This 39 star flag has been in our family for many generations.


A note, wrapped around the flagpole and hand written by a distant relative, claims this flag flew on one of the trains that brought Abraham Lincoln’s body home to Illinois after his death in 1865. Family lore says an even more distant relative was a conductor on one of the trains and he removed the flag from over the conductor’s window as a memoriam of the event.

Abraham Lincoln died in April 1865 and his casket was transported from Washington, DC to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois over a 1650 mile route that took almost two weeks to complete. The Funeral Train traveled north into New York and then west from Albany to Buffalo and on into Ohio and finally into Illinois allowing time for public viewing at many locations along the way. By order of the War Department every crossing was to have a watchman with a draped white flag by day or a white and red lantern by night. The funeral train was to pass all stations slowly with the bell tolling. There was a special pilot engine that preceded the cortege train by ten minutes. The Funeral train was pulled by the Hudson River Railway from NYC to Albany and then the New York Central Railroad took over from there to Buffalo and on to Cleveland. At Albany the New York Central furnished a train of seven of its finest cars to which the funeral coach and family car were attached. Along the train route, mourners lined the tracks, holding banners and signs, singing hymns, and kneeling in prayer. Along the route from Albany the funeral train passed through Utica late on the night of April 26th. Twenty-five thousand people lined the tracks in pouring rain to get a glimpse. The members of several branches of our family lived in the greater Utica area during this time and some surely witnessed this important event.

Old newspaper interviews have offered some insight into the procedures. During the trip from Albany to Buffalo there was a Twenty-five man escort with the Funeral Train that was made up of men of Company B., Ninety-fourth New York Infantry. In an interview one of the veterans of this escort said that the train maintained a uniform speed of 15 miles per hour all the way to Buffalo. The escort was called out at each stop to ward off souvenir hunters. The train left Albany at 4 PM and traveled throughout the night, halting at Syracuse while the crews changed and flowers were placed aboard and then arriving in Buffalo early on April 27th. The train, drawn by the engine Dean Richmond”, left Rochester, NY at 3:35 AM and passed Batavia at 5:15 arriving in Buffalo at 7:00 AM. In an interview in 1944 an elderly resident of Macedon Center, NY remembered going to Macedon Station as a young boy with his father, at 4 o'clock in the morning to see President Lincoln's funeral train as it made a brief stop on its way to Springfield, Ill. A bonfire was built to light the scene and the casket was placed near the window in the car so that people might view it. Bonfires were lighted near many of the stations that the train passed through and flags draped in mourning were slowly waved. In many places men dipped brooms in kerosene and held them aloft to make a torch lined path on both sides of the tracks. All the residents of the countryside went down to the tracks on that memorable night. As the funeral car had glass sides all saw displayed the coffin with the flowers on it.

The Funeral Train had the right of way and all trains bound in the opposite direction came to a full stop twenty minutes before the time for the funeral train to pass. The west bound Night Express was held in Rochester until the cortege train had been gone about an hour and twenty minutes and was allowed to go to Buffalo forty-five minutes behind.


A textile conservator examined our flag and made the following observations;

  • Flag measures 27 ¾” x 41”
  • 39 stars in alternating rows of 6 and 7
  • Flagpole is 13/16” diameter wood, broken at just over 40” long so original length is unknown. Pole is turned down to 9/16” at the top to facilitate the mounting of a finial or other cap, which is missing.
  • 7 small nails or tacks hold the fabric to the pole.
  • Flag is printed on one side - “single sided” – not for viewing from both sides but meant to be mounted against a wall.
  • Flag has the blue field reversed. Printed in the upper right corner instead of the traditional upper left. As if it was to be displayed opposite a “normal” flag with their star fields facing each other. I.e. on a wall above a doorway.
  • Cotton fabric indicates the flag was made for interior use only
  • Screen printed in red and blue on undyed, plain weave, cotton fabric
  • Woven with 72 warps and 58 wefts per inch
  • Thread was single ply, “Z” twist yarn (the yarn was twisted from right to left) “Z” twist was common prior to 1865 when manufacturers changed to 2 ply “S” warp twist.
  • The Selvage of the fabric is along the 41” side so the flag was printed on a huge roll of 27 ¾” wide fabric and each flag was then cut from the roll.
  • There are two different size stars – 1 7/8” and 1 5/8”
  • Stars are printed in an offset pattern (the points are usually straight up or straight down and these are offset, “dancing” stars).
  • No obvious indication of patent date or manufacture’s name in evidence


The 36 star flag became official on July 4th, 1865 and was in common use during the time of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April of that year. That flag was only official for two years and was replaced by the 37 star flag in 1867 with the admission of Nebraska. The 38 star flag became official on July 4th, 1877 with the addition of Colorado. The 38 star flag was in use for 13 years and not replaced until 1890. It is said that flag makers, hoping to get a jump on production, began making 39 star flags in the fall of 1889 in anticipation of the addition of Dakota as the next state. They were disappointed as Congress divided Dakota into North and South and also admitted Montana, Washington and Idaho the same year so the state count jumped to 43. So the 39, 40, 41 and 42 star flags never legally existed!

It is said the some 39 star flags were also made in 1876 in anticipation of two new states but only Colorado was admitted at that time bringing the number of states to 38. The first World’s Fair held in the United States was the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 held in Philadelphia. Many versions of the flag were made for this exposition some of which had 39 stars. One 39 star flag often depicted had 38 stars in a circle around a larger star with 38 smaller flags around the border representing the foreign nations that participated in the exposition.


