Lincoln's assassination remembered through artifacts

Artifacts brought together 150 years after Ab... 04:16

One of the greatest dramas in American history played out in Ford's theater, not on the stage, but up in the box where President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. His legacy, preserving the union and abolishing slavery, still, 150 years later, inspires a nation, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Plante.

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Professor Allen Guelzo has devoted his life to studying President Lincoln. He has contributed to a seven-part essay to LIFE's Lincoln: An Intimate Portrait.

"Lincoln's death generates the greatest what-if question of all time for Americans. What if Lincoln had lived?" Guelzo said.

Lincoln's assassination plunged a nation already on edge into uncertainty. Millions mourned as his body was taken back home to Illinois for burial. They lined the tracks to pay their respects.

In Illinois, history is being rebuilt.

Dave Kloke is restoring one of the nation's lost treasures: the funeral car that carried the fallen president on that sorrowful journey.

5 facts you may not know about Lincoln's assassination
5 facts you may not know about Lincoln's assassination

"He didn't want to ride in it during the war and all the people getting killed. He thought it was too fancy," Kloke said. "It would have been the Air Force One of the day."

Instead, Lincoln's first journey aboard was to his final resting place. From Washington, along the East Coast, through the Great Lakes to Springfield -- 180 cities in seven states.

The railcar was destroyed in a 1911 fire, forgotten until Kloke and a group of volunteers brought it back from history to reality, using historical blueprints to recreate the original car.

Now the carpet is in, the wood polished and the original oil lanterns waiting to be hung.

"It's really come together. And I had a lot of good people help with it," Kloke said. "It was like someone was watching out for us, and we got it done."

He did it so people could know, could remember what happened 150 years ago.

"People are not paying that much attention to history anymore. They kind of forgot about it, and we should remember the history of the country and why things are like they are," Kloke said.

To help us remember that history, Ford's Theater is displaying memorabilia from the day Lincoln was shot. It's the first time all these items have been together since that night, including his top hat, a bloodstained American flag used to prop up Lincoln's head and the contents of his pockets.

"There's a handkerchief, two pair of glasses. One of them you can tell, he repaired himself with a piece of string," Guelzo said.

Even the murder weapon itself.

"It is so small, it is only a .44 caliber, and yet this one small weapon caused so much damage. So much grief," he said.

All that was needed to kill the man -- but not his legacy.

"What failed and began to fail [the night of his death], is something which got played out through all the long history of segregation, Jim Crow, discrimination, of bigotry," Guelzo said. "We still struggle with that today, we are still dealing with the after effects of the death of Abraham Lincoln."

What would have been different if Lincoln had lived?

He said in a speech four days before he died that he wanted to see freed slaves have the right to vote. Whether or not he could have accomplish that, he did leave a moral example for the ages.