University of Arizona team solves Lincoln mystery

April 29, 2013

For two weeks in 1865, President Lincoln’s body was carried across the Northeast by train.

Lincoln train Just ahead of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, a team of Arizona researchers has cracked a mystery surrounding the funeral. They figured out what color his funeral rail car was.(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Millions turned out as the funeral train rolled from town to town. It was a social event, heavy with history -- a chance to see the body of the first president assassinated in America, the Commander-in-Chief under whom the Civil War was fought. People left their farms, closed their shops and headed to the train station to see Lincoln.

Just ahead of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, a team of Arizona researchers has cracked a mystery surrounding the funeral. Until now, historians had no idea what color the 16th president's funeral rail car was.

Press reports describing the train car’s color were inconsistent. Some said it was a deep chocolate. Others, called it claret red. There were no color photos back then, of course, and no one made a painting of the train at the time.

The car was sold off after Lincoln’s death, and resold a few more times after that. It was repainted at least twice before 1911, when it burned in a grassfire.

So the folks at the Chicago-based Lincoln Funeral Car Project didn’t know what color to paint the life-sized replica they’re building for the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s death.

They turned to University of Arizona chemistry professor Wayne Wesolowski, who headed up a team that solved the mystery.  He’s spent the last 20 years researching the funeral car, ever since he was commissioned to build a miniature of the train for the state of Illinois. He took a guess on the color then, but says it is important for historians to get every detail right.

“Finding that authenticity is part of recreating that little bit of reality,” Wesolowski said. “If you don’t have, if you can’t justify what you have, then you really can’t say this is a recreation of Lincoln’s funeral car.”

One of the train’s window had been sold to a Minnesota family before the rail car burned down and kept as a family heirloom. Wesolowski was able to get a sliver of the window frame, and researchers carefully cut through two layers of paint to get tiny chips of the original paint.

It was a dark maroon.

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