The crowd assembles for the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.
It was Decoration Day,
as it was still styled back then, the national
holiday to commemorate the dead of the Civil
War, traditionally observed by decorating
graves, parades of Civil War veterans,
and stem winding patriotic oration
by politicians grand and petty. It was also a fitting day to dedicate a
memorial to the martyred Commander in
Chief of that bloody conflict. On
May 30, 1922 the Lincoln Memorial in
Washington, D.C. was officially
Clamor for some kind of monument to Abraham Lincoln began weeks after his death. A group of officers gathered in Philadelphia
to re-affirm loyalty to the
Union and pledge support should the assassination portend a guerilla war, or what we would call
today, terrorist extension of the
war. They also offered their services
coordinating public aspects of
Lincoln’s funeral. On May 30 1865 they held their first public
meeting at Philadelphia’s Independence
Hall under their newly decided upon name, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). The group was modeled after the organization Revolutionary War officers, the Order of Cincinnatus.
Eventually more than 12,000 former Union officers enrolled, including
virtually all surviving field grade
officers and senior commanders.
From the beginning they made it their purpose to honor the
memory of Lincoln. In cooperation with
the Grand Army of the Republic, (GAR), the veteran’s organization open
to all ranks and to which most MOLLUS members also belonged, and leading Republican Party organizations, they
lobbied Congress for a
monument. In 1867 Congress passed the
first of a series of bills that led to the formation of a commission to oversee the design,
construction, and fundraising for a monument.
This is the hideous design for the first proposed Lincoln Monument which fortunately never got off the ground.
America was spared an embarrassing eyesore embodying all of the
florid excess of the late 19th Century when
public subscriptions lagged for the selected design by Clark Mills which would have featured a 70-foot tall
structure adorned with six huge equestrian
and 31 pedestrian statues crowned by
a 12-foot tall statue of Lincoln.
The idea languished, but was not forgotten
until the approach of the 50 anniversary of the war neared. MOLLUS and the GAR stepped up their lobbying
efforts. Illinois Senator Shelby Moor Cullom, who had personally known Lincoln since their pre-war days as Springfield lawyers and Republican
Party politicians, spearheaded support in Congress. He submitted his bill for a new commission
six times from 1900 to 1910 before it finally passed. Opposition to a monument to Lincoln was
nearly unanimous among Southern and border state legislators
who stilled viewed him as the villainous aggressor in what they insisted on
calling the War Between the States. A renewed wave of Lost Cause nostalgia was sweeping the South along with the final
eradication of the last vestiges of Reconstruction
reforms and the stripping of Blacks from
voting roles. Some Northern Democrats also feared that a Lincoln
monument would simply become a rallying point for the Republicans, who had dominated the country since the war. There were also objections by those who felt
that only George Washington should
be commemorated in the capital. The bill
was finally passed when the word “monument” was replaced my “memorial.”
Memorial Commission was formed in 1911 with President William Howard Taft as its president. Within a year architect Henry Bacon was selected to design the building and a location in Potomac Park, recently created by land fill from marshy ground by the
River in a direct line with the Capitol and
the Washington Monument. The location was in keeping with the 1901
McMillan Plan, which laid out a monumental
core for the city around the National Mall. The Potomac Park location was designated
for a major future monument to anchor that end of the Mall.
The Memorials mammoth Seated Lincoln.
Bacon’s plan for
a mammoth Greek Doric Temple featuring a statue of a seated Lincoln
came in for some criticism as being too ostentatious for the humble
Lincoln. A counter proposal was made for
a model log cabin to emphasize his man-of-the-people roots. Other people objected to the location. None the less, in 1913 Congress signed off on
the project and authorized $300,000 to get it underway, the balance to be
raised by subscription.
the marble temple soon got underway and continued at a steady pace, even
through the First World War and the administration of a somewhat
unsympathetic southern born Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson. The temple was built on a concrete foundation, 44 to 66 feet in depth to
support its massive weight on the spongy former marsh. The temple itself is 189.7 by 118.5 feet and
is 99 feet tall with 36 columns representing the 36 states—including the
secessionist ones—at the time of Lincoln’s death.
In 1920 as construction neared completion
it was realized that the original statue of the seated Lincoln by Daniel Chester French would be dwarfed
by the cavernous interior and it had to be nearly doubled in size to 19 feet
tall. Finishing touches included
inscribing Lincoln’s most famous words on the walls and Jules Guerin was commissioned for two interior allegorical
Chief Justice and Memorial Commission President William Howard Taft, President Warren G. Harding, and Robert Todd Lincoln at the dedication.
together for the 1922 dedication. MOLLUS
was designated by the Commission to plan and execute the program. Taft, by then Chief Justice of the United States was the principle speaker and formally presented the Memorial to President Warren G. Harding on behalf
of the Commission. Also on hand and speaking to the assembled
crowd of several thousand was Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, a former Secretary of State.
The Memorial is now a revered shrine and one of the most popular
tourist destinations in the
city. It had been the site of historic
events including Marion Anderson’s famous
1939 outdoor concert and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech
to the 1963 March on Washington. At the
height of the turmoil following the Kent
State Shootings Richard Nixon
paid an unannounced late night visit
to the Memorial and engaged if a dialogue about the Vietnam War with surprised visiting students.
The Memorial has been used in many films, most memorably as an inspiration for James Stewart’s young senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
It is administered by the National
Park Service, but every year on Lincoln’s
Birthday the members of MOLLUS, now made up of the descendents of Civil War
officers, dutifully conduct a memorial service there.
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