I thought I would do a better job of keeping up with our travels this summer, but it seems I always need time to muse over our experiences. And sometimes I get lost in the weeds, haha. For example, Abraham Lincoln. I had never given Lincoln much thought until we visited Springfield, Illinois.
Everything I Knew About Lincoln I Learned In High School
Before visiting Springfield, everything I knew about Lincoln I learned in high school: He was born in a log cabin, taught himself to read, became President, led our country through the Civil War, freed the slaves, and was assassinated while at the theatre. But that’s an oversimplification of a very complex individual. There have been more than 15,000 books and countless articles written about Lincoln. It’s taking me a while to work through that backlog of material, LOL.
Seriously, though, I came away from Springfield with a much greater appreciation for Lincoln’s skillful leadership and the hardships he endured, and gained some insight into his personality and relationships, which is always my favorite part of history.
I’m betting that many of you know more about Lincoln than I do. But I’ll share with you a few of the things that struck me as particularly interesting during our visit to Springfield.
Visiting The Lincoln Home National Historic Site
Lincoln wasn’t born in Springfield, but that’s where he lived most of his adult life. The Lincoln Home National Historic Site preserves the home Lincoln and his family lived in for seventeen years, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.
In 1837, Lincoln rode into town on a borrowed horse, with everything he owned stuffed into two saddlebags. He was 28 years old, his pants were too short, his hair was unkempt, and he was a self-taught lawyer and member of the Illinois legislature. Lincoln was friendly, hardworking, honest, and a gifted storyteller. People liked him.
Springfield, the new capital of Illinois, was good to Lincoln. Over the next 24 years, he built a successful law practice and furthered his political career. He also met, and after a rocky courtship, married Mary Todd, a vivacious and well-educated woman from a prominent Kentucky family.
During their years in Springfield, they had four sons, and tragically, lost their second-born to tuberculosis.
In 1861, Lincoln left Springfield for Washington as the president-elect. In an emotional farewell speech, he said, “To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am.”
The home has been restored in meticulous detail to what it looked like when the Lincoln family lived there. In contrast to her husband, Mary Todd Lincoln cared a great deal about appearances, and created a lovely home (according to Victorian sensibilities).
As our tour group squeezed through the narrow hallways of the house, I hung back at the tail end of the group, imagining Lincoln writing late into the night at the small desk in his bedroom, or Mary left alone to care for the boys while her husband was away for months at a time in his work as a traveling circuit lawyer.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum
We almost skipped the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Photos that I perused online made it look too “Disneyesque” for our tastes. But our friend Pam texted and said, “Don’t miss the Lincoln museum!” She and John were both educators for many years, and we figured if they liked it, so would we.
So we went. And we were very glad that we did.
The truth is that the museum is Disneyesque. That’s because the state hired former Disney “imagineers” to design the museum. That means realistic figures in impeccably detailed historic settings, surround-sound films, and creative special effects. But you know what? It made for an incredible immersive experience.
We were drawn into Lincoln’s world, from his childhood until the fateful night at the Ford Theatre, and emerged with a greater understanding of the factors that shaped his destiny, his personal struggles, and the tremendous obstacles that he faced in his presidency.
Lincoln As A Husband And Father
Much has been written about the Lincoln’s marriage, and most of it paints Mary Todd Lincoln as a crazy woman that Lincoln had to endure. Theirs was certainly not a peaceful relationship. Lincoln was melancholy, prone to depression, and frequently lost in his thoughts; Mary was given to mood-swings and fits of bad temper. But they were well-matched intellectually, and shared similar political aspirations and ideals.
Mary was ambitious, intelligent and outspoken, none of which fit within the narrow parameters of how women were supposed to behave in the 1800s. She was never accepted in Washington society, and was criticized no matter what she did. Life was difficult in Washington for the Lincolns—except for the boys, who were pretty much allowed to do whatever they wanted, including keeping a pet goat in the White House.
Lincoln was known for being an indulgent father to his rowdy young sons. His law partner and friend William Herndon wrote, “The boys would tear up the office, scatter the books, smash up pens, spill the ink and piss all over the floor. I have felt many, many times that I wanted to wring their little necks. Had they sh*t in Lincoln’s hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart.”
Were the Lincolns happy together? The reality is no one really knows. But what is undeniably true is that they endured enormous stress and pain, including the deaths of two of their young sons and the turmoil of political life and the Civil War. Mary, of course, also suffered the assassination of her husband. And she suffered the loss of their youngest son several years after Lincoln’s death.
