Visiting the New Lincoln Library and Museum

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2006, 2007. All Rights Reserved

Last summer (2006), I visited the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL. 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 president.

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 bring 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 (with his two boys batting inkwells around the office, much to the displeasure of Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon). There is also an exhibit of Lincoln’s 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.

Your 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 noticeable.

Several 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 Theatre 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 Theatre, 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 striking.

A children’s play area, snack bar, 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…?

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and 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.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum