summer (2006), I visited the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library &
Museum in Springfield, Ill. My companions on the trip were Mel Maurer and his
grandson, Eric. We had a great time and hope to go back again. Anyone
interested in Lincoln will find Springfield and its many Lincoln-related sites
well worth the trip, but the museum is the center of it all. It strikes a nice
balance between mass-market appeal and scholarly discussion of the Civil War
There was already a line when
we arrived, and an even longer one when we took a lunch break. A staffer told
us that the site has been very busy ever since it opened. As you enter the
museum, you find yourself in a large lobby with a replica of Lincoln’s
Kentucky childhood log cabin to your left. This is where you should begin your
tour. The cabin is set in a grove of (artificial) trees, with birdsong and
forest sounds playing from hidden speakers. A strikingly lifelike mannequin of
young Lincoln sits on a log stump, looking off into the future. As you enter
the cabin, you see a snoring family in bed, while a teenage Lincoln reads by
firelight, nuzzled by a dog (all of the mannequins throughout the museum were
very lifelike and convincing; you almost expect to see them move, breathe and
speak to you). A few more steps brings you to a dry goods store where a much
taller and craggier Lincoln is chatting with a pretty girl.
Farther along, in an
emotional and powerful display on slavery, a demonic-looking auctioneer splits
up a slave family. There’s an exhibit on Lincoln’s varied legal practice
(his two boys bat inkwells around the office, much to the displeasure of
Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon), and his unsuccessful but celebrated
1858 campaign against Stephen Douglas for a U.S. Senate seat.
In a mock control room, Tim
Russert hosts a clever “Campaign 1860” video, showing competing TV ads
which might almost have been aired by the political combatants that year. A
somber display then shows Lincoln leaving Springfield for the last time after
winning the Presidency.
next stop will be the White House, a scaled-down facade of which opens onto
the same lobby through which you entered. There are replicas of Lincoln, Mary
and their three boys standing in front, well-placed for a photo opportunity
with your friends or family. Arrayed near the White House’s south portico
are simulacra of Gens. George McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant, Sojourner Truth
and Frederick Douglass, and John Wilkes Booth. (You could easily throttle or
spit upon Booth, but I doubt the museum staff would appreciate it). The first
White House room is dedicated to the First Lady and her many dresses, and
replicas of other prominent society women’s dresses of the 1860s. This
contrasts well with a somber display about the First Lady’s all-consuming
grief after the death of her son Willie in February 1862.
You then pass through a
funhouse-style display of anti-Lincoln cartoons and editorials, including
video displays of a torrent of criticism of Lincoln. Just about everyone piled
onto the President at one time or another, including abolitionists,
Southerners, border staters, slaves and free blacks, East Coast elitists,
Democrats and Radical Republicans.
My favorite part of the whole
museum was a wonderfully-detailed replica Cabinet Room, showing Lincoln and
his senior advisors in a spirited discussion of the Emancipation Proclamation.
You get a distinct sense of the personalities involved and the difficulties
Lincoln had in exerting leadership.
There is, as you might
expect, a large exhibit space on the Civil War itself. Three soldiers from
each side are profiled, and their military careers and ultimate fates are
described. An interesting computerized map of “The Civil War in Four Minutes”
shows the ebb and flow of Union and Confederate military operations; the
steady pressure maintained by Federal forces in the West is particularly
specially-commissioned paintings reveal highlights of Lincoln’s
administration, including a terrific (and accurate) image of the Second
Inaugural on March 4, 1865, as the clouds part and sunlight dramatically
strikes the President. All too soon, however, we enter a chamber depicting
Ford’s Theater and hear the fateful dialogue of “Our American Cousin”
before we see the martyred President’s coffin lying in state in the Illinois
Capitol. All these years later, it is still a sobering experience.
There are many other small
exhibit spaces throughout the museum, and you don’t have to follow a
chronological path through the 16th Chief Executive’s life. One exhibit area
displays various treasures of Lincolniana - one of his stovepipe hats, an
autographed copy of the Gettysburg Address, Willie Lincoln’s battered
scrapbook, and some of the First Lady’s gaudy jewelry. There are also
several multimedia presentations. We saw “Ghosts of the Library,” about
the value and usefulness of history today, and “Lincoln’s Eyes,” about
what the great man’s eyes show about his lively personality, inner strength
and long suffering. An interactive kiosk with taped interview excerpts with
noted Lincoln scholars is called “Ask Mr. Lincoln.” My favorite was the
anecdote that Lincoln preferred a lively church service; he once told a friend
that he liked preachers “to look as if they’re fighting bees.”
While we were there, a
temporary exhibit called “Blood on the Moon” retold the story of the
assassination conspiracy. A highlight was the Landau carriage in which the
President and First Lady rode to Ford’s Theater, and the bed in which
Lincoln died on April 15, 1865. A series of photos left no doubt that when
Steven Spielberg finally makes his long-awaited movie about Lincoln, Leonardo
DiCaprio really ought to be cast as Robert Todd Lincoln. The resemblance is
A children’s play area,
snackbar and well-stocked gift shop round out the museum experience. At the
library across the plaza, there was an interesting display of Lincoln mementos
and curios, and a photo exhibit of VIPs who’ve visited his tomb, including
Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Mel was sure that this trip
would convince me that the sixteenth President of the United States was the
greatest of all. I admire Lincoln more than ever, but pride of place must
still, in my humble opinion, go to the first President. Maybe when Mount
Vernon opens its new visitors center in a few years, I can take Mel there and
bring him around to my (obviously correct) point of view...?
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum is operated by the State of
Illinois and officially opened on April 19, 2005. The drive to Springfield
takes about eight or nine hours. The restored Lincoln home is nearby, as are
his tomb, law office and the old state capitol; each is well worth a visit.
You could easily spend all day in the museum and library alone, however, so be
sure to leave yourself enough time for a good visit.
For more information, go to www.alplm.org.