Inside The Lincoln White House
Shortly after Lincoln took office, the Civil War began. Lincoln appointed the best minds of the time to his cabinet, although some had been his greatest political rivals. He treated people with kindness and respect, and at the same time, stood firm in what he knew was right, even in the face of overwhelming dissension.
Lincoln frequently used humor to offset his natural melancholy and to make a point, which his cabinet members didn’t always appreciate. But he chided them, “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
Privately, Lincoln agonized over the war. He lost 30 pounds, spent many sleepless nights, and aged shockingly in the four years of his presidency. But his outward demeanor was steadfast and calm, and he kept his focus on keeping our country together.
As the war dragged on, anti-Lincoln sentiment grew in the North and South. The media was apparently just as inflammatory and destructive then as it is now. Among other wild rumors, Lincoln was accused of being an “African king.” People can be so crazy.
Lincoln’s Evolving Views On Slavery
Although Lincoln is known as “The Great Emancipator,” the story is not quite that simple. The reality is that Lincoln lived in a time of deeply entrenched racial division. Although he was against slavery, early in his Presidency he did not believe that Blacks were the equals of whites. To his credit, Lincoln’s views on the equality of the races continued to evolve throughout his life, no doubt helped along by his great capacity for empathy, critical thinking, and moral courage.
When he was working on the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was bombarded by radically differing opinions. An exhibit in the museum led us through a hallway of holograms, each one loudly expressing their opinion, many expressing outrage. It was all I could do to not yell at them to SHUT UP (Eric said I did yell at them to shut up, LOL). I don’t know how Lincoln managed to think at all in the midst of that chaos.
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, freeing slaves in the states fighting against the Union. He realized that didn’t go far enough, and two years later, he pushed through and signed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the United States. It was in his final speech, given just after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, that Lincoln for the first time spoke publicly of his support for Black suffrage. In the crowd was John Wilkes Booth, a white supremacist and Confederate supporter. Booth vowed, “That is the last speech he will ever make!” Three days later, he fatally shot Lincoln.
Timeless Words To Live By
Out of everything that Lincoln wrote, this quote, from his Second Inaugural Address, is what I find most inspiring. It seems just as appropriate today as it did when he delivered it in the final days of the Civil War.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all..let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds..to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” ~Abraham Lincoln
The New State Capitol Building
Construction on the new (and current) Illinois State Capitol started in 1868, and took two decades to complete. We’ve seen quite a few state capitol buildings in our travels, and this one, by far, is the most opulent.
There were some architectural travesties committed to the building in the 1970s in the quest to modernize it (resulting in “ugly”), but over the past couple of decades the building has been undergoing major work to restore its former magnificence. The architect has a cool website that details the restorations and has gorgeous photographs of the interior, including “before” and “after” images that are much better than our photos below.
The Old State Capitol of Illinois
We paid a brief visit to the Old State Capitol, which has been restored to the way it looked during Lincoln’s time. It was here that he served for eight years as a state representative and argued cases before the state supreme court. It was also here that he delivered his famous “House Divided” speech during his campaign for the Senate. Although he lost the race, his speech set the stage for his nomination for President.
Most poignantly, it was here, in the House chamber, that Abraham Lincoln lay in state in the Representatives Hall. In less than 24 hours, an estimated seventy-five thousand people came to pay their respects, and to bid farewell to one of the greatest presidents of our nation.
The Dana-Thomas House: A Frank Lloyd Wright Home
In addition to the spectacular capitol building, Springfield contains an architectural gem designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Dana-Thomas house is one of the best preserved examples of Wright’s early Prairie-style architecture.
In 1902, Springfield socialite, philanthropist, and activist Susan Lawrence Dana inherited her family home. She hired Wright to update the house, specifying that she wanted to keep some of the original floor plan, including the Victorian sitting room because it reminded her of happy times with her family.
Victorian style was not to Wright’s taste at all, and I can only imagine the conversations he and Dana had as the project progressed. But she must have been amenable to the changes—had she not been open to a progressive style of architecture, she would not have hired Wright in the first place.
The house grew to 12,000 square feet and 35 rooms. The low profile, horizontal planes, wide overhanging eaves, and art glass windows create a beautiful and inviting design. Inside, the open concept floor plan is classic Frank Lloyd Wright. The home is filled with hundreds of original furnishings designed by Wright, including oak furniture, art glass windows and doors, and light fixtures. Everything is crafted with the nature-centered, simple aesthetic that Wright is known for.
All that remains of the original home is an odd, cramped little Victorian sitting room with a marble fireplace and ornate furniture, located off of the dining room in an inconspicuous place. I laughed out loud when we entered the room, imagining that it must have been an unsightly wart on the project for Wright.
