By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi
Of all the wonders we experienced on our travels through Illinois on Historic Route 66, one that stood out was the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Our Route 66 Visitor’s Guide informed us that Lincoln’s Library and Museum “…is over 50% larger than any other presidential library/museum, and is the most visited.” That I would believe since it was people, people everywhere when we visited on a weekday.
My daughter, the “2L” [second year] law student, was wild to visit the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices. It proved an arresting moment to know Lincoln walked from his home to his brick, on-the-corner law office, entered through those very doors, worked at that impressive tall, wide desk with cubby holes, warmed himself at that particular fireplace, and honed his legal skills from 1843 to 1852. Outside the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices is a tree-lined plaza with life-sized sculptures of Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their first-born son Willy. We walked a short distance, strode through the Lincoln Presidential Museum’s doors, purchased tickets, and embarked on a journey through Lincoln’s life, and what a journey it turned out to be.
We began inside a log cabin, not Lincoln’s, but one from his birth area, explained the guard. How all of his family members lived in that postage stamp-sized log cabin is beyond me, but they did. We moved into the general store where he worked. All replicas of Lincoln and those around him throughout the museum are life-size. He was a tall man for his times, dwarfing those around him. When we reached the room of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debate, I did a double take: Inside a protected case laid William Lincoln’s broken headstone. The boy died at age four in Springfield, the first of many personal tragedies to assail the Lincoln family. Moving through this vast museum to the culmination of the Civil War, and how Lincoln was fraught with decisions, dissent within his Cabinet, the soaring death toll of the war, and the deaths of two of his other sons, begged the question how did the man persevere. Yet he did. Lincoln’s personal and public major events are represented in large rooms. Displays of uniforms of the North and of the South, along with photographs and last letters home from these soldiers, cuts to the quick as one realizes the breadth and scope of the Civil War. Having visited Gettysburg, I felt that same surge of sadness at the human toll exacted on both sides.
The last enormous room was a precise replica of Lincoln lying in state in Springfield. Dimmed lighting, long burgundy velvet drapes, enormous ferns, and the ornate casket itself covered with a huge spray of flowers atop a raised sort of indoor mound drive home the enormity of the Nation’s loss. This, of all the Lincoln rooms, demanded silence. Reverentially we halted as we gazed upon this Lincoln’s final stop of the funeral train’s journey from Washington, D. C. Staggering back into the brightly lit museum pavilion, we decided to forgo the museum’s theatrical play, though we did take a look inside the gift shop. Across the street was the Lincoln Library, which houses his documents. It too is a beautiful building, and knowing what it archives makes it all the more special.
We then arrived at Lincoln’s Springfield residence. The entire neighborhood is a national museum/park, replete with forest rangers and manifold security. What makes Springfield unique is that it is where Lincoln’s professional law life and political life began. The entire Historic District exudes Lincoln, the President who saved the Union. Lincoln was laid to rest in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. Also buried there were Mary, his wife, and three of their sons: William, Edward, and Thomas, all of whom died in boyhood. Only Robert lived to adulthood, and he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Beneath a majestic obelisk atop a hill and terrace, visitors may walk inside the structure into a rotunda covered with marble and bronze. Lincoln is buried ten-feet underground in a concrete vault. Again, there is a hush among visitors to Lincoln’s tomb. The entire Lincoln experience is an absorbing one, intellectually, historically, and humanistically.
Ciao for now.