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The Spirit of Abraham Lincoln Lives on in Westchester

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Photo by Frank Roberts

The one-time president may have only stopped in Peekskill for three minutes, but he delivered a moving speech that addressed the nation’s struggles.

On the afternoon of February 19, 1861, Abraham Lincoln arrived in Peekskill at precisely 1:41 p.m. — and left at 1:44 p.m. Out of those three minutes, perhaps little more than 60 seconds was devoted to a speech he gave before a boisterous crowd that had gathered at the train depot.

Time was precious. Eight days earlier, Lincoln had left his home in Springfield, IL, to embark on a circuitous, 1,900-mile trip by rail to Washington, DC, where, on March 4, he was to be sworn in as president of the United States. But the country was anything but united. Seven Southern states had already seceded from the union, and a plot was afoot to assassinate Lincoln before he reached the capital. Lincoln himself assumed he would not survive his presidency.

Remarkably, five former presidents were alive when he took office. All five were abject failures whose policies pandered to the slave-owning states — and one, John Tyler, actually owned slaves. None served for more than one term.

Lincoln was well aware that Westchester’s voters preferred Stephen Douglas over him in the 1860 election. Edmund G. Sutherland, editor of the Eastern State Journal in White Plains, routinely skewered the Republican from Illinois. In one editorial, published a few days after Lincoln’s appearance in Peekskill, he wrote that Lincoln’s whistle-stop speeches “have not been of a character to inspire the country with confidence in his ability to meet the present critical state of public affairs.”

Conversely, Sutherland praised the sitting commander-in-chief, James Buchanan, who “has been faithful and true… history will do him justice.” Justice was served, but not the way Sutherland had predicted. Today, the dithering Buchanan is generally thought to have been the worst president in U.S. history.

Sutherland wasn’t altogether wrong about Lincoln’s speeches. Other than his emotional farewell at Springfield, most of the dozens and dozens of Lincoln’s speeches up to that point were not especially memorable. They weren’t meant to be.

In his newly published book, Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, Ted Widmer notes that Lincoln instinctively knew that the most important thing was for him to be seen, not necessarily heard. The long journey “was another way of reinforcing the essential doctrine of e pluribus unum,” writes Widmer. It had a mystical quality, which the author compared to “a laying on of hands.”

Photo by Stefan Radtke

“The 1,500 people who gathered at the depot were so eager to see him that they heckled the event’s first speaker. ‘We want to hear Lincoln,’ they yelled. ‘We don’t want to hear you. Git down!’”

Lincoln was careful, leery of committing off-the-cuff gaffes when the stakes were high. As he once put it: “In my position, it is somewhat important not to say foolish things” — though he did just that in Cincinnati, where he shockingly alluded to “free love.”

By the time Lincoln reached Peekskill, he was likely talked out. But the 1,500 people who gathered at the depot were so eager to see him that they heckled the event’s first speaker. “We want to hear Lincoln,” they yelled. “We don’t want to hear you. Git down!”

Climbing onto a baggage cart, Lincoln obligingly uttered 138 words, delivered in a surprisingly high-pitched twang. He never mentioned treason, secession, or any loaded words of that sort. Instead, he twice used the euphemism “difficulties” and made a direct appeal for public support.

Without that “sustaining arm,” Lincoln said, “I am quite sure that the difficulties that lie before me will not only be too great for my humble self, but too great for any individual man.”

Reporters took it all down, noting the applause and cheers at the end. “The whistle sounded,” one wrote. “Mr. Lincoln was hurried to his car and the train moved on” — down the tracks, where people waved from carriages “along our splendid suburban residences.”

It all happened in an instant. There were no photo opportunities. Four years later, Lincoln passed through Peekskill again — this time in a casket bound for Springfield.

The old, wooden depot still stands. Having survived one or two fires over the years, it houses a museum dedicated to Lincoln’s visit. Built originally for utilitarian purposes, it now serves as a shrine to unity and hope — things that are hard to grasp in an era fraught with division and anger. We have our own “difficulties” to contend with today.

Lincoln was alive in Peekskill for three minutes. Lest we forget, he is still there in spirit.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com.