|Douglas Chester French's massive seated Lincoln before the engraved words of the Gettysburg Address inside 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 dedicated.
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.
|I am a Mills on my mother's side of the family. I hope I am in no way related to Clark Mills who won a design contest for a Lincoln Monument in the 18'70's. We were all spared this eyesore when fundraising faltered.|
America was spared an embarrassing eyesore embodying all 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 50th anniversary of the war. 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.”
The Lincoln 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.
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 Lincoln Memorial under construction of boggy, reclaimed ground at the opposite end of the National Mall from the Capitol.|
Construction on 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 murals.
|Chief Justice and President of MOLLUS William Howard Taft, President Warren G. Harding, and Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the martyred president and a former Secretary of State all played prominant roles in the dedication of the Memorial.|
Everything came 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 in 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 descendants of Civil War officers, dutifully conduct a memorial service there.