Lincoln Tomb ‘Battle of the Gravesite’

Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, Oak Ridge Cemetery (SCHS)

Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, Oak Ridge Cemetery (SCHS)

Today, we take for granted that Lincoln is buried here. But we must remember that the journey from that terrible April day when Lincoln died to the day when he was placed in Oak Ridge’s receiving tomb was a tumultuous one, fraught with controversy and uncertainty. The story of that journey is one worth the telling.

— Richard Hart, speaking on the 154th anniversary of the dedication of Oak Ridge Cemetery

Two key decisions regarding the burial place of President Abraham Lincoln had, and continue to have, momentous effects on the development, growth and historical importance of Springfield.

The first was when Mary Lincoln changed her mind, for reasons that have never been clearly determined, and chose Springfield as the burial place for her assassinated husband. The second was when the National Lincoln Monument Association, an ad-hoc committee created to build the tomb, bowed to Mary’s wishes and agreed to build the monument in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

The chronology of those decisions was spelled out by Springfield lawyer/historian Richard Hart at a ceremony held May 24, 2014, the 154th anniversary of the cemetery’s dedication.

The short version is that Mary originally planned to have President Lincoln interred in either Chicago or the U.S. Capitol, in a crypt originally created for George Washington. Thanks possibly to intercession by the Lincolns’ eldest son Robert, however, Mary chose Oak Ridge instead.

Drawing of the temporary vault built on the Mather Block.

Drawing of the temporary vault built on the Mather Block.

Mary then repeatedly rebuffed attempts by Springfield city leaders to build a tomb and monument to President Lincoln on a then-vacant property known as the Mather site (now the location of the Illinois Statehouse). Finally, Mary threatened again to have her husband buried permanently in Washington, D.C. On June 14, 1865, the directors of the National Lincoln Monument Association grudgingly gave in. The argument became known as the “Battle of the Gravesite.”

Construction of the tomb somewhere other than Springfield obviously would have had a major impact on future Lincoln-related tourism, although the community still would have boasted the Lincoln Home and other sites.

At least one scholar, however, argues that loss of the tomb also might have cost the city the state capital.

Jeremy Prichard, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas whose dissertation examines  the political and social impacts of the Civil War on Springfield, told a session of the 2014 Conference on Illinois History that, in the 1860s, Springfield city fathers foresaw a gradual decline in the city’s fortunes.

Springfield had fallen behind other Illinois communities in industrial development and job creation, Prichard said. As a result, “newcomers to Illinois were bypassing Springfield for better employment prospects in Illinois cities such as Chicago, Quincy, Peoria and Bloomington,” he said.

What’s more, the expansion of state government had far outgrown the Capitol building (the present Old Capitol State Historic Site). In a February 1865 letter, Prichard said, the proprietor of the Illinois State Journal wrote, “The capital is still here, but there is a devil of a pressure to take it from us.”

Springfield’s city fathers immediately realized that the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination created an opportunity for Springfield, Prichard said. They moved quickly to persuade Mary Lincoln to bring her children home and then to raise money to create a fitting burial site.

“This is where Lincoln’s burial in Springfield became something more than honoring the martyred president,” Prichard said. “Lincoln now provided the town with a unique opportunity. He could save Springfield in death, just as he had helped save the union in life. A memorial to the martyred president would  keep the city relevant and resolve its uncertain future.”

The NLMA’s dispute with Mary over the Oak Ridge/Mather question complicated those plans, but didn’t derail them, Prichard said in his presentation.

The association of Abraham Lincoln and Springfield that we recognize today emerged during the early 20th century … and not in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath. But the seeds of that process began the moment reports of his assassination reached his home town.

Lincoln, the savior of the union, salvaged Springfield from an unknown fate. The martyr had come home.

More information:

  • Full texts of Mary Lincoln’s June 1865 letters to the National Lincoln Monument Association regarding the site of the Lincoln tomb.
  • According to John Carroll Power, first custodian of Lincoln’s tomb, the members of the National Lincoln Monument Association were: Gov. Richard Oglesby (president), Orlin Miner, John Todd Stuart, Jesse K. DuBois (vice president), James C. Conkling (secretary), John Williams, Jacob Bunn, Sharon Tyndale, Newton Bateman, S.H. Treat, Ozias M. Hatch, S.H. Melvin, James H. Beveridge (treasurer), Thomas J. Dennis and David L. Phillips. The list is contained in Power’s Abraham Lincoln: His Life, Public Services, Death and Great Funeral Cortege (1882). See National Lincoln Monument Association directors, 1865 (this index), for more information on all 15.

Power’s account of the dispute between Mary Lincoln and the NLMA includes the detail that the NLMA agreed by only a single vote to follow Mary’s instruction that the burial be at Oak Ridge Cemetery. It is not known how individual members voted.

Note: This entry has been edited to correct the date of Richard Hart’s speech. Our apologies for the error, which was caught by reader William Thompson (see comments below). Our thanks to him.
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4 Responses to Lincoln Tomb ‘Battle of the Gravesite’

  1. shanelle says:

    I’m doing a slide show on Lincoln’s Tomb and it’s due today this is kind of helping me. Thanks!

  2. William Thompson says:

    The following text has me quite concerned to its validity:
    “The chronology of those decisions was spelled out by Springfield lawyer/historian Richard Hart at a ceremony held May 24, 1914, the 154th anniversary of the cemetery’s dedication.”
    How can this be the “154th anniversary” in 1914? That sets the date of the dedication back to 1760. Nothing of ”Springfield” existed prior to the Revolutionary War.

    • editor says:

      Well, heck. Good catch. You obviously read it closer than I wrote it. My apologies. I’ve corrected the date, and thanks.

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