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Memorializing Lincoln: 150 years ago today, Buffalo honored slain president with first of two funerals

The somber-looking black crepe-laden train slowly came to a stop at the Exchange Street Station. The massive crowd that waited was respectfully silent. The only sound was the hissing of the escaping steam from the locomotive Dean Richmond. It was near 7 a.m. on April 27, 1865, almost two weeks to the minute that Abraham Lincoln had breathed his last. Now, the martyred president visited for the last time.

Buffalo was one of the stops on the 1,654-mile route of the Lincoln Funeral Train – or the Lincoln Special, as it had been dubbed – as it mournfully progressed to Springfield, Ill., for his burial. Accompanying Lincoln’s coffin were the remains of his beloved son Willie, who had died of typhoid in February 1862 and had been temporarily interred in Washington.

Former President Millard Fillmore and prominent Buffalonians who comprised an escort of honor would disembark and join the procession carrying the president’s remains to Saint James Hall, at the corner of Main and Eagle streets. The citizens of Buffalo would be allowed to pay their final respects.

The train was scheduled to leave Buffalo at 10 p.m. for the next stop, Cleveland, Ohio. To the thousands present, this sad scenario was tragically familiar; it was not just déjà vu, because the events of April 27 would be the second funeral for Lincoln in Buffalo.

Late-night dispatches on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, carried the shocking news that the president had been shot while attending the theater in Washington. Buffalonians awoke Saturday to tragedy as quickly printed posters and signs and word-of-mouth encounters announced Lincoln’s death.

An account of events, “Expressions of Public Feeling on Reception of the News and at the Funeral Obsequies of the President at Buffalo, New York” described the atmosphere:

“Saturday, April 15, was a day of mourning in Buffalo. The direful news of the assassination of the president … passed, until within a space of time almost incredibly short, it was diffused all over the entire city. Workmen on their early way to the forges and shops spoke of the awful calamity with blanched faces; bells tolled; the usual sounds of a busy city on the busiest day of the week were hushed, and it seemed that a pall had been spread over all.”

Local newspapers reflected the shock. The Commercial Advertiser stated: “Like thunder from a clear sky, the intelligence of the assassination … has fallen upon unprepared ears, and sunk deep into the hearts of the people.”

From the pulpits that Sunday, there was no shortage of emotion. At Central Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. Lord commented: “From the height of gladness, in the midst of joyful tidings, the nation is plunged into the deepest grief.”

Buffalo, a city that felt it had a special connection to the president because he had visited the city and area several times (as early as 1846 and as recent as his Inaugural Train stop in February 1861), was determined to memorialize him in a most public and befitting manner.

That morning, the Board of Trade met and called for resolutions of mourning and public displays of draping in the city. A committee was established for the purpose of working with others to plan obsequies. That evening, a citizen’s meeting at the Merchants Club Room pledged similar activity.

As the meeting minutes of April 17, 1865, reveal, the Buffalo Common Council established, with Mayor William Fargo’s support, a committee of aldermen to plan the public displays in honor of Lincoln to coincide with the state funeral to be held in Washington on April 19. The U.S. Department of State had suggested that events in the states be observed on that day.

In addition to the mayor and Common Council, prominent Buffalonians stepped forward to assist in the hastily made funerary arrangements. Among them were Lewis F. Allen, a relative of future President Grover Cleveland and a successful businessman and real estate magnate; and Rufus L. Howard, a businessman and philanthropist and major general of the New York State National Guard 8th Division. Howard was named chief marshal of the procession. Fillmore was named honorary chairman.

These individuals and committee members were “on a mission” to provide the most memorable funeral obsequies for the assassinated president, even though his remains lie in state in the nation’s capital and would not actually be in Buffalo.

Wednesday, April 19, was planned as the largest memorial event ever held in Buffalo. All businesses, factories, shops and offices were closed. Mourning emblems and pictures of Lincoln festooned the city.

Firsthand accounts attest to the respectful quiet throughout. The procession would begin at noon from Niagara Square, eventually arriving at the city gathering place known as the Terrace.

The most prominent feature was the funeral car, which would transport the symbolic empty casket. It was described as “… a superbly draped canopy resting on four pillars, silver trimmed with black velvet fringe … upon which rested the coffin.” Six black draped horses would pull it. Accompanied by citizens of Buffalo and a military Honor Guard (of members of the 65th, 74th and 98th New York National Guard), the cortege filed its way to the Terrace.

The procession, 2½ miles in length, took over an hour to pass a given point. The funeral car halted before a large makeshift platform. Thousands serenely crowded around. At 1:30 p.m., Allen called the proceedings to order. After an opening prayer by the Rev. Dr. Allison and hymns, the crowd heard an emotional oration by Lord. Allen then made brief remarks recalling his time with Lincoln in Washington. Following the hymn, “Rest, Spirit, Rest,” and a final benediction, the proceedings closed and the crowd respectfully dispersed.

The City of Buffalo, although wracked with shock and grief, had provided a memorial worthy of the fallen Lincoln. Funeral Obsequies noted: “April 19 will never be forgotten by those who took part directly or indirectly in the obsequies of President Lincoln … the procession embodied the various military, civic and religious organizations of the city …”

It was the most dignified and imposing funeral cortege ever witnessed in Buffalo.

It would be inconceivable, then, that eight days later the entire event would be repeated. For that evening, from Washington, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton announced that a Lincoln Funeral Train (bearing the president’s remains) would depart the capital on April 21 and stop at major cities, including Buffalo on April 27, 1865.

For Buffalo, April 19, 1865, would begin again.

Timothy Ellis is a retired history teacher from Hamburg.