The death of America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, resulted in an outpouring of national mourning, the apex of which came in late April of 1865 when a specially outfitted train carried his body on a thirteen-day, 1,700-mile, eleven-city funeral procession from Washington, D.C., to his home and final resting place in Springfield, Ill. Approximately 12 million people — nearly one-third of the population at that time — watched the train go by, while more than 1 million people viewed the open casket at the train’s various stops.
Unsurprisingly, many cities had petitioned to be included in the procession’s route, and the officials in the cities that were included — Baltimore, Md.; Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Pa.; New York City, Buffalo and Albany, NY; Cleveland and Columbus, Oh.; Indianapolis, In.; and Chicago and Springfield, Ill. — wanted to honor the president with a ceremony that was both moving and memorable.
Yet no city officials prepared for Lincoln’s funeral procession quite like Cleveland’s, whose ceremonial arrangements were one part bureaucratic overkill, one part “Keystone Kops” absurdity, and a dash of egotistical one-upmanship sprinkled in.
For starters, Cleveland’s city council appointed a five-man committee, the General Committee of Arrangements, to prepare for the funeral train’s arrival. Not to be outdone, Cleveland’s Board of Trade then appointed its own, larger committee to coordinate planning with the five men on the Committee of Arrangements, who — sensing they were outnumbered — promptly expanded to 23 members.
They then met to create nine subcommittees with specific duties, as evidenced by their committee titles: “On Reception,” “On Procession,” “On Entertainment,” “On Music” (apparently separate from entertainment), “On Decoration,” “On Military,” “On Carriages,” “On Location of Remains,” and “To Meet the Remains.”
Next they created the “Civic Guard of Honor,” which they divided into several squads, the main purpose being to ensure that every single civic-minded citizen in Cleveland got to serve in some official capacity. As a result, as historian James Swanson has written, “Cleveland created more levels of bureaucracy to receive the remains … than the U.S. War Department needed to plan and staff the entire thirteen-day trip.”
The upshot of which was that a week before the funeral train was due to arrive, the “Location of Remains” subcommittee realized that Cleveland had no building large enough to accommodate the viewing of Lincoln’s remains. That crisis was finally resolved by building a temporary outdoor pavilion, so when the funeral train arrived, this week (April 28) in 1865, Cleveland was ready for it.
Sort of. None of the committees had thought to reserve any hotel rooms for the large contingent of government and military officials who were on the funeral train. As a result, most of them had to bunk with local citizens.