Lilly Library exhibit captures sadness of Lincoln’s death, links president and poet

Abraham Lincoln died 150 years ago today. It’s hard to imagine what a shock the president’s assassination must have been to a young nation exhausted from a Civil War that killed more than 600,000 soldiers, a conflict that had ended less than a week earlier.

An exhibit at Indiana University’s Lilly Library offers a sense of the profound sadness that gripped the nation — from the perspective of ordinary citizens and especially through the eyes of a great American poet. “Democracy Men: Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln” marks the anniversary of Lincoln’s death and the 160th anniversary of the publication of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

Mourning ribbons

Ribbons that mourners wore as they watched Lincoln’s funeral train carry his body to Springfield, Ill., are included in the exhibit “Democracy Men: Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln.”

Erika Jenns, an IU graduate student and assistant to the head of public services at the Lilly Library, curated the exhibit, which occupies four cases in the library’s Foyer, Ellison Room and Ball Room. The exhibit includes rare books, letters, memorabilia and other artifacts from the library’s collections, as well as a few items from Jenns’ personal collection.

“Though they never met,” the introduction to the exhibit says, “Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman were each working toward a goal they unknowingly shared: national unity.”

And Lincoln’s assassination affected Whitman deeply. Two of his best-known poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain, My Captain,” are heartbroken elegies for the fallen president.

The exhibit begins with Lincoln and Whitman in history and in contemporary culture, including a variety of serious and popular books, a typed transcription of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from the Lilly Library’s Orson Welles collection, a 1909 musical setting of “O Captain, My Captain” and a series of references to Whitman and Lincoln from current TV shows such as “Breaking Bad’ and “The Office.”

Case Two pairs the men’s masterworks. A watercolor by American painter John Steuart Curry shows Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address at the Pennsylvania battlefield. Next to it are two first editions of “Leaves of Grass,” the revolutionary collection that Whitman published with careful detail in 1855. In Case Three are newspaper front pages dominated by reports of the president’s assassination: The New York Herald from April 15, 1865, and the New York Times from April 17, 1865.

Finally, Case Four details the national mourning that followed Lincoln’s death. It includes a set of programs from funeral and memorial services, a War Department pamphlet detailing burial plans and delicate fabric mourning ribbons, printed with phrases such as “We mourn our nation’s loss” and “We mourn a father slain.” Mourners wore the ribbons, Jenns said, when they gathered in large crowds to watch Lincoln’s funeral train pass on its way from Washington, D.C., to his burial site in Springfield, Ill.

Also in the case are a bronzed cast of Lincoln’s life mask and a sculpture of his very large hands, made by Leonard W. Volk in 1860. An 1867 edition of Whitman’s collection “Drum Taps” is open to one of his war poems, “Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day.” It opens with these words:

Hush’d be the camps to-day,

And soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons,

And each with musing soul retire to celebrate,

Our dear commander’s death.

No more for him life’s stormy conflicts,

Nor victory, nor defeat—no more time’s dark events,

Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.

The exhibit will be in place until May 20. Lilly Library hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday. It is closed Sunday.

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