upon any of them. Mourning as we do, for the mighty dead by whose remains we stand, we would yet lift our hearts unto Thee in grateful acknowledgment for Thy kindness in giving us so great and noble a commander.

Thou art glorified in good men, and we praise Thee that Thou didst give him unto us so pure, so honest, so sincere, and so transparent in character. We praise Thee for that kind, affectionate heart, which always swelled with feelings of enlarged benevolence. We bless Thee for what Thou didst enable him to do; that Thou didst give him wisdom to select for his advisors, and for his officers, military and naval, those men through whom our country has been carried through an unprecedented conflict.

We bless Thee for the success which has attended all their efforts, and victories which have crowned our armies; and that Thou didst spare Thy servant until he could behold the dawning of that glorious morning of peace and prosperity which is about to shine upon our land; that he was enabled to go up as Thy servant of old upon Mount Pisgah, and catch a glimpse of the promised land. Though his lips are silent and his arm is powerless, we thank Thee that Thou didst strengthen him to speak words that cheer the hearts of the suffering and the oppressed, and to write that declaration of emancipation which has given him an immortal reward; that though the hand of the assassin has struck him to the ground, it could not destroy the work which he has done, nor forge again the chains which he has broken. And while we mourn that he has passed away, we are grateful that his work was so fully accomplished, and that the acts which he has performed will forever remain.

We implore Thy blessing upon his bereaved family, Thou husband of the widow. Bless her who, broken-hearted and sorrowing, feels oppressed with unutterable anguish. Cheer the loneliness of the pathway which lies before her, and grant to her such consolations of Thy spirit, and such hopes, through the resurrection, that she shall feel that "Earth hath no sorrows which Heaven cannot heal."

Let Thy blessing rest upon his sons; pour upon them the spirit of wisdom; be Thou the guide of their youth; prepare them for usefulness in society, for happiness in all their relations. May the remembrance of their father's counsels, and their father's noble acts, ever stimulate them to glorious deeds, and at last may they be heirs of everlasting life.

Command Thy rich blessings to descend upon the successor of our lamented President. Grant unto him wisdom, energy, and firmness for the responsible duties to which he has been called; and may he, his cabinet, officers and generals who shall lead his armies, and the brave soldiers in the field, be so guided by Thy counsels that they shall speedily complete the great work which he had so successfully carried forward. Let Thy blessing rest upon our country. Grant unto us all a fixed and strong determination never to cease our efforts until our glorious Union shall be fully re-established.

Around the remains of our loved President may we covenant together by every possible means to give ourselves to our country's service until every vestige of this rebellion shall have been wiped out, and until slavery, its cause, shall be forever eradicated.

Preserve us, we pray Thee, from all complications with foreign nations. Give us hearts to act justly toward all nations, and grant unto them hearts to act justly toward us, that universal peace and happiness may fill our earth. We rejoice, then, in this inflicting dispensation Thou hast given, as additional evidence of the strength of our nation. We bless Thee that no tumult has arisen, and in peace and harmony our government moves onward; and that Thou hast shown that our republican government is the strongest upon the face of the earth.

In this solemn presence, may we feel that we too are immortal! May the sense of our responsibility to God rest upon us; may we repent of every sin; and may we consecrate anew unto Thee all the time and all the talents which Thou hast given us; and may we so fulfill our allotted duties that finally we may have a resting-place with the good, and wise, and the great, who now surround that glorious throne! Hear us while we unite in praying with Thy Church in all lands and in all ages, even as Thou hast taught us, saying:

Our Father which art in heaven; hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen!

Sermon -- Dr. Phineas D. Gurley

Closing Prayer -- Dr. E.H. Gray

God of the bereaved, comfort and sustain this mourning family. Bless the new Chief Magistrate. Let the mantle of his predecessor fall upon him. Bless the Secretary of State and his family. O God, if possible, according to Thy will, spare their lives that they may render still important service to the country. Bless all the members of the Cabinet. Endow them with wisdom from above. Bless the commanders in our Army and Navy and all the brave defenders of the country. Give them continued success. Bless the Embassadors from foreign courts, and give us peace with the nations of the earth. O God, let treason, that has deluged our land with blood and desolated our country, and bereaved our homes and filled them with widows and orphans, which has a length culminated in the assassination of the nation's chosen ruler, -- God of justice, and Avenger of the nation's wrong, let the work of treason cease, and let the guilty perpetrators of this horrible crime be arrested, and brought to justice! O hear the cry and the prayer and the wail rising from the nation's smitten and crushed heart, and deliver us from the power of our enemy, and send speedy peace into all our borders. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Related Links

Assassination Links
Lincoln Lies in State at the White House
Lincoln Mourned at the U.S. Capitol
Lincoln's Springfield Funeral and Burial
Willie Lincoln's Death and Funeral

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 20, 1865
  • New York Daily Tribune, April 20, 1865
  • Temple, Wayne C. Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet. Mahomet, Illinois: Mayhaven Publishing, 1995
  • Nevins, Allan and Milton Halsey Thomas, editors. Diary of George Templeton Strong. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
  • Washington Chronicle, April 22, 1865.
  • Washington Evening Star, April 20, 1865

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