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Sorrow engulfed Buffalo 150 years ago

It is good to remember, on days such as this one, that the city we call ours has not always belonged to us.

When they’re all added up, millions of people before us have also called Buffalo home. And just as we immerse ourselves in the events of 2015, they, too, found themselves swept up by their times.

That’s why Monday gives us special reason to recall the passage of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train through Buffalo and Western New York exactly 150 years ago. By all accounts, overwhelming grief encompassed this city that day as the president’s body lay in state here en route to burial in Springfield, Ill.

Western New York’s participation in those somber events began 150 years ago today, when former President Millard Fillmore traveled from Buffalo to Batavia to meet the Lincoln funeral train for its westbound journey the next day. Fillmore experienced other encounters with Lincoln, including an 1861 meeting as the president-elect traveled through Buffalo – that time eastbound – on his way to Washington and Inauguration Day. The two even attended church services in a building that still stands on the corner of Franklin and Eagle streets.

Starting in Washington on April 20, the funeral train had stopped in various cities along the way – Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany and now – at about 7 a.m. that day – Buffalo.

According to several histories of April 27, 1865, Fillmore was among the dignitaries alighting from the train at the former Exchange Street station. He was, after all, honorary chairman of the “Citizens Committee on Observance of the Day of Obsequies.”

Mayor William Fargo headed a funeral delegation that met the train and accompanied the president’s body to St. James Hall at Washington and Eagle streets, where thousands more paid their respects at the open casket, and members of the Union Continentals and 74th New York Militia comprised an honor guard. quotes the Buffalo Morning Express in a story that captures a sense of utter grief gripping the city.

“We have hallowed a shrine in our midst forever, the touch of the dead main’s bier. The procession of cities and states has swept on to the West, and the funeral dirge which wailed upon us from the ocean a week ago is dying along the lakes.

“We have borne our part,” the story continued. “In the majestic spectacle we have paid our tribute of honor to the illustrious dead; we have done it lovingly and well … Our city has done honor to itself in the method and manner of Abraham Lincoln.”

Buffalo historian Scott Eberle recalled the Buffalo portion of Lincoln’s last journey several years ago while co-authoring “Second Looks: A Pictorial History of Buffalo and Erie County.” He told the Politics Column last week that the Dean Richmond, the locomotive pulling the nine-car funeral train, often slowed to a crawl as people knelt trackside in prayer – simply wanting to be in Lincoln’s presence.

“People were not just overcome with grief but they were deeply shocked,” Eberle said, “because he had been so much a part of looking to the future and the unshakable nature of the Union.”

The event here is now forgotten, he added, but the thousands flocking to Washington and Eagle that day “shared in a sacred national moment.”

“The throng that turned out on that gray April day in Buffalo united people in their public, shared grief, magnifying their bereavement, not just for a revered president, but for virtually the last casualty of the cruel Civil War,” Eberle said.

“Every single American was a casualty of that war and thus no one failed to note the symbolism of Lincoln’s assassination,” he added. “Lincoln became one of hundreds of thousands who gave the last full measure of sacrifice to preserve the union of this republic, and as his funeral train passed through the populous North, it worked to knit the torn country together.”

Throngs of people will file past Washington and Eagle Monday. Just another day. Just another corner. Few will give a second thought to Lincoln. But it remains a sacred place – a place where unimaginable sorrow engulfed a city a century and a half ago.