Presidents Day is the holiday designated to remember the two men considered America's greatest presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The date honors their respective births. YNN's Bill Carey reports the approach of spring also reminds some of the tragic death of Lincoln and the way a nation gathered to guide their fallen leader back home.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It was over. The surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox signaled the end of the Civil War.
"It was a long, very bloody war. Both sides were exhausted. There was rejoicing, especially in the north, about the end of the fighting," said Carol Faulkner, History Department Chair at Syracuse University.
The celebration would be short-lived. Five days later, John Wilkes Booth would enter Ford's Theater in Washington and shoot Abraham Lincoln. The next day, Lincoln was dead.
"The public was ready to celebrate, at least in the north, and then has essentially no chance to do that, went right into this moment of national mourning. In many ways it was like Lincoln was almost the last victim of this horrific war," said Douglas Egerton, a history professor at Le Moyne College.
There were services for the fallen President in Washington, but then came a remarkable period when much of the nation, an estimated seven million people, would take part in honoring Lincoln as his coffin was carried back to Springfield, Illinois.
In the largest cities, like New York and Buffalo, the train would stop, the body would be carried in procession to a local site and thousands would file by to pay respects. But the story of the Lincoln funeral train is also a story of the places in between. Small towns where people lined the track to bow their heads as the train passed. Places like Syracuse, where the train would stop briefly.
Back in those days, the main train line through Syracuse ran along Washington Street. A large depot straddling the street at Vanderbilt Square. And it was here that the crowds gathered to receive the funeral train bearing the body of Abraham Lincoln.
The population of Syracuse in 1865 was a little over 31,000 and 35,000 turned out that day to view the train. It arrived late on the night of April 26th. Rain was falling. It stayed for just half an hour and then it was gone, passing gatherings of hundreds in small towns along the way.
For many, it was a very public release of emotions kept in check during that long and bloody Civil War.
"You know they'd had many individual expressions of grief throughout the course of the war. But it's quite cathartic to be able to express it as a nation," Faulkner said.
Four years earlier, a former congressman from Illinois made his way to Washington after winning less than 40 percent of the popular vote in a race for President. Now, the train carrying his body was retracing the route Abraham Lincoln had taken to the Capitol. This time, taking him home.
"This was the last chance to say goodbye to this President who Americans suddenly realized had saved them from this awful catastrophe," Egerton said.
Special thanks to the Onondaga Historical Association and photojournalist Jason Hy for their assistance and research for this report on the Lincoln funeral train