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155 years ago today: the Lincoln Funeral Train

On the afternoon of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln went about his business in the Executive Mansion in Washington, D.C. Exactly one week later, his body and that of one of his sons would be carried on a Northern Central Railway train through rural York County.

The Lincoln funeral train departed Baltimore at 3:00 p.m. on Apri 21 for Harrisburg on the second leg of its long trip to Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Each railroad company provided its own locomotive and crew to pull the train across its tracks, handing off the train to the next railroad. Traveling at 10 miles an hour well behind the pilot train, the funeral train pulled into Summit Number 1 (New Freedom) about 5:20 p.m., where Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin and his entourage boarded the cars to accompany the presidential mourning party north to the state capital.

Here is how I wrote about the funeral train’s visit to York County, adapted from my book Soldiers, Spies & Steam: A History of the Northern Central Railway in the Civil War.

The Lincoln funeral car (the United States). Library of Congress

The funeral train steamed passed through Shrewsbury Station within minutes of leaving New Freedom, where an integrated crowd awaited. “The common-dressed laborer stood beside well-dressed citizens,” the Boston reporter commented, “and black and white formed an interesting group. The gloom produced by death for a time leveled all distinctions.” He went on to say, “At various other places the national banner was displayed, either festooned with crepe or bearing a black border. The same solemnity of countenance was everywhere seen, and all seemed profoundly silent spectators of the funeral cortege.” He noted, “The train was tastefully festooned with black cloth both inside and out, and presented a scene of unsurpassed interest.”

Lincoln’s train soon passed through Glen Rock, where again, large crowds of mourners lined the tracks to pay their final respects to the fallen president, despite the fact that much of rural southern York County had overwhelmingly voted for his opponents in the past two presidential elections. Glen Rock itself was more evenly divided, with Lincoln receiving 43% of the vote in 1860 and 48% in 1864.

Among the passengers on board was Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s long-time bodyguard and close personal friend. It had been 17 months since he traveled these same tracks as he headed to Gettysburg to prepare for Lincoln’s trip to deliver the Gettysburg Address. This time, the burly Lamon did not pause at Hanover Junction. The train slowly steamed past the new 20,000-ton coal yard shortly after 6:00 p.m., crossed the bridge over the Codorus Creek, and followed the long curve northeasterly toward Seven Valleys (Smyser’s Station) and Glatfelter’s Station. It then rolled at a steady speed through the Howard Tunnel and a few other small trackside settlements and whistle stops as it approached downtown York.

The funeral train arrived in York at 6:40 p.m. just after dusk. The local U.S. Army Hospital’s brass band played a mournful dirge as uniformed local militia and invalid soldiers lined the tracks. A few low booms rattled windows as minute guns fired a salute from a nearby hillside. Church bells solemnly tolled. Black cloth draped many buildings. Crowds of citizens ignored the chilly rain for a chance to see the train. “The sidewalks, doors, and windows swarmed with people,” a reporter noted. “Badges of mourning and draped flags were everywhere seen.”

As the engine took on water, the crowd opened a passage for six ladies dressed in mourning black. Two army generals greeted Isabel Cassat Small and her friends as they came forward. The ladies somberly asked permission to place a large wreath in the funeral car. They carried a beautiful wreath, three feet in diameter, with an outer ring of white roses and inner circles alternating between the “choicest” red and white fragrant flowers, including camellias. Inside the wreath was a flag or shield with blue violets as the field, white violets as stars and stripes, and red geraniums for the red stripes. Symbolically, free black Aquilla Howard quietly placed the wreath on Lincoln’s ornate coffin.

“The fragrance from those violets seemed like incense from Heaven,” wrote a Philadelphia newsman. “A neat tribute, plain but coming from the heart, will weigh against the costly decorations of the millionaire; a starry flag, of violets laid upon the corpse by the ladies of York. Old men, tottering to their graves, with rain pattering upon their bald heads; wounded soldiers hobbling to the roadside to show their love for him who sleeps before them: old women sobbing as though they had lost their firstborn; fair maidens brush away the tears, and men hold up their little ones to see the car which contains the remains of the people’s friend. ‘He was crucified for us!’ exclaims an old colored man, but the shrill whistle sounds, and we leave a scene that can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.”

The funeral train at the station in Harrisburg the morning after its arrival from York. LOC

At 6:53 p.m., the train slowly pulled out of the station bound for Harrisburg. It traveled past throngs lining the platforms at stations in Emigsville, Liverpool (now Manchester), York Haven, Goldsboro, and other villages before crossing the Susquehanna River. “Just at 8 o’clock the train pulled into Harrisburg,” Conductor William Gould noted. “The sky was cloudy, and there was a fine drizzle of rain. It seemed to me that nature was weeping because of Lincoln’s death.” A twenty-one-gun salute and tolling bells greeted the train. “After pulling into the station,” Gould added, “I remained in charge of the train until the President’s body was taken from the funeral car to be taken to the State Capitol in Harrisburg; then I was relieved by the yard crew.”

With that, as the locomotive was uncoupled, the Northern Central Railway’s brief role in the Lincoln funeral procession ended.

Perhaps fittingly, the drizzle turned into a heavy downpour.

Scott Mingus’s popular book on the Northern Central Railway in the Civil War (SLM).