Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Log Cabin Statesman

Head-and-shoulders portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, traditionally called "last photograph of Lincoln from life." Image from the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov). 

This blog entry is written by volunteer Hannah Hamilton. 

He was a physical marvel of his time, and remains an intellectual wonder for all mankind. He, more so than any other president, embodied what many consider to be the American Ideal. Born on a bed of bearskins which hung from the wall by leather straps, receiving only one year of schooling before educating himself through toil of mind and body, he rose to be the man who would ultimately abolish American slavery and preserve the Union. He was “The Giant of the West,” a living paradox in his own right, and his tale has become the stuff of legends.

“It is near midnight, and I have just come in from seeing enacted a tragedy which will ring down through the ages ‘Till time shall be no more,’ the assassination at Ford’s Theater of Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States.” –Captain Charles Lewis of Schenectady, NY; April 14, 1865

A Mathew Brady photograph of Lewis taken in Washington on August 7, 1863. Photo from the collections of the Efner City History Center in Schenectady.

Captain Lewis, the son of Taylor Lewis (one of Union College’s earliest professors), was one of at least two Schenectadians present at Ford’s Theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination. In Lewis’ diary, held at the Efner City History Center along with numerous contemporary documents, he recounts the horror and excitement of that tragic night. Lincoln’s death came four short days after the end of the Civil War, and blackened a time of celebratory elation in Washington D.C. and the North. Lewis’ journal provides modern scholars with a firsthand look at the immediate impact of Lincoln’s death, and is especially special to a Schenectadian audience.

Lincoln visited Schenectady twice, the first time following his election as president in February of 1861. Though Lincoln had lost the city of Schenectady in the 1860 election by 33 votes, he was met by an enthusiastic crowd as his train rolled across Union Street five minutes ahead of time. The journey was not a pleasant one for the president, who was described as looking exhausted and frail. 

With rumors of assassination and secession already circulating, it was much to the alarm of everyone aboard the Ernestus Corning when the reverberation of a celebratory cannon welcoming the president blasted out several of the train’s windows. Despite the warm welcome which met him on the rundown Schenectady streets, Lincoln refused to leave the train and take the platform erected for him, because he had refused to do so in other towns. Instead, from the back of the train, he announced to the crowd that he had, “no speech to make, no time to make one and not sufficient strength to make one if [he] so desired,” according to Robert Freeman, the engineer at throttle on the Ernestus Corning.

A 20th century artist’s depiction of Lincoln’s 1861 visit to Schenectady. Located in Lincoln, Abraham In Schenectady clipping file, Grems-Doolittle Library.

President Abraham Lincoln visited Schenectady for the second time in 1865, and this second time, just like the first, he did not leave the train. The funeral train of the president passed through Schenectady piloted by the city’s own Alonzo J. Wemple, born October 1st 1833. Wemple, who served as a railroad engineer for several decades, “recalled feeling pity for the Confederate prisoners of war who were loaded into boxcars and shipped to prison camps in the North.” It was with great pride that he joined the elite team of engineers who piloted the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, and drove the train as it passed through the city of silent onlookers in 1865.

An artifact held at the Schenectady County Historical Society Museum with a note reading, A piece of the towel used as a bandage round the head of our late President Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination. Presented to Joseph H. Lester by Yours Truly, William J. Clark. Collections of the Schenectady County Historical Society. 

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