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Sketch of Lincoln's Coffin
Abraham Lincoln's Coffin
Library of Congress

President Lincoln Lies in State at the White House

On Tuesday morning, April 18, 1865, soldiers opened White House gates to receive an immense crowd stretching for blocks in downtown Washington. From 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. the shocked and grieving public filed past President Lincoln's open coffin in the first official mourning event after his assassination. Newspaper reporters estimated the number of visitors at 20,000 to 30,000 or more. So many had to be turned away that officials scheduled another public viewing at the Capitol two days later.

Mourners generally waited two to six hours before entering the grounds from the west side. As they approached the portico they could not miss the huge columns draped in black mourning cloth. Once they reached the East Room, they passed by the body and left through an open window on the north side. Egress through windows over an outside platform was common practice during large White House events of the era. Members of the Veterans Reserve Corps guarded approaches to the grounds.

The spring day proved cloudy and sultry, but the sweltering crowd waited patiently while minute guns boomed in tribute to the president. A New York reporter wrote, "One of the most remarkable features of the day is the universality of the mourning. Old and young, rich and poor -- all sexes, grades and colors -- united in paying their homage to the great dead ... On all sides and in all directions were the unmistakable signs of heavy hearts -- hearts borne down with sorrow, and carrying a heavy load of grief."

When viewers entered the East Room they saw a large, dim chamber "heavily draped in mourning, the cornices and mirrors being covered with black alpaca, the middle of the mirrors with white crape, and black crape curtains were hung at each window. The catafalque was covered with black cloth, the inside of the top being fluted with white silk." Washington insiders could not help contrasting the somber scene with the last gala public reception held by the Lincolns.

The elaborate catafalque (structure holding the coffin) was so large -- 11 feet high by 16 feet long by 10 feet wide and surmounted with drapings -- that workmen removed the room's middle chandelier to fit it into place. The coffin cost $1,500, more than a typical American worker earned in a year. Onlookers could see the president's face and upper body, revealing what some called a "natural" expression and discoloration from the bullet wound. He wore the suit from his second inauguration and rested on quilted white satin. Black cloth covered the lead-lined coffin's walnut exterior, which was heavily accented with silver and fringe. Flowers, evergreens and leaves provided a fragrant surrounding.

No family members greeted visitors. With the president's murder, the Lincoln family consisted of only Mary Lincoln and sons Robert and Thomas (Tad). One son lay buried in Illinois; another died in the White House three years earlier. Mary Lincoln remained secluded in the family living quarters on the second floor. Prostrated by grief, she did not attend any funeral observances in Washington or elsewhere. A small honor guard headed by Major General Hitchcock and Brigadier General Eaton remained on duty in the East Room.

Reporters noticed heart-tugging incidents at the unforgettable scene. An elderly black woman held her granddaughter aloft so she could see the "man who made her free." Many visitors responded as if they had lost a close family member. "Hundreds addressed words of farewell to the cold and inanimate body; and thousands passed from the platform with weeping eyes." Often overheard was the remark, "He was the poor man's friend."

Besides local citizens and a massive stream of out-of-town visitors, the mourners included special groups. A reporter explained, "About one o'clock a large number of wounded soldiers in the hospitals came marching up the avenue, some of them with their heads bandaged, others with arms in a sling, others limping from the effects of wounds ... anxious to take a long and last look at the face of the late President and honored Commander-in-Chief."

Government clerks from nearby buildings came decorated with mourning emblems as they marched in groups. They were admitted through entrances which were off-limits to the public. By 4:00 p.m. guests from the city's hotels arrived en masse. One writer commented, "Thus the day passed, the like of which was never before seen. There were large gatherings here at the death of both Harrison and Taylor, but never anything like this."

After the doors closed to the public, state delegations gathered to pay their respects. The California delegation placed a bouquet on the coffin and several hundred Illinois representatives arrived, led by Governor Richard Oglesby. As night approached all viewers left and workmen began preparing the room for the next day's funeral. David Bates, who visited during the afternoon with War Department clerks, made a prophetic comment in his diary that night: "We never shall know his like again."

Related Links

Assassination Links
Lincoln Mourned at the U.S. Capitol
Lincoln White House Funeral
Lincoln White House Funeral Sermon
Lincoln's Springfield Funeral and Burial
Willie Lincoln's Death and Funeral

Related Reading

  • Brooks, Noah, ed. by Mitgang, Herbert. Washington in Lincoln's Time. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1958
  • Kunhardt, Dorothy Meserve and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. Twenty Days: A Narrative in Text and Pictures of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Reprint edition, 1994.
  • Markle, Donald E. The Telegraph Goes to War: The Personal Diary of David Homer Bates. Hamilton, NY: Edmonston Publishing, 2003.
  • New York Herald, April 19, 1865.
  • New York Times, April 19, 1865.
  • New York Daily Tribune, April 19, 1865.
  • Temple, Wayne C. Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet. Mahomet, Illinois: Mayhaven Publishing, 1995
  • Washington Evening Star, April 18, 1865.

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