National Geographic : 2015 Apr
50 national geographic • April 2015 word came by telegraph that the train was just a few miles up the line. A young veteran, to pass those last minutes, read Lincoln’s Second Inau- gural aloud to the throng. As the black locomo- tive approached, the town minister led a prayer. Then firelight flickered briefly on the funeral car itself, the glossy paint and silver-fringed crepe, the small windows revealing nothing of the awful cargo within. Nearly everyone was weeping now. At last a whistle sounded, and the machine, and history, passed on. Peace looks like this: On a warm Sunday afternoon, on an artificial lake in subur- ban Chicago, people are paddling a boat. It’s only when they’re back onshore that I notice one of them is limping. He’s young and athletic, but he leans on a cane like an old man. The young veteran is Brad Schwarz, who will spend the rest of his life with the consequences of what happened to him one morning in Iraq, in the fall of 2008. That’s when the Humvee he was riding in struck an improvised bomb. He survived, albeit gravely wounded in body and psyche. Back home he slept with one loaded pis- tol under his pillow and another in the bedside dresser. One night he awoke from a nightmare to find that he was slamming his wife’s head against the wall, hallucinating that she was an attacker. Schwarz tells me that he was always interested in history and that when he first volunteered to serve in Iraq, he felt as if he was participating in one of the great events of his era, much as soldiers in the Civil War or World War II had done. But that soon changed. “While I was there, I didn’t feel like I was participating in history—I was just doing my job,” he tells me. “And I didn’t think we were changing anything for the better. I lost so many friends and spilled my own blood and tears and sweat there, and sometimes I feel like it was for nothing.” The Civil War felt equally pointless and awful to many Americans in the spring of 1865. The conflict had been self-evidently unnecessary, a matter not of foreign invasion but of domestic politics gone badly awry. Now three-quarters of a million men were dead. Many families never had a body to bury or a relic to cherish: So many boys and men had simply vanished into the mud of Virginia or Tennessee. Perhaps that was why Americans mourned Lincoln’s Good Friday martyrdom with such in- tensity. “People were still getting notice of their loved ones’ dying,” says historian Martha Hodes, author of Mourning Lincoln, a new book on the president’s death and its aftermath. “Lincoln’s fu- neral was like a stand-in for the brother or son or father whose body would never come home.” Perhaps that’s also why people cared so much about not just seeing Lincoln’s coffin pass but fil- ing past to view his corpse—and why the casket was not closed even when, after two weeks, the embalming techniques of the day began to fail and the dead man’s face turned dark and sunken. Mourners collected relics as if of a saint: a snippet of drapery from the catafalque, a scrap of crepe from the funeral train. Within hours of Lincoln’s death, a bit of his bloodstained shirt would fetch a five-dollar gold piece. Many of these souvenirs survive in museums today. But what I find most affecting are the remnants of wreaths and bouquets still preserved after a cen- tury and a half. A single leaf of laurel, a rose- bud faded to rusty orange: slain offerings, as if springtime itself had been offered as a sacrifice. The train’s last stop before Springfield was, appropriately, the town of Lincoln, Illinois, 30 miles north. More than a decade earlier, when the future president was still a state legislator, it had become the first of the many American towns that would be named in his honor. Mourners collected relics as if of a saint. Within hours of Lincoln’s death, a bit of his blood- stained shirt would fetch a $5 gold piece.