A Short Story; A Long History: Lincoln's Farewell to Illinois

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“This is my literary bureau,” said president-elect Abraham Lincoln as he handed a “well-filled” satchel to Mrs. Grimsley, daughter of Dr. John Todd, who happened to be Lincoln’s wife Mary’s uncle.

It was early February 1861 and Lincoln had stopped by the doctor’s home (said to be one of the largest in Springfield) just days before traveling by train to Washington D.C. and begin his term as the 16th President of the United States. He asked Mrs. Grimsley to keep the bureau in her charge. It contained writings and lectures and if he returned to Springfield he would claim them again. “But if not,” Lincoln said, “please dispose of its contents as deemed proper.”

A friend of Lincoln’s, Dr. Samuel Houston Melvin was also present that day. He remembers: “A tone of indescribable sadness was noted in the later part of (Lincoln’s) sentence”

Melvin’s concerns for his friend were warranted. A few days before Lincoln had shown Melvin several letters “threatening (Lincoln’s) life.” Some predicted that Lincoln would never live to see his inauguration day. “It was apparent to me that the threats were making an impression on his mind,” Melvin continued, “although he tried to laugh the matter off. “

Lincoln’s inaugural train left Springfield on February 11, 1861. Before departing he waved goodbye to his friends and said, “To this place and the kindness of these people I owe everything.”

The inaugural whistle stop tour was set. The train would travel eastward not north and exclude many larger cities in the state like Peoria and Chicago. Instead the route and schedule was a well calculated effort to maximize time and efficiency. The train would stop at only two cities in Illinois then continue through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York before heading to the capital.

In tiny Tolono just south of Champaign, Lincoln would say farewell to his beloved Illinois. From the back of the train, he delivered a passionate 20-minute speech focusing on the two pressing issues at the time, slavery and preservation of the union. A large crowd had gathered in Tolono, larger than the president-elect and his handlers had anticipated, so Lincoln reportedly gave the speech he had planned for the last stop in his home state, Danville.

Lincoln’s tone was somber and a light rain was falling “A sob went through the listening crowd as the broken voice asked their prayers,” a local scribe wrote. “There they stood, these townsmen of Abraham Lincoln, with bared heads, the raindrops mingling with tears.”

Lincoln told them: “I am leaving you on an errand of national importance, attended, as you are aware, with considerable difficulties.”

In the crowd, a young girl yelled out that she could not see the president-elect, so a baggage man lifted her up.

Lincoln continued: “Let us believe as some poet has expressed it, ‘Behind the cloud the sun is still shining.’ I bid you an affectionate farewell,”

Lincoln turned and walked back to his coach car. In the distance a cannon fired and the hundreds in attendance “waved handkerchiefs” as the train moved on.

“The bell on the funny looking engine clanged,” a reporter wrote, “a warning of the beginning of a Great Adventure.”

Lincoln left Illinois that day for the last time. In 1865, only his body would return.

About the Author
Ken is a well-known voice on the Greg & Dan Show on WMBD and recent author of the book, The Wreck of the Columbia, which is available at fine bookstores around town as well as other mediocre bookstores as well.