There it is: President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, basking in the low, protective light of the museum in Springfield, Illinois., that bears his name. It’s one of three existing stovepipe hats worn by Honest Abe, who stood 6 feet 4 inches tall in his stocking feet. It is said that when Lincoln donned this hat and his boots, he stood at nearly 7 feet — just one reason why he was a larger-than-life figure of his time and for the ages.
I try to imagine what he must have looked like among other men of the mid-1800s who averaged 5 feet 8 inches.
Because my husband, Jerry, shares a birthday (Feb. 12) with our 16th president, Springfield and All Things Lincoln had been on his Bucket List for some time. On a recent trip to central Illinois, we put aside two days to see as many Lincoln-related sites as time would allow.
We start at his tomb in the peaceful, tree-laden Oak Ridge Cemetery where Lincoln was placed permanently to thwart another attempt at stealing his body. The stunning granite monument is laden with architectural symbolism and bronze statuary depicting Lincoln at various times in his life and career.
The tomb also is the resting place of wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of their four sons, all of whom died in their childhood or teen years. The eldest and only surviving son, Robert, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. (There are no direct living descendants of Lincoln; the line stopped with his great-grandson, Abraham Lincoln II.)
I try to imagine how Mary must have suffered with the loss of her three sons and the murder of her husband as he sat next to her.
Our next stop: Lincoln Home National Historic Site, where the family lived from 1844 until he left for the White House in February 1861. The house, with its period furniture, artifacts and Lincoln possessions, provides a peek at the president as a successful lawyer and family man. Lincoln was known to be a lax disciplinarian; luckily, Mary was of like mind.
I try to imagine Lincoln working in the room designated as his home office, with his sons wildly out of control, as described by his law partner.
Rosie, our ranger/guide, tells us to hold the bannister as we climb the stairs to the second floor, “in effect, touching Lincoln’s hands. He used this very bannister countless times as he ascended and descended the stairway.”
After Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, the home was rented. When son Robert caught a tenant charging visitors to see the house, he gave it to the State of Illinois, declaring that no one should ever pay again to see it. (He didn’t, however, mention anything about parking, which costs $2 an hour.)
The surrounding neighborhood, also managed by the National Park Service, has been restored to its 1860s appearance, and on this spring day, I try to imagine Lincoln walking these streets, on his way to the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office (temporarily closed for renovation) or to a nearby church where his family had a pew.
The following morning, we are standing in the grandiose rotunda of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield’s historic downtown. An impressive 40,000 square feet, the museum has galleries, theaters (one features a fascinating holographic presentation), exhibits (permanent and rotating) and displays. There are plenty of wax figures throughout depicting Lincoln at various stages in his life, as well as key people in his life — his wife and family, Stephen Douglas, the Cabinet, John Wilkes Booth and several others who played prominent roles in our country’s history.
After Lincoln’s mother died, his father remarried and had four more children. Abe loved his stepmother, who encouraged him to read and study. I try to imagine living, eating, studying and sleeping with six other family members in their one-room log cabin recreated just off the museum’s rotunda.
We eventually enter the section of the museum that carries our attention to the Civil War and the people and politics who gave birth to the conflict. I try to imagine the acrimony between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, the burdens and tragedies Lincoln endured during the Civil War, his assassination and, finally, his funeral.
Today’s political divide is deep, but I try to imagine the chasm that existed in 1861 when Lincoln took office — not exactly with a majority mandate to govern. (The national vote was split among four candidates in the election of 1860.)
I try to imagine the vitriolic feelings between those who thought it was morally acceptable to own another human being and those who didn’t.
I try to imagine how these passions were so great that Americans were willing to kill each other over their differences.
I try to imagine all this, but I can’t.
Visit http://lincolnlibraryandmuseum.com; for more photos, visit https://www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.