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Lincoln Departs for Washington

On this day in 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln left his home in Springfield, Ill., boarded a two-car private train and embarked on his journey to Washington, D.C. By then, seven Southern states had already seceded from the Union.
The trip would take him across seven states, cover more than 1,900 miles and take 13 days. Along the way, he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds whenever the train would stop to take on fresh coal or water. His wife, Mary, was in St. Louis on a shopping trip and would join him later in Indiana.

When President-elect Abraham Lincoln left his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, to take office in Washington, D.C., the local Illinois State Journal recorded the moment. The following article comes directly from the paper’s February 12, 1861 edition. Notice how the text of his farewell address differs from the version Lincoln edited as the train left the Springfield depot.

Departure of Mr. Lincoln — Parting Address
“Long before the hour appointed for the departure of the special train provided for Mr. Lincoln and suit, hundreds of his friends and fellow-citizens, without distinction of party, had assembled at the station of the Great Western Railway to tender him their respects, grasp once more that honest hand, and bid him God speed on his eventful journey. A subdued and respectful demeanor characterized the vast assemblage. All seemed to feel that they were about to witness an event which, in its relations to the future, was of no ordinary interest.

At precisely five minutes before eight o’clock, Mr. Lincoln, preceded by Mr. Wood, of New York, slowly made his way from his room in the station, through the expectant masses which respectfully parted right and left at his approach to the car provided for his use. At each step of his progress towards the car, friendly hands were extended for a last greeting. On reaching the platform of the car, Mr. Lincoln turned toward the people, removed his hat, paused for several seconds, till he could control his emotions, and then slowly, impressively, and with profound emotion, uttered the following words:

“Friends, no one who has never been placed in a like position, can understand my feelings at this hour, nor the oppressive sadness I feel at this parting. For more than a quarter of a century I have lived among you, and during all that time I have received noting but kindness at your hands. Here I have lived from my youth until now I am an old man. Here the most sacred ties of earth were assumed; here all my children were born; and here one of them lies buried. To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am. All the strange, chequered past seems to crowd now upon my mind. To-day I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington. Unless the great God who assisted him, shall be with and aid me, I must fail. But if the same omniscient mind, and the same Almighty arm that directed and protected him, shall guide and support me, I shall not fail, I shall succeed. Let us all pray that the God of our fathers may not forsake us now. To him I commend you all — permit me to ask that with equal security and faith, you all will invoke His wisdom and guidance for me. With these few words I must leave you — for how long I know not. Friends, one and all, I must now bid you an affectionate farewell.”

It was a most impressive scene. We have known Mr. Lincoln for many years; we have heard him speak upon a hundred different occasions; but we never saw him so profoundly affected, nor did he ever utter an address, which seemed to us as full of simple and touching eloquence, so exactly adopted to the occasion, so worthy of the man and the hour. Although it was raining fast when he began to speak, every hat was lifted, and every head bent forward to catch the last words of the departing chief. When he said, with the earnestness of a sudden inspiration of feeling, that with God’s help he should not fail, there was an uncontrollable burst of applause.

At precisely eight o’clock, city time, the train moved off, bearing our honored townsman, our noble chief, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, to the scenes of his future labors, and, as we firmly believe, of his glorious triumph. God bless honest ABRAHAM LINCOLN!

The speech moved members of his entourage so much that after the train started, he was asked to put his words into writing. Because of the difficulty of doing so on a moving train, Lincoln asked his personal secretary, John Nicolay, to finish copying it down after a few sentences.

A second version of the speech was published in a Springfield newspaper a few days later.

However the common accepted version is as follows:

“My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

So what did Lincoln actually say that morning? We may never know exactly but we do know both he and the crowd there were quite moved by the circumstances.

An observer reported that the president-elect’s “breast heaved with emotion and he could scarcely command his feelings.” Lincoln’s words proved prophetic: a funeral train carried him back to Springfield just over four years later.


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