A president-elect traveled to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration against the backdrop of a nation deeply divided and a civil war just a few months away.
As Abraham Lincoln traveled from his Illinois home to the nation’s capital, his train stopped in Peekskill, where he gave a short speech to the welcoming crowd.
“I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties that lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail,” said the soon-to-be 16th president.
Artist Red Grooms recreates this historic moment in the exhibit “Lincoln on the Hudson” at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers. Grooms, who used foam core, canvas and brightly colored paint, created a vivid, slightly over-the-top scene that stands 17 feet tall and immerses visitors into that memorable day.
“It’s pretty poignant what he said because it was clear the country was going to war and that we need everybody’s support,” said Laura Vookles, the museum’s curatorial department chair. She and Grooms, who has a relationship with the museum that spans more than 30 years, discussed the connection between Westchester, the Civil War, Lincoln and Peekskill.
“As soon as I heard the story of Lincoln’s train stopping in Peekskill, the idea for Lincoln on the Hudson hit me in a flash,” Grooms said in a statement. “I saw the whole thing in the museum’s 30-foot-tall main gallery. That doesn’t always happen to me.”
Lincoln, who stands at the back of the train wearing a tall stovepipe hat, addresses the cheering villagers. Young men climb on a lamppost, tipping their caps in greeting. The brass band plays, and one child catches a glimpse of Lincoln through a small spyglass.
The main reason Lincoln stopped in Peekskill, Vookles said, was because he was friends with attorney William Nelson, who he had met when they were both in Congress.
“So here is kind of a small place to be stopping compared to some of the others,” she said. “But, since he had a connection there, he stopped and just briefly got off (and) said a few words.”
And the words were important. Even before Lincoln arrived in Washington, seven states already had seceded from the Union.
“Even though the tone of what he said was somber,” Vookles said, “the kind of art that Red produces is more of the sense of the fanfare of actually having the president stop in your town.”
There are no photographs of this day so Grooms relied on pictures of Peekskill and photos showing how people looked and dressed in 1861.
“I think because there’s no picture of the event, he wants you to sense the excitement of the fact that Lincoln was stopping there,” Vookles said. “You become part of the artwork from the moment you stand there.
In addition to “Lincoln on the Hudson,” Grooms has a second exhibit at the museum, showcasing 49 paintings of the Civil War. With its toned-down colors and portrait-style approach “Red Grooms: The Blue and the Gray,” presents a different side of the artist. It includes generals, female spies, abolitionists and African-American soldiers.
According to ArtNet.com, Grooms is known for his painted-collage sculptures that are of fictional and observed scenes injected with touches of humor. He was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1937, and currently lives in New York City.
“Lincoln on the Hudson” runs through May 14. For more information, visit HRM.org.