Lincoln’s Final Final Resting Place

Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Documents Collection, Illinois Digital Archives –
A service of the Illinois State Library and the Office of the Secretary of State
A shocked nation received the news on April 15, 1865, that President Abraham Lincoln had died that morning after having been shot the night before at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC. Jubilant only days earlier at the news of Appomattox, the United States was plunged into a terrible state of mourning.

Around the north, plans began to be made for memorial ceremonies for Lincoln, whose funeral train would stop in several major cities as it re-traced his 1861 route between Springfield, Illinois, and the nation’s capital. In Springfield, plans would have to be made not only for a funeral but for Lincoln’s final resting place. In all, those plans would be made and remade for nearly seven decades.

The National Lincoln Monument Association was formed by some Springfield civic leaders to begin the sad task of designing and building a tomb for the city’s fallen hero. As the funeral train made its slow journey through the northern states to Springfield, a plan began to come together. Mary Lincoln wished for her husband’s remains to be interred in a peaceful, quiet setting far from the bustle of a city. An ideal spot was to be found in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery, two miles north of the state capitol. Governor Richard Oglesby and the National Lincoln Monument Association led the effort to raise nearly a quarter of a million dollars of private donations to build the monument at Oak Ridge.

Oak Ridge had gotten its start in 1856 when the city of Springfield banned any further burials within the city limits. The city purchased the land that became Oak Ridge Cemetery, finding its location to be “sufficiently remote from the business center and every-day life to render a fitting abode to the dead.” It was already the resting place of Illinois Governor William Bissell, who had died in office in 1860. By the time the funeral train reached Springfield on May 3, 1865, the plans for the ceremony were set. Lincoln would lie in state in Representatives Hall of the state capitol for 24 hours, and then be moved to a receiving vault at Oak Ridge until his tomb was constructed.

From the capitol, Lincoln’s funeral procession made its way to Oak Ridge and the receiving vault. There the final funeral services took place. Lincoln’s body, along with that of his son Willie who had died in the White House in 1862 was then placed in the receiving vault. In December a temporary vault was constructed not far from the receiving vault and the current tomb site. There, Abraham Lincoln along with Willie and his son Eddie, who had died in Springfield in 1850, would lie for the next six years.

Meanwhile, construction started in 1868 on what was intended to be the permanent tomb for the Lincoln family. At last, in 1871, construction had progressed enough that preparations were made to move Lincoln and his two sons into their final resting place. But by this time, tragedy had struck the Lincoln family yet again, as Abraham and Mary’s son Tad died in July of that year. Tad was buried in the permanent tomb alongside his father and his brothers. Work continued on the tomb until it was finally completed in 1874.

The tomb, designed by Larkin Goldsmith Mead, a sculptor, Civil War veteran and diplomat, stands 117 feet tall, and is made of brick and granite. Mead’s design was the winner of a contest, for which he received a $1000 prize. The tomb’s base is 72 feet square and is topped by an obelisk. The obelisk is placed atop a terrace which features four bronze statues, depicting the four branches of the armed forces in the 19th century: the infantry, cavalry, artillery and navy. Around the terrace is an unbroken chain of seals with the names of each of the 37 states of the union at that time, a chain which Lincoln fought so hard to keep unbroken. The sarcophagus containing Lincoln’s body was placed in the center of the burial room. On October 15, 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant came to Springfield for the dedication of Abraham Lincoln’s final resting place.

But the story does not end there.

In 1876, a group of Chicago counterfeiters attempted an ambitious heist. They would steal Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom: $200,000 and a pardon for an imprisoned friend. Unfortunately for the would-be grave robbers, one of the men they recruited for their plot was a Secret Service informant who tipped off detectives to the scheme. After breaking into the tomb only to have their efforts thwarted by the heavier-than-expected weight of Lincoln’s coffin, they fled back to Chicago where they were arrested days later.

To protect Lincoln’s body from less-inept robbers with similar ideas, the tomb’s custodian removed Lincoln from his public resting place and secretly buried him in the tomb’s basement. The men who carried out the clandestine burial swore an oath to never reveal Lincoln’s true location in order to protect his remains. Years later, only with the express permission of Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert, would they break that oath. When Mary Lincoln passed away in 1882 she was buried by her husband’s side beneath the tomb as well.

In 1895, the State of Illinois took on ownership of the tomb. By then it had become apparent that the tomb was in need of restoration. Abraham and Mary Lincoln and their three sons were moved once again to an underground vault while an extensive restoration was conducted. Once completed, the bodies were then moved back into the original burial room, but Robert Lincoln remained concerned about thieves, and insisted that his father be moved one last time.

In 1901, Abraham Lincoln was buried ten feet beneath the burial room, his coffin encased in cement. Before this final burial took place, members of the honor guard decided to put to rest any rumors that this was not truly Lincoln’s body. On September 26, 1901, the coffin was opened and members of the honor guard looked inside to see Abraham Lincoln. Fleetwood Lindley, the 14-year-old son of a member of the honor guard was the last surviving person to see the face of Abraham Lincoln. When he died in 1963 he too was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Sixty-six years after the assassination, a last round of renovations was carried out in 1931, and President Herbert Hoover presided over the dedication ceremony that June. Interior walkways were added so the public could enter the tomb and visit the burial room itself. The interior of the tomb is made of marble from throughout North America and Europe. The walk from the tomb’s entrance to the burial room includes statues depicting important aspects of Lincoln’s life and plaques containing passages of his most memorable speeches.

Finally, at the rear of the tomb is the burial room, where sits the large granite cenotaph above the burial site. Around the marker are the flags of the United States, the Presidency and the states that the Lincoln family had called home. Above and behind the cenotaph are the immortal words, “Now he belongs to the ages,” which were uttered by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton at the moment of Lincoln’s death.

Today, visitors can pay their respects to Abraham Lincoln at Lincoln’s Tomb State Historic Site in Oak Ridge Cemetery. While there they can also visit Illinois’ World War II, Korea and Vietnam memorials and the newly-dedicated Illinois Purple Heart Memorial. Such is the reverence for Lincoln that nearly one million visitors go to Oak Ridge Cemetery every year, making it the second most visited cemetery in the United States, behind only Arlington National Cemetery, where Robert Lincoln was buried following his death in 1926.