In a nook at the top of a staircase at Washington National Cathedral, sits a small, bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, kneeling in the leaves. The sculptor is Herbert Spencer Houck, whose grandfather lived near the town of Gettysburg, PA – and therein lies a story.
When they donated the statue to Washington National Cathedral, Houck’s family stated that they believe this is the only Lincoln memorial that depicts him in a kneeling stance. If anyone knows of another, please let us know.
The family went on to state that Houck, in creating a kneeling Lincoln, was referring to a story told to him by his grandfather. According to family lore, Houck’s grandfather was walking through a field when he came upon a man kneeling in prayer, autumn leaves scattered around the figure. If you know the Gettysburg battlefield, you’ll recall that there is an area at the southern end of the battlefield called Houck’s Ridge, which adjoins the famous Devil’s Den and sits just across from the equally-famous Little Round Top. And if you know your Gettysburg history, you also know that Lincoln travelled to Gettysburg just one time, in November, 1863, to participate in the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. For the dedication, Lincoln was asked to provide “a few appropriate remarks.” Those “remarks” are known today as The Gettysburg Address.
No written proof has been found (yet) that Lincoln made a pilgrimage out onto the battlefield – he was there for only a short time – however, it’s possible. Anyway, the story inspired Houck to create the kneeling Lincoln.
Another piece of family lore states that the statue was created as an entry for the Lincoln Memorial competition. That would be the competition for the great Lincoln Memorial that sits at the West end of the National Mall. The problem with that story is that there was NO competition for the Lincoln Memorial. Daniel Chester French had been selected as the sculptor with Henry Bacon as the architect and that was that.
Additionally, an article in the February 1932 edition of the Christian Science Monitor states that Houck’s sister, Mrs Williams T Hildrup, Jr, in accordance with her late brother’s wishes (Houck died in 1931), offered the statue to the Federal Government for the Gettysburg battlefield, stating that it would be “cast in colossal size.” Apparently, the Gettysburg Battlefield Commission never took action and shortly thereafter, the statue was offered to the Cathedral.
The Kneeling Lincoln was placed in a quiet corner of the Cathedral, which is most appropriate for the character of the piece. It sits near the tomb of Bishop James E Freeman, who presided over the dedication of the memorial. If you visit during the Holidays, you’ll find Lincoln surrounded by beautiful floral arrangements that further enhance the serenity of this humble work of art.
Lincoln Bay, Washington National Cathedral
At the northwest entrance to Washington National Cathedral visitors will find the Lincoln Bay, which is rich in symbolism and consists of carvings, inlay, stained glass, and an eight-foot tall bronze statue of our sixteenth President. The statue is the work of sculptor Walker Hancock and represents Lincoln as he left Springfield Illinois to assume the Presidency. Hancock dressed Lincoln in a typical suit of the day and he draped a shawl over his shoulders, similar to the shawl Lincoln wore on his trip from Springfield to Washington, DC. Appropriately, next to the statue, carved in the wall is the “Farewell” speech he made as he left Springfield.
By-the-way, Walker Hancock was the inspiration for the character portrayed by actor John Goodman in the movie “Monuments Men.”
Inlaid in the floor in front of the statue are thirty-four Lincoln pennies, representing the number of states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s inauguration. Twenty-one of the pennies are in the shape of a star encircled by thirteen pennies, which represent the thirteen original states. Although the pennies are quite worn, you can still see that the center penny was inlaid face-down, symbolizing South Carolina, the first state that seceded from the Union, precipitating the actions that eventually led to the catastrophic Civil War of 1861-1865.
Two stained glass windows were created for the Lincoln Bay. The largest of the two, titled “The Agony of the Civil War”, is the work of Robert Pinart, who worked in France after WWII, restoring the stained glass in some of the churches and cathedrals that had been bombed during the war. For the Lincoln Bay, Pinart designed as an abstract representation of the conflict between the North & the South, followed by healing and reconciliation. The light reds symbolize battle and agony. The dark reds represent the deep grief felt by Americans over Lincoln’s assassination. Blues and gray colors suggest the soldiers’ uniforms, and the smoky-colored opalescent glass symbolizes the thick smoke of battle. Yellows and gold represent wheat and corn fields, a return to peace, rebirth, and new life.
The smaller window, created by Brenda Belfield, only appears small – it is actually seven-and-a-half feet tall. It depicts Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Her face is in shadow, suggesting tragic events to come. She holds a Bible, symbolic of her intellectual nature. Below her hands are small white flowers of the poisonous snake root plant, which caused the death of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, her parents, and many other early settlers. When cows ate the plant, those who drank the cow’s milk were poisoned – the condition was known as milk poisoning.
The woman at the bottom of the window is Lincoln’s step-mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln. Her hand rests on young Lincoln’s shoulder, symbolizing her gentle and affectionate nature.
Next to the Lincoln statue and above the doorway, a stone pediment is carved with two outstretched hands spanning a deep gash in the stone. This is the symbol of the great divide between the North and South that resulted in the devastation of the American Civil War. The outstretched hands grasp an olive branch, and the words, “With Malice Toward None,” from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address are carved on the stone supporting the pediment.
Interestingly, money for this bay was part of Mary Todd Lincoln’s original bequest to Robert Todd Lincoln. The money was given for the Bay by Mary Lincoln Isham, daughter of Robert Todd Lincoln, and her son, Lincoln Isham. This legacy, an amount of ten thousand dollars PLUS Lincoln Isham’s portion of the trust made up the primary donation for the construction of the Lincoln Bay – so you can say that Lincoln actually provided the funds for his own memorial at the Cathedral!
Note: We’ve recently found additional information about the Lincoln family trust from the Lincoln Financial Foundation. The information provided by the Foundation makes no mention of monies given to the Cathedral so we’re comparing our notes from the Cathedral with the information from the Foundation.
The two Lincoln memorials at Washington National Cathedral are the newest of the Lincoln statues in the District.
We’ll leave the Cathedral now and move across town to the US Capitol, where we’ll discuss the final two Lincoln Memorials in the District of Columbia. Join us again next time to “wrap up” the Lincoln’s of DC.
- Docent files, Washington National Cathedral
- Washington National Cathedral View Guides
- “For Thy Great Glory,” Richard T Feller
- The Lincoln Financial Foundation — https://LincolnCollection.org