Review of American Countess Cruise: Fascinating Shore Excursion to Learn about Life & Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

Fifty-six steps lead the way to the huge memorial building. Why so many, a visitor asked?

“One step for each year of his life,” a park ranger answered, watching people climb the stairs while others took a shorter path through the woods.

The man for whom the massive memorial was built was the nation’s 16th president. And this was where he was born on Feb. 12, 1809. That man, of course, was Abraham Lincoln.

Replica of the log cabin where Lincoln was born.

When the American Countess docked in Brandenburg, Kentucky, we boarded the ship’s motorcoach for a complimentary shore excursion to the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in Sinking Springs as well as a stop at the Lincoln Museum three miles south in Hodgenville.

We also were treated to a surprise visit. More about that later.

Presidential Memorial in Bluegrass Country

Passing through the pastoral countryside on our motorcoach ride, our first glimpse of the huge memorial building seemed a bit out of place in this farmland. The big pink granite and marble neoclassical structure honors the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves in the Confederacy in 1863.

Designed by architect John Russell Pope, the Beaux-Arts building has 16 windows and 16 rosettes on the interior ceiling as a salute to Lincoln as the 16th president. Construction began on the Memorial Building in 1907 with the laying of the cornerstone by President Theodore Roosevelt. President William Howard Taft dedicated the Memorial Building in 1911.

Lincoln spent the first seven years of his life in Kentucky before the family moved to Spencer County, Indiana, in December 1816. Now part of the National Park Service, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace has a one-room log cabin inside the memorial as a symbol of Lincoln’s simple birthplace.

Historians have said Lincoln’s hardscrabble early years contributed much to his character. “I was born, and have ever remained, in the most humble walks of life,” Lincoln once wrote.

Inside the visitor center are family artifacts and a film about the future president’s earliest years. Lincoln attended school for less than a year, but thereafter read on his own in a continual effort to improve his mind.

When our time was up at the Birthplace, we boarded the motorcoach again for a short ride into Hodgenville. The Lincoln Museum on the courthouse square features a series of 12 life-size dioramas and period artifacts about major events in Lincoln’s life.

A young Abe reads by the family fireplace.

Dioramas at Lincoln Museum

From the “Cabin Years” to “Ford’s Theatre” and events in between, the collection of wax figures depict important scenes such as young Lincoln reading a book in the family’s log cabin.

Diorama with Abe’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln

Lincoln works in small store in New Salem, Illinois.

Lincoln and his youngest son Tad pose for a Matthew Brady photo in February 1864.

Lincoln writes the Emancipation Proclamation to give 4 million slaves their freedom and prohibit slavery forever in the United States.

Then there’s the diorama of Fords’ Theatre on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, where Abraham and his wife Mary were sitting in Box 7 for the popular play “Our American Cousin” starring Laura Keene. The door behind the Lincolns in the diorama is open a crack to admit the president’s murderer.

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, with the door ajar for the assassin to enter.

John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor who was friends with the theater owner, ascended the theatre stairs to the presidential box unnoticed by guards. He entered directly behind Lincoln and fired one shot.

Lincoln slumped forward in his chair. Booth vaulted the railing of the box, catching his spur in the flag. As he fell to the stage, Booth fractured his left leg but dashed across the stage shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus always to tyrants).

Death of Lincoln

Booth disappeared into the night and eluded capture for almost two weeks. But on April 26, 1865, his luck finally ran out. Posing as wounded Confederate soldiers, Booth and an accomplice took shelter in a tobacco barn on a Virginia farm.  Acting on a tip, Union soldiers showed up and the accomplice surrendered.

Booth, however, decided to fight it out. When Union soldiers set fire to the barn, Booth finally emerged and was shot in the neck. Booth died a few hours later on the farm’s front porch. He was 26 years old.

