Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Lincoln Funeral Train

On Presidents' Day, Gossips recounted the Presidents who had visited Hudson. The original list, which included Martin Van Buren, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had to be amended a few times. Harry Truman had been left out, and Woodrow Wilson as well. Then it was discovered that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had visited Hudson in 1791, before either became President. It was also brought to Gossips' attention, by Jamison Teale, that, just as the train carrying Lincoln to Washington for his first inauguration in 1861 stopped in Hudson, four years and two months later, Lincoln's funeral train stopped in Hudson on April 25, 1865.

A week after the assassination, on the morning of April 21, 1865, Lincoln's funeral train left Washington bound for Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln's coffin traveled in a special private railroad car that had been designed for his use in life. Although the car had been completed in February 1865, before his second inauguration, Lincoln never rode in it while he was alive. After his death, the car, named The United States, was refitted to serve as a funeral car. Two catafalques were built in the car to hold the coffins of Lincoln and his beloved son Willie, who had died of fever at the age of eleven in February 1862.

On the twelve-day journey from Washington to Springfield, the funeral train stopped in ten principal cities.

In each city, Lincoln's coffin was removed from the train and borne by a hearse provided by the city in a grand procession to a place where it would lie in state, to be viewed by throngs of mourners. In New York City, the viewing took place in the rotunda at City Hall. A contemporary chronicler described the scene: "The catafalque graced the principal entrance to the Governor's Room. Its form was square, but it was surmounted by a towering gothic arch, from which folds of crape, ornamented by festoons of silver lace and cords and tassels, fell artistically over the curtained pillars which gave form and beauty to the structure."

The train made brief stops at other cities along the way, and Hudson was one of those. After leaving New York City at 4:15 p.m. on April 25, the funeral train traveled north along the Hudson River. The tracks were lined with mourners all along the route, and when the train arrived in Hudson at 9:45 p.m., there were thousands of people gathered at the station to see it. Assistant Adjutant General Edward D. Townsend, commander of the funeral train, recorded what transpired:
At Hudson . . . elaborate preparations had been made. Beneath an arch hung with black and white drapery and evergreen wreaths, was a tableau representing a coffin resting upon a dais; a female figure in white, mourning over the coffin; a soldier standing at one end and a sailor at the other. While a band of young women dressed in white sang a dirge, two others in black entered the funeral-car, placed a floral device on the President's coffin, then knelt for a moment of silence, and quietly withdrew. This whole scene was one of the most weird ever witnessed, its solemnity being intensified by the somber light of the torches at that dead hour of night.
Legend has it that a ghost train retraces the route of the Lincoln funeral train. James Swanson, in the book Bloody Crimes, from which most of the information in this post is derived, quotes this from a newspaper clipping found in an old scrapbook:
A correspondent in the Albany (N.Y.) Evening Times related a conversation with a superstitious night watchman on the New York Central Railroad [who] . . . told of the phantom train that every year comes up the road with the body of Abraham Lincoln. Regularly in the month of April, about midnight, the air on the track becomes very keen and cutting. On either side it is warm and still. . . . Soon after the pilot engine, with long black streamers, and a band of black instruments, playing dirges, grinning skeletons sitting all about, will pass up noiselessly, and the very air grows black. If it is moonlight clouds always come over the moon, and the music seems to linger, as if frozen with horror. A few moments after and the phantom train glides by. Flags and streamers hang about. The track ahead seems covered with black carpet, and the wheels are draped with the same. The coffin of the murdered Lincoln is seen lying on the centre of the car, and all about it in the air and the train behind are vast numbers of blue-coated men, some with coffins on their backs, others leaning on them.
In 1865, the funeral train arrived in Albany around midnight; it arrived in Hudson at 9:45 p.m. So, if you are free at 8:45 tonight (there was no Daylight Saving Time in 1865), you might want to go down to the train station to see if the phantom train passes through.

On a less otherworldly note, in Illinois, a man named David Kloke is building a replica of the locomotive that pulled the funeral train and the car that carried Lincoln's coffin. In 2015, to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's assassination and funeral, the 2015 Lincoln Funeral Train will retrace the route of Lincoln's final journey, starting from Washington on April 21 and ending in Springfield on May 2. Wouldn't it be grand if the train stopped in Hudson, and we re-created the elaborate and dramatic pageant of mourning that Hudson staged in 1865?

Gossips is indebted to Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse, by James Swanson, for much of the information used in this post and to Jamison Teale for bringing the book to my attention and lending me his copy. 


  1. So what happened ?
    Did you make it at 8:45 ?

    1. Alas. I didn't get there until close to 10 p.m. At that time, there seemed to be no one else there hoping to experience the ghost train, and the scene seemed very bland and this-worldly--flooded with light (artificial and natural light from a full moon) and lacking any sense of mystery. Of course, that's the way we want our train station to be--except when we're hoping to see a ghost train.

  2. In keeping with it's endearing character, it's not surprising that Hudson was host to a scene "one of the most weird ever witnessed."