ALTON — History came to life on Oct. 17 as Alton united to witness the re-enactment of Lincoln’s funeral procession at Lincoln Douglas Square.
Throughout the morning and afternoon, visitors witnessed live music, activities, presentations and historic fun. To wrap up the event, a group of volunteers from several re-enactment groups came together to honor Lincoln’s funeral procession.
The free event kicked off at 9:30 a.m. with live music, followed by presentations by Alton Mayor Brant Walker, Alton-Godfrey Rotary President Liz Parker, state Sen. William Haine (D-Alton) and more, including a presentation by “Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln” and “U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull.”
A shining feature of the funeral march was the Great Rivers Lincoln Coffin, created by a coalition born from the Historic Elsah Foundation and their partners. Tim Tomlinson, president of the Historic Elsah Foundation and the chair for the coalition that created the coffin, said the replica represented such rich history that the coalition wanted to highlight it in its own event.
“The coffin was created to participate in the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death and funeral that occurred last May,” Tomlinson said. “We felt right from the beginning that this coffin was so important and had so much history about Lincoln in this area that we had to create a special event so that people in this area could come and have an opportunity to see it, listen to re-enactors, and particularly to see this magnificent hearse that was shipped down from Springfield for today’s event.”
Tomlinson said the commemoration and surrounding festivities were a success.
“I think it went really well. We had a lot of early publicity and … I think we got a lot of people. It’s a good event,” Tomlinson said.
Alton’s rich history was highlighted through the re-enactment of the commemoration. Tomlinson said this particular day added to the many celebrations of history in the town.
“There have been a lot of symbiotic relationships,” he said. “There’s a historic house tour going on now. The Alton Little Theater has a program called Vintage Voices, and they’re doing some activities. It’s that kind of integration of resources around a single theme that I think is important.”
George Provenzano, another member of the Historic Elsah Foundation and a member of the coffin’s coalition, said the feat took years of research and hard work.
“We’ve been working over two years now on this project,” Provenzano said.
The story of Lincoln’s coffin required a lot of digging from the coalition — Provenzano, a historian by trade, said the work of finding out the details of the coffin took him deep into history.
“There wasn’t any direct record of the size, materials and workmanship of the coffin — so I had to go deeper,” he said. “It became a real detective story. I have done a lot of reading of newspapers from 1865, acquired some material from the National Archives and the Library of Congress, and now after 18 months, I have quite a record and can stand pretty strongly on this record as far as authenticating the materials, to some extent the dimensions, and who made the coffin.”
Provenzano said his character in Saturday’s re-enactment was a cornerstone of the details that required his digging. The maker of Lincoln’s coffin was a matter of mystery and controversy, but Provenzano said he used his research on the topic to influence his re-enactment of the funeral march specifically in the coffin’s use.
“A lot of historians believe, and we did at first, that the coffin was produced by the government,” he said. “In Washington, there was also an undertaking business by several undertakers and they continued to make coffins for soldiers as well during the war, in part under contract with the government and in part on their own.
“The person I portray, Frank Sands, was a government employee at the time he made the coffin, but he was an agent and they allowed him to carry out his private undertaking services, as well. I’m pretty convinced that Frank Sands made the coffin, but he made it in conjunction with other undertakers who didn’t work for the government.”
Frank Sands then worked in his government agent capacity in bringing Lincoln in the coffin on the funeral train from Washington to Springfield, Ill. He was charged with the responsibility of caring for the remains of Lincoln for the 1,600-mile journey.
The day’s events, according to Provenzano, have brought months of work together for the Historic Elsah Foundation and its partners. He said a major point of excitement for the planning team and the coalition was the hearse that was donated and driven from Springfield for the event.
“The hearse kind of became a real focal point for us,” he said. “We knew we would have a good event, but with the hearse we thought we’d have a great event.”
Bringing Illinois’ history directly to Lincoln Douglas Square allowed the citizens of the Alton area to involve themselves more deeply in important parts of history. Provenzano said this was encouraging for the coalition to see.
“It’s quite heartening to see how much people want to invest in these sorts of things,” he said.