After Lincoln was shot, the mortally-wounded President was carried across the street to the Petersen house. There he lingered until 7:22 a.m., never regaining consciousness.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was reported to say, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Talented Lincoln Reenactors

As part of our Lincoln Museum visit, we were seated in a nearby room for a surprise visit from Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, as portrayed by reenactors Larry and Mary Elliott.

Larry Elliott

Bearing a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln and clad in a stovepipe hat, bow tie and frock coat, the 6-foot-4 Larry Elliott says he has been bringing historic programs to schools and other events for almost two decades.

“It all started in 2003 when I entered a Lincoln look-a-like contest in Hodgenville,” he says.

Reading more about the nation’s president, Larry says he “got hooked” on all that the great man accomplished and began portraying Lincoln in local programs.

Larry’s family connection also spurred his Lincoln interest. Although Larry was born in Louisville, his paternal relatives were born in Hodgenville and his father and other relatives are buried there. Larry spend many hours playing in the area as a child, just as young Lincoln probably did.

A fascinating link, Larry says, is that his great-great-great grandmother, Mary LaRue Enlow, was a midwife who helped deliver Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12, 1809.

Mary & Larry Elliott

Along the way, Larry’s wife Mary began reading about Mary Todd Lincoln. “We decided to put together programs about their lives,” Larry says. “They were such different people. Abraham was born in a one-room dirt-floor log cabin and had less than one year of formal education.”

On the other hand, Larry says, “Mary Todd was born into a wealthy 14-room affluent home that had a great deal of political influence.”

The Lincolns

Abraham and Mary met when Mary was nearly 21 and went to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister. Abraham saw Mary at a dance where the young man told her he wanted to dance with her “in the worse way.”

As Mary later related, Abraham did just that.  – danced with her in the worst way. Despite his two left feet, Abraham and Mary began courting. However, Mary’s sister and her sister’s husband disapproved of the backward Lincoln and broke up the budding romance.

For more than a year, Abraham and Mary avoided each other. When mutual friends brought them back together, the couple dated in secret. Mary’s sister finally saw the inevitable and permitted Abraham and Mary to be married in her home on Nov. 4, 1842.

The Lincolns had four boys, only one of whom – Robert Todd Lincoln – lived to maturity. After her husband’s death, Mary’s life was plagued by poor health, mental illness and poverty until she died in 1882 at her sister’s home in Springfield, the same place where she had become Abraham Lincoln’s bride 40 years earlier.

Leaving the World a Better Place

Mary and Larry Elliott with my grandson Logan 

One of Larry Elliott’s favorite quotes by Abraham Lincoln reflects a hope that the former president must have lived by from his earliest days:

“I have an irrepressible desire to know that the world will be a little bit better off for I have lived in it.”

The sites we visited on our shore excursions from the American Countess seem to illustrate that Abraham Lincoln definitely left an enduring mark on the nation he loved.

Bottom Line: One of the joys of an American Countess cruise is the shore excursions that are offered when the ship docks. The hop-on/hop-off motorcoaches are a comfortable way to ride around a destination with local guides sharing history and tidbits.

The motorcoaches also provide transportation to shore excursions at each stop.

Instead of charging a big sum for shore excursions, as some cruise ships do, the American Countess has complimentary shore excursions at every stop, as well as “Premium Tours” which do cost.

For example, in Brandenburg, Kentucky, the four-hour Abraham Lincoln shore excursion was free. We went to the Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park and the Lincoln Museum where we enjoyed the presentation by Larry and Mary Elliott as Abraham and Mary Lincoln.

The Premium Tour on our Brandenburg stop was a two-hour pottery workshop at PG Studio Arts Center. The class shared the basics of wheel throwing before guests suited up and created their own souvenir.

The masterpieces were then fired in the kiln and shipped to the participant’s home as the perfect keepsake of a wonderful voyage. Cost was $99.

Most people, from what I heard, went on the complimentary Lincoln shore excursion. Nice to have a choice and to be offered such excellent free ones by American Queen Voyages.

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