Based on the star count it doesn’t seem probable that this flag would have been made in 1865 to be flown on Lincoln’s Funeral Train. But…… it was made for indoor use, and obviously for display purposes as it was made with a reversed star field, and it was one-sided so it was made to be mounted on a wall for some ceremony or function. The one-ply ‘Z’ twist yarn used to make the material was replaced in 1865 by two-ply ‘S’ type so this cotton material was, most likely, manufactured prior to 1865. The roll of cotton material could have been produced prior to 1865 but never completely used until sometime later. If the roll of cloth was still around ten years later it seems logical that flags with 39 stars could have been printed on it for the 1876 Centennial. It is less likely that the materials remained unused all the way until 1889 when other 39 star flags are known to have been produced.

Also, although Lincoln died years before there was any reason to have displayed 39 star flags, the actual funeral car was restored in the late 1800s and featured at several exhibitions across the county until it was destroyed by fire in 1911. Did one of our relatives get a 39 star flag from one of these later exhibitions? Usually there is some truth in every “old wives tale” so there must be some connection between Abraham Lincoln and this old 39 star flag?


(The following is an interesting article that appeared in a Batavia, NY newspaper on August 24, 1872 - just seven years after the death of Abraham Lincoln.)

A writer in the Albany Evening Times relates a conversation with a superstitious night watchman on the New York Central Railroad. Said the watchman: “I believe in spirits and ghosts, I know such things exist. If you will come up in April I will convince you.” He then 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. Every watchman, when he feels this air, steps off the track and sits down to watch. – Soon after, the pilot engine, with long black streamers, and a band with 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 very 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 a black carpet, and the wheels are draped with the same. The coffin of the murdered Lincoln is seen lying on the center of the car, and all about in the air and the train behind are vast numbers of blue coated men, some with coffins on their backs, others leaning on them. It seems that all the vast armies that died during the war are escorting the phantom train of the President. The wind, if blowing, dies away at once, and overall the air a solemn hush, almost stifling, prevails. If a train were passing, its noise would be drowned in the silence, and the phantom train would ride over it. Clocks and watches always stop, and when looked at are found to be from five to eight minutes behind. Everywhere on the road, about the 27th of April, the times of watches and trains is found suddenly behind. This, said the leading watchman, was from the phantom train.

And a similar report of A Phantom Train appeared in the Kingston NY Daily Freeman on August 19, 1879:

The Fishkill Standard tells a weird story of a phantom train on the Hudson River Railroad and says many trackmen and laborers on that road believe the yarn. The tale was about a mystic counterpart of the funeral train that bore Abraham Lincoln’s remains from New York City to the West. The actual and substantial train passed over the road on a certain day in April, 1865. The car that contained the President’s remains was heavily draped, I believe. It is said that on that night, every year, all the train men that are on the road at a certain hour (that varies in various subdivisions of the road) hear and see and feel the specter train rush by them. It sounds hollow and awful. Its lights are yellow, pale and funereal. The train hands and passengers are sepulchral figures. It looks like the outline of a train, yet every detail is perfect. Those who have seen it say, thought they felt that it was only a vision, that a man could walk through it if he dared, or throw a stone through it; yet it seems perfect in everything but substantialness. It even carried with it a whirl of wind as fast as trains do, but it is a cold,clammy, grave-like atmosphere, all its own. As it passes another train the shriek of its whistle and clang of its bell strike terror to the hearts of those that hear them.


Well, I packed up the family and we drove to a little parking area next to the New York Central Railroad tracks that I know of between Schenectady and Amsterdam, NY. April 26th was a nice day and it was a beautiful spot along side a lock on the Mohawk River / Erie Barge Canal. I had confirmed with an 1866 map that the railroad right of way hasn't moved since at least that date so I am sure we were next to the track that Lincoln's Funeral Train traveled when heading west from Albany to Buffalo. Using contemporary reports of the train's trip through upstate New York and comparing the time it passed the Schenectady station and the time it reached the Amsterdam station to determine the speed it traveled I am pretty sure I knew within a minute or two when it would have passed the spot we were waiting. I did almost mess up big time as at first I forgot we needed to figure an hour later in 2011 than in 1865 as we are now on Daylight Savings Time!

My sister brought each of us an American Flag to wave and my son held a large, antique, 39 star flag, hoping we would attract the attention of any spirits that may have been traveling the railroad tracks. We set up two video cameras as well as a digital recorder and recorded at least fifteen minutes either side of the appointed time just to be sure. At first look and listen there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary on any of our recordings although a large freight train did pass and quite a few drivers passing us on the nearby highway blew their car horns. If anyone has had any experience analyzing audio or video footage and could suggest some software or equipment we should try to bring up some spectral images it would be greatly appreciated.

The funeral train had spent the day of April 26, 1865 in Albany with a special procession at noon to display President Lincoln's body in a funeral carriage drawn by six white horses. The train left Albany at 4 pm and would have passed the spot that we waited just after 5 pm (which was 6 pm in today's time). It was still bright and sunny so maybe that made the spectral train hard to see?

We plan to try again in 2012 but may try the night of April 25th instead in case darkness is necessary. On that day the train had spent the day in New York City as there was a huge funeral procession up Broadway and Fifth Avenue. The train left NYC about 4 pm and arrived in Albany about 11 pm that night so we will locate a good place to observe it someplace in between. Can't hurt to try!


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