The President-Elect, having just won a contentious election in a polarizing time stood on the eve of his Inauguration knowing he was taking the helm of an extremely divided country. There was open talk of a coup d’état among the government and there were threats to disrupt Congress’ process to tally the electoral votes in the US Capitol. The year was 1861 and Abraham Lincoln stood on the precipice of becoming the very controversial 16th President in our nation’s history.
With just 39% of the national vote and 180 electors, Lincoln defeated John C. Breckinridge, Stephen Douglas and John Bell to win the White House. He’d inherit a nation coming off the tumultuous James Buchanan administration and a simmering powder keg in the south centering on the issue of slavery. Lincoln’s election would prove to be the spark that lit the keg as many in the south, including Maryland, cried for secession and, some, the assassination of the newly elected President.
When Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois on the Great Western Railroad on a cold February 11, 1861, General Winfield Scott, overseer of the Washington defenses, told confidants of a plot by secessionists to kill Lincoln to decapitate the new Republican government to open the road for southern rule. “I now leave not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon George Washington” said a prophetic Abraham Lincoln as he left Springfield to embark on Washington.
Just weeks before the Inauguration (to be held on March 4, 1861), Scott was cognizant of the rumors of threats of thousands of southern sympathizers were planning to invade and seize the capital. Despite fearing wanting to stoke fear, he warned Secretary of War Joseph Holt of the imminent threat, confirmed by spies in most southern states, many of whom commented that some of the 500 militia guarding Washington were disloyal and could not be counted on to stop a southern insurrection. For this reason, Scott summoned Marines to help defend the city and the Capitol from potential rioters in the streets.
Of all the threats made to Lincoln, the greatest one appeared to be a plot to take place in Baltimore, a hot bed city in a slave state boiling with southern sympathies. An elderly black man told officials of a plot he overhead to destroy a train bridge six-miles of Baltimore that would result in the assassination of Lincoln. The plotters also planned on destroying other bridges to prevent soldiers from traveling to Washington to assist in the city’s defense. Though the police chief dismissed the threat, the Railroad president contacted Detective Allan Pinkerton to investigate the rumors of that and other potential death threats to Lincoln once he arrived in Baltimore.
Lincoln, having left Springfield was en route to Washington but would stop at several locations to greet well-wishers as his train moved east towards the capital. With the train just a few days away from Baltimore, Pinkerton sent a warning note to Norman Judd, a member of Lincoln’s traveling entourage and chairman of the Illinois Republican Central Committee. Though Judd heeded the warning, he kept the threat to himself to avoid causing a panic.
Pinkerton arranged an associate to meet with Judd at the Astor House in New York City to discuss the plots. There, Kate Warne, the head of Pinkerton’s Female Detective Agency, told Judd of the threats to the President-Elect. They agreed to meet Pinkerton himself the next night in Philadelphia when Lincoln’s train stopped to meet the throngs of enthusiasts at the site of one of the most important cities in the American Revolution.
With fireworks exploding overhead celebrating the arrival of Lincoln, Judd met with Pinkerton at the St. Louis hotel where he learned Lincoln’s life was in imminent danger and the sentiment in Baltimore was “Lincoln shall not pass through Baltimore alive”. It was then decided it would be necessary to covertly sneak Lincoln’s train through Baltimore in the dead of night. Lincoln, on hearing of the new plan and threats, balked reminding his staff that he promised to be in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania the next day to meet with their state’s legislature.
They all agreed that instead of leaving for Washington that night, he’d head to Harrisburg the next day, quietly return to Philadelphia to arrive at 10pm and begin their stealth trip through Baltimore on their way to Washington under the cloak of nightfall. Lincoln’s only demand was that his wife Mary knew of the plan along with his friend and bodyguard Ward Lamon. To prevent spies from seeing Lincoln on the move, Pinkerton cut the telegraph lines from Harrisburg to Philadelphia.
When the train pulled out of Philadelphia at 10:55pm, Pinkerton would watch at every platform they’d pass by for any signals of witnesses. Lincoln himself, although calm, was restless and did not sleep throughout the entire nocturnal ride.
At 3:30am, the President’s train pulled into President’s Street Depot Baltimore as the city, and those who wished to kill their new leader, slept. Before long, the train received the “all clear” after a 30-minute stop over. Now relaxed, Lincoln begin to lighten his staff by telling jokes and soon they were at ease with the imminent threat behind them.
It was dawn when the train pulled into The B&O Railroad Depot in Washington which is two blocks from the Capitol. When he was greeted by Congressman Elihu Washburne, the still-nervous Pinkerton tried to restrain Lincoln’s long-time friend who didn’t recognize him. Soon after, Lincoln arrived at the Willard Hotel who was greeted by a surprised group of enthusiasts who, at first, didn’t recognize the President-elect as he still wore the long coat and scotch plaid cap he wore to disguise himself for his adventure to his inauguration.
Though he would be prophetic that he’d unlikely see his Springfield home again, the efforts to quietly sneak the man who would become the greatest President this country would ever have under the noses of those wished to cause him great harm is a story that will be among the most interesting in Inaugural history.