If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. I would ride with a young carpenter, Ed Beall of Alton, Illinois, in the last week of April 1865, on assignment for the Chicago & Alton Railroad. In Springfield the Lincoln house at Eighth and Jackson streets was to be draped in mourning. Ed was a rangy youth with a long reach. While comrades on the roof paid out a rope, he slid down, headfirst, to the eaves, where black “droopers” were set in place. Then the crew moved on to the Illinois statehouse to build a catafalque in the assembly hall.
On a railroad siding in Chicago lay a special train, twelve days’ slow journey from Washington. Its black-draped coaches carried a military company in dress uniforms. In the next car were Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker, Secretary Edwin M. Stanton, Gov. Richard Yates, and Lincoln’s old friend Chief Justice David Davis. Inside the last car, bearing the President’s seal, a large coffin rested beside a small one. The small casket contained the body of twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln, who had died three years before in Washington. Now he was to be buried beside his father in Springfield.
At midnight the train began to move. It crept through Joliet, Wilmington, and Bloomington, where acres of people waited in silence. The last downgrade carried it into Springfield. There, on the crest of Oak Ridge Cemetery, Ed Beall and his mates were building a platform. At sunrise their work was done.
On an empty lumber wagon Ed jolted through streets thronged with carts, traps, carriages, and folk on foot—all pressing toward the C & A Depot. When the funeral train halted, the multitude engulfed it. From the rear coach strode General Hooker. He broke stride at a man reaching for a spectator’s wallet. One of his brisk feet sent the pickpocket sprawling. Drums throbbed and bells tolled as thousands moved to the statehouse where Ed Beall in his overalls divided the lines filing past a draped coffin. At noon a final procession marched to Oak Ridge, where the two coffins were placed in a hillside tomb. It smelled of evergreens on the dim stone floor.
Slowly the crowd dispersed, and Springfield grew as quiet as the country town where Lincoln had come in 1837. From his assignment with history, Ed Beall caught a freight train and returned to repairing boxcars on the Chicago & Alton run.