Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Restored Lincoln Carriage Back on Display

Yesterday, a new exhibit at the Studebaker National Museum opened featuring the carriage Abraham Lincoln rode to Ford's Theatre on the fateful night of April 14, 1865. The dark green carriage was made especially for Lincoln and presented to him earlier in 1865.

Last year, the carriage underwent a careful restoration, funded by a Save Americas Treasures (SAT) Grant, which revealed Lincoln's initials on both doors in an elaborate raised golden pattern. The restoration also revealed that the carriage, which appeared to be painted black, was originally a dark green.

The carriage was sold after Lincoln's assassination, and was eventually purchased by Clement Studebaker and added to the company's collection. Now, evidently, the carriage is owned by the city of South Bend, Indiana (where the museum is), though it is a permanent part of the Studebaker National Museum collection. (This is only partially explained on the museum's website.)

A few years ago, the carriage was part of a fantastic temporary exhibit on Lincoln's assassination at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The first such exhibition at the then-brand new museum was "Blood on the Moon," which commemorated the 140th anniversary of the assassination. Along with the carriage, the exhibition also featured the Lincoln death bed (and other furniture from the Peterson House room in which Lincoln died) on loan from the Chicago Historical Society (while they were renovating their space), numerous photographs and documents from the Taper Collection (some of which may have since been donated to the ALPLM as part of Louise Taper's large donation of material to the museum), and other artifacts.

In this impressive exhibit (which may never be topped in regards to having so many significant items related to the assassination in one place), I felt that the carriage was the most touching piece. Partially this was because it was unexpected -- somehow I had overlooked that it was included when I read about the exhibit before my visit -- and suddenly I was face to face with it. Unlike the parts of the exhibit that were related to Lincoln's death, this was also related to Lincoln's life. I recalled the famous story of the carriage ride Lincoln and his wife Mary took the afternoon of April 14, speaking about their future, including their need to find happiness -- likely a reference to the fact that both still grieved the death of their son Willie three years before.

Perhaps when displayed by itself, the carriage does not conjure such melancholy emotions. Still, it will always be more associated with Lincoln's death than with his life.