The Dana-Thomas House State Historic Site is owned by the State of Illinois and admission is free. Our docent was informative and entertaining. I only wish we had been allowed to take photos indoors.
Where We Stayed
We had an absolutely beautiful, spacious waterfront campsite at Sangchris Lake State Park, just 20 minutes outside of Springfield. The park offers electric hookups with water fills throughout the campground, decent Verizon coverage, and nasty bathhouses (we almost always use our own, so it didn’t matter). Best of all was the view and the lake, where we put our kayak in right from our campsite for a paddle on a hot afternoon.
We had another fun meetup with our hometown friends Shannon and Ken at the campground. For a great read on their visit to Springfield (including Lincoln’s tomb and more) check out their blog at Zamia Ventures.
Always enjoy your posts. Thanks!
Thank you, Charlie. I appreciate knowing that you’re enjoying our posts. :-)
Thanks for the shout-out! Your experience in Springfield looks very, very familiar….. except you managed to visit the “Presidential Museum.” I am glad to hear what you learned there so we didn’t have to bother going ourselves. :-) Like you, I ended up really loving our visit to Springfield primarily because it did so much to turn Lincoln into a real, three-dimensional person. Before our visit I would have said I was pretty familiar with Lincoln’s life and work, having read at least one full biography and several other nonfiction books about the Civil War. But somehow seeing his home and places that he frequented, all nicely contextualized by the NPS, brought home his remarkable life story, strength of conviction, courage, and resilience in the face of both personal and political challenges. He was far from perfect but I thought the interpretive information around Springfield did a nice job of highlighting Lincoln’s greatness while acknowledging his flaws.
Shannon, you know we were initially ambivalent about visiting the Lincoln Museum (and in truth the figures were a bit Madame Tussaud) but we’re very glad we went. It was so well done! Given that I had so little exposure to Lincoln (other than high school and the movie “Lincoln”) the experience really brought him to life and gave me a much greater appreciation for what he managed to accomplish. I hope people will visit your site and read your account of your experience.
Most of what I know about Lincoln was learned in school also. A few years ago I read a great book about Mary (don’t ask the name, i don’t remember) and gained more insight into her life and her husband.
Your campsite looks absolutely lovely. We’re packed in a water and electric only site here in Torrey, Utah, that is considerably less lovely…..sigh. You get what you get sometimes, right? I love the picture of the beautiful Miss Magnolia happily ensconsed in her office area…..
Sue, we’ve have had a run of absolutely gorgeous campsites on this trip! All of those hours I put in last winter planning this trip have paid off. Magnolia likes to supervise everything, LOL. And she loves the beautiful campsites, too…she spends lots of time in her ‘catio’ outdoors watching the squirrels and the birds.
Enjoying your posts and photos! I’m an armchair traveler, two hip replacements in the last 7 months with long recovery times, so keep those posts/photos coming!!
It sounds like you’ve had quite the journey, Terri. I was wondering what you had been up to…now I know. I hope you’re healing well from your surgeries and will soon be back to your normal, active self.
Thank you for the update. Great to hear from you
Thanks, Kathryn. I’m glad to hear from you, and hope you’re doing well!
Wow you really did Springfield well!! The Lincoln home and museum both look incredible – so glad those educators steered you right :-)) I’ve had mixed feelings about Lincoln over the years so I appreciate your summary of what you learned here. It’s important to remember that although this man went on to be one of the most important people in our nation’s history, he lost his bid for the Senate! The capitol and FLW house are beautiful, as is your campsite along the water. Great visit all around.
Jodee, you know we couldn’t resist after Pam told us we should go! I think you would really like the museum and the historic sites, too. It certainly made me realize how little I knew about Lincoln, other than the usual facts that everyone was taught. Our visit to Springfield definitely piqued my interest, and I’ve since read quite a bit more about him. There are many differing opinions, as you know. I’m not done with my reading. :-)
Interesting! He certainly was eloquent. On another note, you can be very grateful you have left Oregon behind. Lots of wildfires and smoke everywhere. So sad. If we weren’t committed to being maintenance hosts at Tumalo SP, Bend, right now, we would leave – that’s supposed to be the advantage of being RVers!
Hi Alison…I’m so sorry to hear that the wildfires and smoke are so bad again in Oregon. I’m grateful that we made the decision to sell our home in Ashland, but it also makes me sad that the fires are wreaking havoc on a place that we love. The smoke makes it impossible to do anything outdoors, which I know is the whole reason that you’re there! I hope the situation improves so that you can enjoy the fall. I’m glad to hear from you.
