A couple of months ago, after I finally took a few photos of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate site in Ottawa, Illinois, and the second one in Freeport, I said I was going to put the seven sites on my “to visit” list. Well, I ticked off two more this month on the way home from a southern road trip.
I stopped at Charleston, site of the fourth debate, and Galesburg, site of the fifth debate. No, I’m not taking them in the order they happened. This was the order that worked for my route back home to northern Illinois. I figure I’ll try to do three, six and seven on my next trek south.
And I don’t expect to log as many miles as Lincoln did while he was on the debate circuit. There’s a map of the whole route, including details about how many miles Lincoln covered via train, boat and wagon at the Charleston museum. (Apparently Douglas didn’t keep track as closely.)
My only advance research for the sites was finding them on my GPS. I was expecting small parks, like the surroundings of the two sites I’d already seen. Each of those has some relatively new signs explaining what went on back in 1858. But neither of these sites is in a park.
Charleston’s debate site is at the Coles County Fairgrounds, and its statues of the debaters are the most accessible of the ones I’ve seen so far. They stand at the corner of a little museum that features some hands-on exhibits, as well as a little theater that shows a short film at the press of a button.
The political nature of the debates is clear, with red white and blue bunting and colors throughout the room. But the location was considered especially friendly to Lincoln, where his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, and other family members still lived. The local hospital bears her name.
In Galesburg (also the home of Carl Sandburg, but that’s another story), the debate was held outside Old Main, a building that was finished in the summer of 1857 on the campus of Knox College. There are no statues to commemorate the debate, but on the east side of the building large, bronze plaques of each candidate frame doorways into the building. (The handicapped entrance is on the west side of the building.)
Inside along the hall, several signs and photos illustrate the history of the college, as well as the significance of the debate. And in a small room on the left from the debate doorway is the Lincoln Chair room. The chair is the one Lincoln sat in while waiting for the debate to begin.
The room also houses a collection of memorabilia from the debate, as well as from the life of the 16th president. Across from the doorway sits a detailed miniature of the law office Lincoln shared with William H. Herndon in Springfield, Illinois. There are also a variety of images — posters, photos– and a small statue of Lincoln on a bookshelf.
Historical note: One of Knox College’s graduates was Hiram Rhodes Revels, who would become the first African-American U.S. Senator and the president of Alcorn University in Mississippi.
To the left of the miniature, is the window Lincoln and Douglas climbed through to reach a platform that was built for their debate. It blocked the door between the plaques, making the window the only access for the debaters. The effort, according to a small sign near the window, led to Lincoln’s remark, “At last, I have gone through college.”