The Man behind the Lincoln Funeral: George R. Harrington

Planning a funeral is a difficult task under normal circumstances. Planning the funeral of a recently assassinated U.S. president brings that task to another level of complexity.

That responsibility fell to 50-year-old George R. Harrington, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, shocked Washington and the nation. In the four days between Lincoln’s death and the scheduled funeral in Washington on April 19, Harrington had little time to mourn.

The loss of the president was deeply personal for many, and thus they were eager to participate in the funeral ceremonies. It was up to Harrington to decide who would be included in the ceremonies—and who could be excluded without being offended. The number and order of the marchers in the funeral procession had to be determined. Foreign dignitaries had to be remembered. Passes had to be given out to those who wished to view the president’s body in the East Room of the White House.

Harrington had other details to arrange as well. For example, he had to notify Washington City officials of the funeral plans, in part to arrange details like stopping streetcars during the procession.

During this time, Harrington received correspondence and suggestions from the public. One writer proposed that as few carriages as possible be admitted into the procession, so that more individuals could participate. A Washington merchant expressed an earnest desire to furnish articles to be used in the funeral ceremonies. Groups like the Union League Club and the Committee of Colored Citizens of Washington all wanted to be represented in the funeral procession.

Harrington himself was named Grand Marshal for the procession (he later received a personal letter of thanks from Mrs. Lincoln for his efforts). The Washington procession was only the beginning of the ceremonies that would crisscross the Northern part of the country and end with Lincoln’s burial in Springfield, Illinois, on May 4, 1865. Many cities, such as Philadelphia, desired the funeral train to stop along the way so their own citizens could mourn the president during his final journey.

Who was George Harrington?

For a man in charge of such an important event, Harrington’s name is largely lost to history. Who was he?

Harrington was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1815. By 1842 he was living in Washington and had become a clerk for the Navy Department. During James K. Polk’s administration, he started working for the United States Treasury as a clerk and moved up the ranks through the next several administrations. He became chief clerk under Salmon P. Chase, then, in 1861, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Lincoln apparently trusted Harrington, since he appointed him to serve as Acting Secretary of the Treasury at least 21 times, when Treasury Secretaries Chase, William P. Fessenden and Hugh McCulloch were absent from Washington or otherwise unable to perform their duties.

Harrington was a prolific writer, commenting on various subjects like “First Employment of Ladies,” “Mr. Chase’s Resignation” and “Adulteration of Coin.” It is unlikely that any of these, which now survive at the Missouri History Museum Archives, were published during his lifetime.

Of particular interest is a manuscript titled “President Lincoln and His Cabinet: Inside Glimpses,” in which Harrington dictated his impressions of the Cabinet meetings he attended and his personal relationship with Lincoln. Harrington wrote the manuscript, oddly, in the third person, as if he modestly wanted to distance himself from his important contributions to the administration.

According to this manuscript, Harrington was a personal friend of Treasury Secretaries Chase and Fessenden, while Secretary of State William H. Seward considered him a younger brother. Harrington also mentioned an incident in which he was asked to nominate a successor to Secretary Fessenden. Lincoln fully expected Harrington to nominate himself and would have confirmed him if he had done so, but Harrington did not want the responsibility and suggested McCulloch instead.

After Lincoln’s funeral, Harrington was appointed United States minister to Switzerland, serving from 1865 to 1869. In his retirement, he turned to literary pursuits and authored an unpublished book on the financial policy of the United States during the Civil War. He died while traveling at sea on December 5, 1892.

The Missouri Historical Society acquired Harrington’s papers through William K. Bixby, a St. Louis philanthropist, manuscript collector and former president of the Missouri Historical Society.

Jaime Bourassa is an Associate Archivist at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis (since 2008). She received her MSI from University of Michigan’s School of Information and also has a BA in English Literature from Michigan State University. She enjoys reading, fiction writing and nerdy TV shows.