Thinking back, I thought we’d visited the Lincoln House, but actually it was the boyhood cabin in Kentucky that we stopped to check out when we were making our cross-country move from Utah to Virginia. From your description, I think we would really enjoy visiting the Presidential Museum.
Erin, I think you would really enjoy the Lincoln museum and Springfield home, too. Our friends Shannon & Ken have visited all of the Lincoln sites, and they said Springfield is far superior to anything else.
I’ve been wondering how you were doing! Thanks for the heads up about the Lincoln Museum. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” gives a hard and thorough look at Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and LBJ. All driven and complicated men. Thinking we may head south after Thanksgiving. Will you be around?
Hi Janie, thanks for the book recommendation. On my short list! I think you and Russ would enjoy the museum and other historic Lincoln sites in Springfield. And we’ll be home late October until next spring. Would be great to see you!
Janie, I too want to thank you for the book recommendation and suggest DKG’s A Team if Rivals to you if you have not read it. Even Laurel’s commenters are great.
Lincoln was a cool dude, no question! You sure had a grand time finding out how he was even cooler than most of us already knew.
I’m not sure about that FLW home. Much of his work I find to be so heavy-looking. I understand the Prairie Style by definition, but if I’d been part of their group, “prairie” would never have been the word I’d use to describe it. Obviously, I have a general problem with the naming of things LOL!!
Thanks for the pic of Magnolia! She looks like she’s keeping up with her supervisory work just fine!
Joodie, Magnolia plants herself right in the big middle of whatever is going on. One of her favorite things to do is to walk across the keyboard when I’m trying to type, and I end up with…qwerfghjkl;xcvbnm. Maybe I should just let her do some blog posts, haha!
I agree, Lincoln was fascinating, and I’m not done reading about him. And coming up especially for you…our visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin home, Taliesin! 😀
Always love your posts. Thanks for all the good information and beautiful pictures. Miss you guys being closer but it’s another smoky year around here so glad you are where it’s not.. Stay well and enjoy the last 2 months of your adventures.
I’m so happy to hear from you, Sue! We will always feel connected to Ashland, and we miss seeing you and Doug and other friends. I love hearing from you and knowing that you’re still reading our blog. It makes me so sad to know that Ashland is suffering yet another smoky summer…as you know, that’s the only reason we left. Big hugs to both of you. 💕💕
You have my permission to stop at the 14,999th Lincoln book–you’ve learned enough. I love reading history and Civil War history in particular, and I’m sure I would love to visit the Lincoln Museum. Great job, I enjoyed this muchly. Can’t wait to hear where you camped near Mackinac. I want to go back at some point. Be careful–they have mosquitoes as big as butterflies. Safe travels. Joe
Hahaha!! Thanks for giving me permission to stop reading about Lincoln, Joe. Once I start researching something, I have a hard time stopping. But I would like to read the book that Janie recommended by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And if you have any recommendations, please let me know. Given your interest in history, I know you and Helen would really enjoy a visit to Springfield.
As far as Michigan—I planned for us to be here in September, knowing that the mosquitoes and black flies would be gone. My plan has worked splendidly!
They sure have changed the Lincoln experience since our class trip in 5th grade! Loved the Dana Thomas house, one of my favorites.
Hi Leah…the Lincoln museum opened in 2005, so it might have been a couple of years after your 5th grade class trip. :-) It’s certainly state-of-the-art, and captivating! We also loved the Dana-Thomas house. It was fascinating to see hundreds of original FLW furnishings, and house is fabulous. I’m glad to hear from you, and have been enjoying following along with your international adventures!
Always enjoy your posts. We are home after 4 months on the road. We did WY 48 years ago, many changes since then in Yellowstone. So much to see in this country and the most enjoyable part of travel is meeting the people along the way!!!
It sounds as though you had a wonderful four-month adventure, Julie. It must have been fascinating to compare Wyoming to what you remember from 48 years ago. My first experience of Yellowstone was at age 7 in a VW bug with my family, where we fed the bears from the car—with the approval of the rangers. So yes, things have changed, haha! Enjoy your time at home! I’m glad to hear from you.
Awesome post, Laurel! As you know I am not a history or museum person. However, I did enjoy this whole area of Springfield and all the Lincoln history. I guess the Lincoln Museum was made for all the non-history folks out there, as well as the children. I did find the back ground on Mary Todd and her relationship with Abe so interesting. Like you mentioned, most of what we all know is from our school days. Staying up to date is so difficult when one is visiting new things everyday. You understand why John lost his interest after eight years of almost daily posts. Researching, choosing photos, and writing take hours. Thanks for adding the present location:) Good to know Magnolia is a good traveler.
