President Abraham Lincoln never enjoyed the executive coach “United States” built in 1865 exclusively for his use; he refused the opulence.
But when eventually he did ride it, he was unable to enjoy the deluxe accommodations, as it was his funeral journey, a slow circuitous trip over 13 days from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois, with the exhumed body of his son Willie also aboard the “Lincoln Special” funeral train.
Willie died in 1862 at the age of 11, apparently from typhoid. Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln stayed at the White House because she was too distraught to make the trip.
The train carrying Lincoln’s body travelled through 180 cities and seven states on its way to Lincoln’s home state of Illinois.
Scheduled stops for the special funeral train were published in newspapers. History.com records that “at each stop, Lincoln’s coffin was taken off the train, placed on an elaborately decorated horse-drawn hearse and led by solemn processions to a public building for viewing.
In cities as large as Columbus, Ohio, and as small as Herkimer, New York, thousands of mourners flocked to pay tribute to the slain president. In Philadelphia, Lincoln’s body lay in state on in the east wing of Independence Hall, the same site where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Newspapers reported that people had to wait more than five hours to pass by the president’s coffin in some cities.
The engine on the train as it set off was known as the Nashville.
The train consisted of nine cars. A guard of honour accompanied Lincoln’s body. Lincoln’s son Robert also was on the train. A portrait of Lincoln was fixed to the front of the locomotive.
Thousands lined the tracks during the 13-day 2,736 km trip that took the train through major US cities including Baltimore, Maryland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Buffalo, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, Indianapolis and Indiana, reaching Springfield on 3 May1865.
Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the US, in 1861, his notable act being to issue the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy in 1863.
He won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the civil war.
Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and a Confederate spy from Maryland, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre as the American Civil War was ending.
The assassination occurred five days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Lincoln was shot in the back of the head at close range and died on Saturday morning, April 15, 1865.
Instead of a state funeral that now might be the norm, it was decided to take Lincoln’s body “on tour”.
During the two weeks there was much speculation in the press on the status of the corpse.
The macabre episode apparently didn’t end at Springfield where Lincoln was laid to rest on May 4, 1865, after what has been described as the greatest funeral in the history of the US.
As reports have it, a phantom Lincoln funeral train rolls on each April in a ghostly anniversary of the President’s death. It was against his wife’s wishes that officials decided that Lincoln’s body would be displayed on a funeral train stopping at various towns through the northern part of the US on its way to Springfield.
Along the route from Washington to Illinois people lined the tracks to bid farewell to the President who fought and won the Civil War.
The funeral train comprised nine cars. The ninth car, built to take the living president and his family on rail trips, was the one in which the caskets of Lincoln and Willie were carried.
The train’s route passed through Albany, New York. For several years, around the anniversary of Lincoln’s final journey, Albany-area railway workers reported seeing a phantom version of the funeral train travelling along the rails.
On the evening of each 27 April, people began making their way to the line in hopes of seeing the ghost train passing.
A newspaper report from 1883: “I believe in spirits and ghosts,” says a night watchman on the New York Central Railroad at Albany. “I know such things exist. Come, the night of the 27th of April, and I’ll convince you.”
He then told of the phantom train that every year comes up the road with the body of Abraham Lincoln. Regularly, he says, on the night of the 27th of April, about midnight, the air on the track becomes very keen and cutting. On either side it is calm and still. Every watchman when he feels this air, steps off the track and sits down to watch. Soon after, the pilot engine, with long black streamers and a band of skeletons with instruments, all playing dirges, grinning fleshless spectres sitting all about on the locomotive and the catafalque and funeral train, pass along noiselessly. The track ahead seems covered with black carpet, and the wheels are draped and muffled. There is no clatter. All about the coffin of the murdered Lincoln, in the air, above the train and behind it, are numbers of blue-coated men in soldier uniform, some with arms, some with coffins on their back, some leaning on them. “It has always seemed to us” says the watchman, “that all the vast armies of men who died in the war were there escorting that train.”
More than 150 years after Lincoln’s death, some paranormal enthusiasts believe Lincoln’s ghost train still rolls through Albany, perhaps even making the entire journey from Washington to Illinois, replicating the procession of the actual funeral train. But it never turns up in Springfield.
While the President himself is not seen (there’s a coffin covered by an American flag), his ghostly remains are guarded by the spirits of soldiers dressed in Union uniforms.
The train is said to emerge from a cloud of thick, black fog, towing its dark cars. Its arrival makes the air noticeably heavier and colder.
Folklore has it that as the ghost train passes, nearby clocks and watches stop and lose six minutes of time.
According to “witnesses” a blinding light coming from the unmanned train helps to guide the haunted steam engine through the thick black fog.
There were several odd experiences in Lincoln’s life. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is said to have dabbled in spiritualism, believed in omens, and held séances trying to establish contact with her dead son Willie.
Lincoln’s death also held mystery.
A friend who was present when Lincoln discussed with his wife a dream he had three days before his murder recounted the conversation:
“About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.”
There were also reports that Lincoln received regular visits from the ghost of his dead son Willie.
So did Mary Todd Lincoln.
According to the National First Ladies’ Library, Mary Todd Lincoln confided to her sister that she frequently saw Willie. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same, sweet adorable smile he has always had.”
Lincoln’s ghost appears also to be a frequent visitor to the White House. National Geographic reported: “The 16th President’s apparition reportedly has been seen at the White House by a long list of people, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands to President Reagan’s daughter Maureen.”
People also claim to have seen Lincoln’s ghost at Ford’s Theatre, where Booth assassinated Lincoln. Others claim to have seen Lincoln at Fort Monroe in Virginia, or at his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.
End note: a prairie fire near Minneapolis in 1911, Minnesota, destroyed the train car that had so famously carried Lincoln’s body to its final resting place.