Morbid Photograph from New York City
Five days following the death of President Abraham Lincoln, the Adjutant General's Office in Washington issued General Order No. 72 assigning select general officers to accompany the casket as the funeral train returning to Springfield, Illinois via the reverse route that the late Chief Executive had taken into the capitol four years earlier. One such officer was Brevet Brigadier General Edward D. Townsend, the Assistant Adjutant General, representing the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.
While the body lay in state in New York City on the 24th of April, a photograph had been taken of the corpse and published the following day in the newspapers. The sight of it alarmed the Secretary of War and he immediately opened correspondence with his emissary. The officers on duty who would have allowed for such morbidity to have occurred were to be immediately relieved of their detail and ordered directly to Washington City.
The communication caught up with the train in Albany the following day. What General Townsend read surprised him. Admiral Charles H. Davis had been the immediate officer on duty at the time the photograph was taken, however, Townsend himself was present and on his shoulders rested the decision of permitting the photographers such an opportunity. He saw nothing objectionable about the request and gave his assent personally. Bewildered, he immediately complied with the Secretary's order and asked whom he ought to turn over his detail and is it his intent also that Admiral Davis should report back to Washington with him?
The War Department assured his assistant adjutant general that the sole responsibility of such a photograph lay on his shoulders. Admiral Davis need not be relieved and both were to continue with the corpse until its interment at Springfield. Stanton understood that Mary Lincoln had expressly forbidden such photographs to be taken, however the knowledge of these wishes had not been passed onto the honor guard at all. Townsend's line of thinking was to allow the public, particularly those who would not have a chance to pass the casket the opportunity of viewing the corpse from the newspaper. Had he known of the family's wishes, nobody from his guard would have allowed the photographers in.
The body had just arrived at City Hall, arranged at the head of the stairway where the public would ascend one way and descend the other. T. Gurney and Son, the photographer had setup in a gallery twenty feet higher than the body and approximately forty feet distant from it. Admiral Davis stood at the head of the casket, while General Townsend stood at the foot. The agreed distance and height over the pall would provide a general appearance without the ability of focusing in on Mr. Lincoln's features.
Appealing to the War Department themselves, T. Gurney and Son requested that Secretary Stanton suspend his initial order and allow them to keep the plates without seizure. Although still concerned about the wishes of the family, Stanton was still willing to concede. Whether authority granted a reprieve from such an act or not remains to be seen. The only close image of our 16th President in death had been preserved for posterity courtesy of a general officer who with a historical line of thinking, and a Broadway photography studio delighted at such fortuity.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org