At the Australian embassy in Washington, DC, last month, I asked Kim Beazley if he had had the chance to indulge his fascination with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War while serving as Australia’s ambassador to the US.
“The Civil War is seminal to the US,” Beazley said. “It competes with the Revolutionary War for the public’s psyche. It’s also a great conversation starter. Few things impress a US senator more than having ground- level knowledge of US history, particularly the Civil War.”
If you really want to understand US history, politics and culture, then you need to understand the Civil War. And to understand the war, you need to understand the man at the centre of it all, Lincoln. So I take Beazley’s instruction and continue my search for the real Lincoln by exploring the places that illuminate the man before he was famous.
Lincoln’s journey from a log cabin to the White House is American folklore. He was president during the nation’s greatest crisis. He turned a civil war into a moral crusade and preserved the union. He was a masterful politician and unrivalled orator. He was a simple man of empathy and humanity. And he became a martyr when assassinated in April 1865.
NEW SALEM A 45-minute drive from Springfield, Illinois, this is the town in which Lincoln lived in his 20s. He ferried goods up and down the Sangamon River, purchased a store, worked as postmaster and surveyor and taught himself law. It is where he launched his political career, winning election to the state legislature in 1834. The 263ha village has been rebuilt on its original foundations. As you walk the dusty paths, you can enter the cabins and talk to re-enactors in period costume who explain life in the 1830s.
LINCOLN HOME Lincoln’s home in Springfield – known as “The Land of Lincoln” – is the only one he owned. A magnet for Lincoln buffs, it has been restored to its 1861 appearance, along with the four-block neighbourhood. Lincoln lived in the house from 1844 to 1861; it still includes original furnishings. A simple “A. Lincoln” nameplate is
affixed to the front door.
In the rear parlour, Lincoln learned he had won the Republican Party’s nomination for president. Before he left for Washington, he milked a cow in the backyard.
LINCOLN-HERNDON LAW OFFICE Lincoln started his law practice with Stephen T. Logan in the Tinsley drygoods storehouse, opposite Springfield’s State Capitol in 1843. The following year, he started a partnership with William Herndon, located in the same building. Herndon hated it when Lincoln’s boys visited as they would throw books, papers and inkwells at each other as they played. The desk Lincoln used to draft his first presidential inaugural speech can be viewed downstairs.
LINCOLN DEPOT Before Lincoln departed for Washington in early 1861, he bid an affectionate farewell to Springfield’s citizens at the train depot. On the wall of the depot is a plaque recalling his famous speech: “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”
DAVID WILLS HOUSE In November 1863, following the Union army’s victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln visited the town to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and make “a few appropriate remarks”. He stayed overnight at the house of attorney David Wills, where he finalised his address. The house has been restored and you can visit the room where Lincoln stayed. It includes a museum that explores the battle and the impact on the town of just 2400 people. Nearby is Shriver House, the home of George Washington Shriver and his family during the Gettysburg battle. Tours include a peek into the attic, which was occupied by Confederate sharpshooters. On the 150th anniversary of the battle last month, they hosted a Lincoln look-alike contest.
FORD’S THEATRE AND PETERSEN HOUSE The presidential box, on the second floor of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC looks just as it did when Lincoln was shot there by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. In the basement is a museum where Booth’s derringer pistol and Lincoln’s bloodstained suit are on display. After he was shot, Lincoln was carried across the street to Petersen House, where he died the following morning. It is also worth a visit. The bed Lincoln died on, lying diagonally, is now located at the Chicago History Museum.
LINCOLN TOMB Lincoln’s resting place is Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, where he is entombed inside a 35m-high mausoleum and buried beneath a seven-tonne red marble block to ward off grave robbers. The public receiving vault for Lincoln’s body is still there. Nearby is a marker signposting the original burial vault.
There are other sites worth visiting, including the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, which includes a “symbolic birthplace cabin”; the Boyhood Home at Knob Creek; the Smithsonian in Washington, which has Lincoln’s gold pocket watch and beaver fur stovepipe hat; the Library of Congress in Washington, which has two of the five copies of the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln’s hand; and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, which combines holographic theatres, waxworks and thousands of documents and artefacts to tell the story of his life.
Despite having read dozens of books about Lincoln, studied the photographs that document his physical deterioration and viewed countless documentaries and movies, aspects of his life remained elusive. He seemed remote, like the colossus 5.8m statue that sits inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
But a ground-level study from New Salem to Springfield and Gettysburg to Washington helped to reveal the real Lincoln by separating the man from the mythology.
–Troy Bramston, The Australian