U.S. Grant speech at Lincoln Tomb dedication, 1874

Dominican nuns from Jacksonville unveiled the statue of Abraham Lincoln when the Lincoln Tomb was dedicated in 1874. (SCHS)

President Ulysses Grant was not the main speaker when Abraham Lincoln’s tomb was dedicated on Oct. 15, 1874. Grant was asked to deliver the official dedication address, but declined. He did, however, did give a short speech at the ceremony, which was attended by an estimated 25,000 people.

Lincoln Tomb custodian George Cashman described the search for a dedication speaker in the August 1968 edition of the Central Illinois Genealogical Quarterly.

The Lincoln tomb was officially dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln on October 15, 1874, nine years and six months to the day after his death, 28 years and 6 months to the day since he moved from New Salem to Springfield. The dedication date was chosen by the National Lincoln Monument Association. Former Governor, and now United States Senator, Richard J. Oglesby, Chairman of the Association, officiated at the ceremony. The particular date was chosen as it would permit the Society of the Army of Tennessee, surviving veterans of the Civil War, in reunion in Springfield, to participate. The Tomb was now completed and would be opened to public visitation on October 29.

Much difficulty was experienced by the Association in obtaining a person of prominence to assume the task of delivering the dedicatory address. General U.S. Grant, then President of the United States, was the first choice of the Association, but Grant declined the honor, feeling that he was incapable of doing justice to the memory of the illustrious dead. Grant did attend the dedication and did deliver a brief, but for him, a lengthy address. Among the several persons invited to be the orator of the day were former Civil War General, John A. Dix, former Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, and former Governor of Indiana, Oliver P. Morton. All declined, giving various reasons that they could not accept the honor. The Association met and passed a resolution naming Richard J. Oglesby to be the speaker, an invitation that he graciously accepted.

Richard J. Oglesby, 1875 (Wikipedia)

Oglesby (1824-99) would go on to win a third election as governor in 1884. At the dedication, Cashman wrote, Oglesby “delivered, in the forensic style of the day, an eulogy of nearly ten thousand words. When he completed his address, two Dominican nuns from Jacksonville unveiled the heroic statue of Abraham Lincoln at the front of the obelisk.”

Here is the full text of Grant’s speech, as reported by the Illinois State Journal on Oct. 16,1874.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

On an occasion like the present I feel it a duty on my part to bear testimony to the great and good qualities of the patriotic man whose earthly remains rest beneath the monument now being dedicated. It was not my fortune to make the personal acquaintance of Mr. Lincoln until the last year of the great struggle for national existence.

During the three years of doubting and despondency among the many patriotic men of the country, Abraham Lincoln never for a moment doubted but that the final result would be in favor of peace, union and freedom to every race in this broad land. His faith in an All-wise Providence directing our arms to this final result was the faith of the Christian that his Redeemer liveth.

U.S. Grant, 1870s (Wikipedia)

Amidst obloquy, personal abuse, and hate undisguised, and which was given vent to without restraint through the press, upon the stump, and in private circles, he remained the same staunch, unyielding servant of the people, never exhibiting a revengeful feeling towards his traducers, but he rather pitied them and hoped for their own sake, and the good name of their posterity, that they might desist. For a single moment it did not occur to him that the man Lincoln was being assailed, but that a treasonable spirit, one willing to destroy the existence of the freest government the sun ever shined upon, was giving vent to itself as the Chief Executive of the nation, only because he was such executive. As a lawyer in your midst he would have avoided all this slander – for his life was a pure and simple one – and no doubt would have been a much happier man, but who can tell what might have been the fate of the Nation but for the pure, unselfish and wise administration of a Lincoln?

From March 1864 to the day when the hand of the assassin opened a grave for Mr. Lincoln, then President of the United States, my personal relations with him were as close and intimate as the nature of our respective duties would permit. To know him personally was to love and respect him for his great qualities of heart and head, and for his patience and patriotism.

With all his disappointments from failures on the part of those to whom he had intrusted command, and treachery on the part of those who had gained his confidence but to betray it, I never heard him utter a complaint, nor cast a censure for bad conduct or bad faith. It was his nature to find excuses for his adversaries.

In his death the nation lost its greatest hero. In his death the South lost its most just friend.

“The heroic statue of Abraham Lincoln” that Cashman refers to in his article was the only major piece of tomb statuary that was completed at the time of the dedication. The four military groupings that adorn the corners of the tomb were added over the next decade; the last, the cavalry group, was installed in 1883.

Unwanted visitors

A newspaper’s prediction that “thieves, pickpockets, gamblers and prostitutes” would flood Springfield for the dedication and army reunion apparently came to pass.

Police said they arrested about a dozen pickpockets during the event. Among those who were victimized by what the Illinois State Register called “light-fingered gentry” was Gen. William T. Sherman, who “contributed his pocket-book, containing we understand, a considerable sum of money.”

A burglar invaded the home of Springfield financier Jacob Bunn Sr., making off with jewelry belonging to Elizabeth Ferguson Bunn and unspecified items owned by Mary Jane Noyes Mead, wife of tomb designer and sculptor Larkin Mead. The Meads were house guests of  the Bunns during dedication events.

And a false fire alarm cleared out the Opera House, Sixth and Jefferson streets, the night before the tomb ceremony. Among those in attendance were Grant, Sherman and many other Army of the Tennessee officers and veterans.

“The scoundrel, who was doubtless one of a gang of pickpockets that raised the cry of fire … should be arrested and severely dealt with,” the Journal said.

“The composure of President Grant when the commotion was at its height was marked,” the newspaper added.

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