After dying from a bullet wound on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was not permitted to rest in peace—not immediately at least. Even in death, the assassinated president was called upon to make one final sacrifice to the Union as his body was paraded across a grief-laden country in a funeral pageant that spanned nearly 1,700 miles.
“Now, he belongs to the ages,” Edwin Stanton reportedly uttered when Lincoln passed, but the secretary of war didn’t believe the country was ready just yet to say goodbye. Although Mary Lincoln wanted her husband’s body to take the most direct route home to Springfield, Illinois for burial, Stanton convinced her to approve a more circuitous railroad journey that retraced the whistle stops Lincoln had made from the Illinois capital to the national capital four years earlier, just before his inauguration.
As dawn broke over Washington, D.C., on April 21, the clopping of hooves broke the silence as horses drew the hearse carrying Lincoln’s black mahogany coffin from the U.S. Capitol, where it had spent the prior two nights lying in state, to the nearby Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station. Gripping the coffin’s silver handles, soldiers carried Lincoln’s body onto the presidential railroad car, which featured luxurious crimson silk upholstery and walnut and oak finishing. Consumed by war, Lincoln never had a chance to see the newly constructed railcar, let alone ride in it.
Inside the funeral car, the presidential coffin joined a smaller one that contained the body of his son, Willie, who had died from typhoid fever three years earlier at the age of 11. Willie’s casket had been held in a vault in a Georgetown cemetery awaiting interment in Springfield at the end of Lincoln’s presidency, which no one envisioned would end so prematurely.
Lincoln’s widow, who was too distraught to leave the White House for five weeks, was not among the funeral train’s 150 passengers, who included a funeral director and an embalmer. Wishing to give Americans a chance to see their fallen president face-to-face one final time, Stanton had gained Mary Lincoln’s consent to allow the lifting of the upper half of the casket lid for public viewings in 10 cities along the route.
The great advances in the art of embalming during the Civil War had allowed the unrefrigerated bodies of tens of thousands of soldiers to be returned to their families for burial, and the same process was used to preserve the commander-in-chief. Embalmer Charles Brown proclaimed there would be no perceptible change in Lincoln’s appearance by the end of the lengthy tour. “The body of the president will never know decay,” he assured the Chicago Tribune.
William H.H. Gould, the conductor on the funeral train’s first leg, recalled that the president appeared at rest leaving the national capital. “He looked as if he were asleep in pleasant dreams,” Gould recollected.
Enormous Crowds Attended Round-the-Clock Viewings of Lincoln
With the last embers of the Civil War yet to be snuffed out and Lincoln’s assassin on the loose, nerves ran high as the funeral train made its first stop in rainy Baltimore, John Wilkes Booth’s hometown and a city once so hostile to Lincoln that as president-elect he traveled through it incognito due to fears for his life.
No such animosity could be found four years later as a quartet of horses wearing black hoods bore a rosewood hearse through muddy streets for three hours before a public viewing. The mourners included approximately 30,000 Black marchers and spectators. New York Tribune reporter Charles Page was struck by the sight of “white and black side by side in the rain and the mud” and the lack of “consciousness of any difference of color.”
Similar scenes repeated themselves as grief-stricken Americans communed in city after city. “The martyr is moving in triumphal march, mightier than when alive,” declared preacher Henry Ward Beecher. “The nation rises up at every stage of his coming. Cities and states are his pallbearers.”
In Philadelphia, tens of thousands of mourners escorted the presidential coffin to Independence Hall, where in 1861 Lincoln declared he “would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender” the principles of the Declaration of Independence. During a 20-hour public viewing, approximately 150,000 people passed by Lincoln as he rested near the foot of the Liberty Bell.
Even larger crowds emerged in Manhattan. There, a half-million spectators—including six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt gazing down from a second-floor window in his family’s mansion—witnessed a massive procession in which 16 horses hauled an elaborate hearse decorated with patriotic imagery. An estimated 125,000 people filed past Lincoln’s corpse in City Hall.
Lincoln’s Body Began to Show Signs of Decay
The limits of embalming in an age before refrigeration were becoming clear by the time Lincoln’s body departed New York City. Newspapers reported that Lincoln’s eyes were sunken, his visage sallow and withered. “It is not the genial, kindly face of Abraham Lincoln,” reported the New York Evening Post. “It is but a ghastly shadow."
“No perceptible change has taken place in the body of the late president since it left Washington,” Brown assured the press. However, the public viewings were clearly taking a toll as the embalmer tried to hide Lincoln’s darkening countenance with chalk-white makeup, and the perfume of lilacs and camellias struggled to conceal the odor from the decomposing body.
Still, the public viewings continued. In fact, civic pride spurred the construction of more extravagant hearses, catafalques and memorial arches at each successive stop as if cities were trying to outdo each other in their expressions of grief.
Perhaps more moving than the grand spectacles of collective mourning, though, were the private moments of sorrow exhibited by those who traveled from miles around to camp along the railroad tracks, seeking a momentary glimpse of the presidential coffin through the railcar’s windows. For mile upon mile, men took off their hats and bowed their heads as the train passed. Women whispered prayers. Choirs sang hymns. Through the dead of night, bonfires alongside the tracks illuminated the way westward. For a country that had bottled up four years of grief during the Civil War, the funeral train served as an emotional catharsis.
The Funeral Train United the North
The crowds along the rails swelled as the funeral train steamed into the Midwest. “As the president’s remains went farther westward, where the people more especially claimed him as their own, the intensity of feeling seemed if possible to grow deeper,” reported Brigadier General Edward Townsend.
Even at 3 A.M., 12,000 people gathered in Richmond, Indiana, as the funeral train passed under a 25-foot-high arch erected by its citizens. One woman dressed as the Genius of Liberty wept over a mock coffin, while a committee of ladies boarded the train to present a pair of floral wreaths.
After a public viewing in Chicago, where the line of mourners stretched more than a mile, the funeral train finally reached Springfield, Illinois on May 3. After a 1,645-mile journey, Lincoln was home.
The funeral train had passed through 400 cities and towns. One million Americans viewed Lincoln’s corpse, and millions more saw the train as the North united to bid Lincoln farewell.
“By and large, the funeral train experience—and Lincoln’s posthumous image—knitted northern white Democrats and Republicans together, and even offered northern African Americans some protected access to public life at a time of great danger for them,” says Richard Wightman Fox, author of Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History.
After a 24-hour public viewing in the Illinois state capitol, Lincoln’s coffin was finally closed on the morning of May 4. Following the burial ceremony at Oak Ridge Cemetery, which included an hour-long eulogy, the coffins of father and son were placed inside a limestone vault and the doors and iron grating shuttered. Nearly three weeks after he breathed his last, Lincoln was finally laid to rest.