Pam, I’m so glad you suggested that we go to the Lincoln museum! It is so unique, and so well done. I learned a tremendous amount about Lincoln in several hours there, and ever since, I’ve been inspired to read more about him.
You understand exactly how challenging it is to keep up to date with a blog when we’re traveling and exploring new things every day. As you said, it takes hours to put together a blog post. Despite all of the work it requires, I do love having a journal of our adventures to look back on. And having friends read and comment makes it so much more fun for me!
We feel really lucky that Magnolia is such a sweet and adaptable kitty. Of course, life revolves around her, LOL!!
WOW is all I can say. What a post. I had no idea I would ever want to go to Springfield though in an earlier incarnation as an American history lover I came to admire and respect Lincoln. I recommend the book A Team of Rivals to you. So glad you went to the Presidential Museum though it sounds almost overwhelming. More and more I’m thinking I should let you plan my travels.
Sherry, I think you would enjoy Springfield. It wasn’t overwhelming at all…we were there for four nights and it gave us plenty of time to explore the historic sites at our leisure. If you ever go, be sure to stay in that campsite at Sangchris Lake. It was like having our own private park, and we were able to put our kayak in right from our site. You would love it! Thanks for the book recommendation…that one has actually been on my list for years. We did see the film Lincoln, which I’m sure you know was based on Team of Rivals. Now I’ll finally get around to reading it, haha!
I never seem to find the time or inclination to blog about our travels until a few months after we’ve returned. I need time to cull through the thousands of photos, as well as reflect on what we’ve seen and experienced. Plus, I like to be fully engaged in the trip and not spend too much time on the computer. So all this is to say I understand! :)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, learning about Lincoln (my education was similar to yours!) and feeling inspired to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals. The Dana-Thomas House looks like a fun place to visit, too.
The campground you stayed in looks beautiful. Sorry the bathhouse was disgusting. We’re currently in Columbia Falls, just to the west of Glacier, and the bathrooms/showers are some of the nicest we’ve seen (other than a couple of concrete jungle resorts in California and Nevada). We typically use the campground showers unless they are awful. Our shower is mainly storage space. :)
Isn’t it fun to meet up with friends (old and new)? We met some nice folks (two couples: one from Vermont, the other from Laguna Beach), and enjoyed sitting around our fire ring for five hours the other night, swapping stories and listening to Rod play the guitar. Good times!
Safe travels, my friend.
Les, I can’t wait to read about your adventures in Glacier! We had plans twice to go there and both times, got sidelined by wildfires.
I appreciate so much your comment about blogging while traveling. I feel exactly the same as you do. I need time to reflect on our experiences and cull through photos. And I definitely don’t want to let blogging get in the way of my present-moment experience. I’ll be happy to read your posts whenever you have time to write them.
If you ever make an eastern trip, Springfield is a pretty and interesting town. And the campground is truly beautiful, I would just recommend using your own shower. Or at the very least, wear good shower shoes and don’t touch the walls, haha!
I hope someday our paths will cross and we can sit around the fire with you two sharing stories and listening to Rod play his guitar. Wishing you safe and happy travels, too!
Honestly, I probably would have skipped the museum too, knowing there were wax figures everywhere. I usually hate those kinds of places. But I would have gone if someone like Pam suggested it and she obviously steered you right. It looks like a truly comprehensive and immersive experience and you, obviously, took a lot away from the experience.
It’s interesting how the more things change, the more they stay the same. African king? Really, people? WTH?? Though, I guess, on some level it’s nice to know these whackadoodles have always been around and, somehow, the union has survived.
Love the photos of the Capitol building. That rotunda is something else!
Laura, the wax figures at the museum are kind of creepy (just like all wax figures, in my not-so-humble opinion). But everything is so well done that I forgave them, LOL. It truly is an engaging museum, and the special effects (holograms, etc.) were incredibly dramatic and effective. I learned more about Lincoln and his life in three hours at the museum than I ever learned in school. And what I learned intrigued me to learn even more, which means they did a good job, right?
You make a good point about the union surviving “crazy” for all these years. Let’s hope that we can continue to do so, because there sure is plenty of crazy out there. :-( I hope you find a more sane and less polarized political scene in Portugal.
Aw, Magnolia’s so pretty. She needs to be in all your posts from here on.
And wow, you certainly did a deep dive! Very impressive condensation–and you managed to keep it poignant too.
Thanks, Gretchen. I did get myself immersed in Lincoln’s life and times. These epic field trips we do spark my interest and I take off on a tangent of reading and research. I try to rein myself in and create succinct posts…it’s a challenge, but I learn a lot in the process.
And Magnolia is absolutely delighted that you understand how important she is in this blog and in our lives. :-))