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Elisha White: The Grand Old Man of Boise

After a three-week train journey from Washington to D.C. to his home state, Abraham Lincoln’s casket was unloaded by members of the honor guard and placed into a waiting hearse, which was an ornate black carriage pulled by six black horses. Black feather plumes ordained both the horses and hearse. Once the body of the fallen Commander in Chief was secure, the men who had escorted President Lincoln turned over the watch to members of Company H, 146th Illinois Infantry.

Among the members of Company H chosen for this great honor was a young Private named Elisha M. White. Private White had mustered into service in September of 1864, and along with the rest of the 146th, was charged with carrying out the draft, which was under threat from Southern sympathizers in Illinois. Although the unit never saw combat, it suffered 38 casualties from disease. Private White, who was a farmer from Ohio, wanted to join the army earlier but he was too young. Instead, he watched his two older brothers join the army and then followed them as soon as he could.

Private Elisha M. White, 146th Illinois Infantry- Ancestry user Carmalee Tuma

White’s enlistment term was one year, but it was a year that saw the gruesome war come to an end and the President assassinated. Private White’s company was ordered to Springfield, where they guarded the Capitol building as thousands of mourners passed by to look at the face of the Great Emancipator who lay in state there for two days. Private White was one of the men who stood beside Lincoln’s bier, keeping it safe from anyone who might want to harm it. The next day, May 4, 1865, Company H was ordered to march to Springfields’s Oak Ridge Cemetery where the casket was placed in the receiving vault where it was guarded until construction on Lincon’s tomb was completed.

President Lincoln’s casket being carried into the receiving vault at Oak Ridge Cemetery, drawing by William Waud for Harper’s magazine-Sangamon Valley Collection

After their solemn duty was complete, the men of the 146th were ordered to Camp Butler where they received their pay and were mustered out of service in July. In 1938, Private White told his story to the Idaho Statesman and reported receiving only about $16 in paper money for the funeral duty.

After his military service, Elisha White returned to farming for some time. In 1867, he married his sweetheart Laura Almira Blood. They moved to Nebraska where they lived for 39 years before moving to Boise in 1910, where they purchased the home at 1416 North 11th Street. The Whites became active in the Immanuel Methodist Church and community organizations. Laura was involved in the Hyde Park Chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, Ladies Aid Society, and the Women’s Relief Corp. Elisha held leadership positions in the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization that served Civil War veterans.

The Whites were also on the board of the Chautauqua, which was a group of educators and entertainers who traveled to rural areas. Like a circus, it occurred underneath a big tent, but this was more of an adult education campaign and social movement. Clarence White, Elisha, and Laura’s son was half-owner of the Ellison-White Chautauqua Bureau, which was based in Portland but had an office in the Idaho Building in Boise.

Idaho Statesman, June 21, 1914

It was no secret in Boise that Elisha had stood watch at the President’s funeral. To commemorate Lincoln’s birthday in 1920, the Immanuel Methodist Church held an event in which Elisha spoke about his experience, alongside E.H. Ames, another Boise resident who claimed to have been present for the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debate.

Laura and Elisha White at the Fox Theatre, May 7, 1931

Laura passed away five days after her 88th birthday on September 4th, 1934. For a short time, Elisha moved to Wyoming with one of his daughters but returned to Boise where he became the Senior Commander of the Phil Sheridan Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. As a widower, Elisha stayed active in his community. In February 1937, he and Judson Spofford, another Boise Civil War vet who had interacted with President Lincoln, spoke at a Lincoln Day Event. During this time, Elisha came to be known as “The Grand Old Man of Boise”.

On September 27, 1937, Elisha White was again thrust into the Presidential spotlight. Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with Eleanor and two of their grandchildren stopped in Boise for four hours while on a west coast trip. When the President’s motorcade stopped in front of the Capitol, President Roosevelt, Governor Barzilla Clark, and Senator Borah gave short speeches. Then several people from the crowd were allowed to approach the President’s car. Elisha was one of three Civil War veterans who spoke with the President, and a photo was taken of the two men conversing. Elisha told the Chief Executive about his experience guarding Lincoln’s body.

Elisha White and FDR in Boise - Franklin D. Roosevelt and Archives

The summer of 1938 also found President Roosevelt and Elisha White in the same place, but this time it was on the other side of the country in Pennsylvania, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. However, it is unknown if the two men interacted there. It was to be Elsiha's last trip to ensure the memory of the men who fought in the War Between the States was not lost.

Members of Boise's GAR Post. Elisha White is standing, center. Judson Spofford sits directly in front of him. Idaho Statesman March 15, 1934.

Elisha passed away on December 7, 1938, at the respectable age of 93. As per his request, his funeral was a low-key affair, devoid of any military honors except for a trumpeter playing Taps as the man was laid to rest next to his beloved wife Laura in the Morriss Hill Cemetary. The Capitol and other state buildings closed the day of Elisha’s funeral to pay respects to one of the last men to guard Lincoln’s body. A fitting tribute to a man who spent his life serving others.

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