It is commonplace today to plant a tree as a living memorial for an individual, event or cause. Unlike a plaque or marker, a tree can provide shade and serve as a filter for pollutants that are created by modern lifestyles. Like plaques and markers, trees can suffer from neglect. When a group planted a tree in Waukegan to honor the community’s celebrity resident, Jack Benny, they never anticipated that the tree might die. When it did, radio personality Fred Allen who carried on a friendly feud with Benny over the airwaves declared: “How can they expect the tree to grow in Waukegan when the sap is in Hollywood?” How indeed.
Surprisingly, a number of communities and individuals commemorated Lincoln’s death by planting trees in his honor. The town of Marengo, Illinois within the weeks following Lincoln’s assassination planted elms, weeping willows, myrtle and evergreen trees in honor of the martyred president. The Chicago Tribune encouraged a nationwide effort claiming: “Green would be to his memory over all the land in nature, as it will be in human hearts.” No one, to my knowledge, has ever compiled a listing of extant Lincoln memorial trees that were planted in the immediate aftermath of his assassination.
According to Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s only surviving son, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite tree was the hard maple. Abraham Lincoln, however, planted an American elm in the front of his home at 8th and Jackson in Springfield. The tree was badly damaged by storms and eventually removed after being destroyed by a fierce wind storm on August 17, 1906. Attempts to replace the Lincoln tree were unsuccessful. In 1988, the National Park Service decided to plant an elm tree but instead of using the traditional American elm, replace it with a Japanese-Chinese hybrid that was disease resistant. The one caveat to planting the tree was the desire to keep the tree looking similar to the Lincoln elm in the 1860 photograph of the Lincoln Home by Boston photographer A.J. Whipple. This requires the National Park Service to periodically dig up the Japanese-Chinese hybrid and replace it with a smaller version until it too, outgrows its purpose.
Finally, one of the earliest promotional narratives for the Soldiers’ Home, what is now called President Lincoln’s Cottage, was a large copper beech tree next to the cottage. Folklore about Lincoln sitting in its branches, penning thoughts about emancipation, and chasing his sons around the base of the tree helped to provide a human element and compelling Lincoln connection to the site. When the tree died in 2002, cuttings were taken to propagate and eventually present as legacy trees. Arborists, however, determined that the age of the tree post-dated Lincoln and therefore could not have been on the grounds at the time Lincoln stayed at the cottage. Clearly, the copper beach tree disembarked after Lincoln.