Several months ago, at the behest of National Geographic, I retraced the route of the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, the United States' 16th president, from Washington, D.C., halfway across the continent to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
Early in my pilgrimage, I found a railroad spike in the weeds along a section of abandoned tracks. I knew it couldn’t date back to the 1860s—it was probably a few decades old—but nonetheless, I kept it in the cupholder of my car for the next 2,414 kilometers (1,500 miles). I liked its look, somehow both industrial and homemade, roughened and angular—Lincolnesque. It seemed to evoke not just the fallen leader’s final journey, but also his legacy as the United States' great “railroad president.”
On the drizzly morning of April 19, 1865, when the train carrying the murdered president’s coffin pulled out of Washington’s central depot, it embarked on a journey that resonated deeply with many chapters of his life.
In a sense, Lincoln and the new technology had come of age together in the 1830s, the first decade of major U.S. railroad construction. As a 27-year-old novice state legislator, he was already advocating the construction of new train lines, and later served as an attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad and other companies.
The rusty iron spike seemed to evoke not just the fallen leader’s final journey, but also his legacy as America’s great “railroad president.”
In 1861, when it came time for him to journey to Washington for his first inauguration—traveling farther to reach the White House than any previous president-elect—Lincoln did so on a meandering rail journey through the midwestern and northern states. As he traveled, he made speeches to reassure his fellow Americans that the nation would be saved.
But the trip itself also stood as a powerful statement of union—a reminder of the 48,280 kilometers (30,000 miles) of steel that already bound the nation together, of the burgeoning industrial economy that was vaulting the North ahead of the South, and of Republican plans (long blocked by the slaveholding states) to build a transcontinental line joining Atlantic to Pacific.
Four years later, the funeral trip bearing Lincoln home for burial in Springfield was consciously designed to recall the earlier journey. Its route resonated in other ways as well.
During the second day of travel, as it crossed the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, the train rode over tracks that just a few years earlier had been used by enslaved people illicitly riding the Northern Central Railway to freedom. During the Civil War, trains laden with wounded soldiers often passed here as well, trundling their human burden from Virginia battlefields to the Union (the North) military hospitals in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and York, Pennsylvania.
Part of that stretch still survives, and has recently been resurrected for a replica 1860s train called Steam Into History, which carries tourists over 16.1 kilometers (10 miles) of track. Hitching a ride aboard the locomotive, I was reminded of how new and jarring an invention it must still have seemed a century and a half ago.
We chuff noisily through the sweet green stillness of the Pennsylvania fields—a hot, shrill, urgent machine snorting metallic fumes. After 20 minutes, my head aches. We pass an old man with a hoe in a vegetable patch, a gaggle of waving kids, and a teenager holding up his iPad to record video. Our train is history passing by. On a far larger and more intense scale, Lincoln’s funeral journey must have felt like this.
Connecting a Nation
It was also an unprecedented technical feat. Before the Civil War, the U.S. rail system was a patchwork of small local lines, many using different gauges of rail, necessitating frequent changes of engines and cars. On the 1865 trip, however, two cars made the entire journey, coupled and uncoupled repeatedly from different locomotives. One of those two was the “officers’ car,” carrying high-ranking military personnel and members of the Lincoln family. The other was the funeral car itself. Dubbed the United States, it had actually been designed to carry the living Lincoln—but in a tragic twist, he rode on it only in death.
The United States Military Railroads had completed it in February 1865 as a lavish presidential office on wheels, a sort of 19th-century version of Air Force One, with elaborately painted and gilded wood, etched glass, and wheels designed to accommodate tracks of varying gauges. For the funeral trip, it was draped inside and out in heavy black cloth fringed with silver. Together with the president’s body, the United States also carried the body of Lincoln's son, Willie, who had died in Washington in 1862, age 11, and was exhumed to be reburied alongside his father.
The train’s passage through towns and villages, usually in darkness, was an unparalleled event. "As we sped over the rails at night, the scene was the most pathetic ever witnessed," wrote one member of the entourage. "At every cross-roads the glare of innumerable torches illuminated the whole population from age to infancy kneeling on the ground, and their clergymen leading in prayers and hymns."
Especially in the rural Midwest, ordinary Americans felt a connection with Lincoln that went beyond just the tragedy of his assassination. Like him, they had suffered the agonies and triumphs of four years of war, and this emotional journey was bound up with memories of the railroad, too. It was at the local depots—the same ones where the funeral train now passed—that, long before, many had caught their last glimpses of sons and brothers who would never return. It was here that civilians brought the bandages, clothing, food and flags, that they contributed to the war effort. It was here that the first news of defeats and losses on distant battlefields arrived, carried by the telegraph lines that ran along the tracks.
The funeral car had originally been intended as lavish presidential office on wheels, a sort of 19th-century version of Air Force One.
Both the telegraph and the train are now gone from most of the rural Midwest, where many local lines closed in the late 20th century, after steadily dwindling use due to competition from interstate highways. Many old villages that grew up around rural depots are now dwindling as well. The train yards where bonfires blazed in April 1865 are now nondescript parking lots shadowed by rusting grain silos.
For the 150th anniversary of the funeral journey, some people are resurrecting memories of when the United States carried history through the midwestern heartland. In Elgin, Illinois, I met David Kloke, the master mechanic who built Steam Into History’s replica locomotive and was now completing a full-scale version of the funeral car. The original burned in a prairie fire in 1911, but Kloke studied period photographs, tracked down a few scattered fragments of wooden trim, and did paint analysis to reveal the original color scheme. “It’s going to be beautiful, a dark maroon, almost chocolate color, with gold leaf,” he told me.
On May 2, Kloke’s United States arrived in Springfield for a reenactment of the Lincoln funeral, two days shy of the actual sesquicentennial. A coffin—empty, of course—was unloaded onto a horse-drawn hearse and driven to the old Illinois State House for an all-night vigil, then taken to Oak Ridge Cemetery the next day. As in 1865, the last few kilometers of the homeward journey will be by animal power, not steam. But the ghostly presence of the railroad, like that of the murdered president himself, will hover somewhere close at hand.