February 23, 1861: The plot to assassinate Lincoln

Great Western Depot, Springfield, Illinois in 1887 much like it was in 1861 (National Parks Service)

On February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln stood on the platform of the Great Western Railroad Station in Springfield, Illinois. He was about to board the special presidential train to take him from his home (which he saw that day for the last time) to his inauguration and his final home in Washington, D.C.

There was no doubt that the moment was filled with high drama. The slave states had worked themselves into a frenzy since the election of Lincoln in November. For the previous eight years, Southerners had rested confidently under the administrations of two Northern Democrats, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, who not only made no attempt to confine slavery, they did everything they could to disturb the uneasy balance between slave and free states for the benefit (and at the beck) of the former and affirmatively adopted measures that placated Southerners and inflamed Northern opinion. With Lincoln this deference to Slave Power was coming to an end. And Southerners were not about to take this with good grace even if the new President claimed he had no intention to disturb purely “domestic” institutions in the Southern States.

Everyone, Northerner and Southerner, knew that Slave Power was not something that could long remain a “domestic” institution. It had to reach into Free States to reclaim escaped slaves. It had to be admitted into the territories, otherwise Southerners, who had no understanding of any form of enterprise that did not depend on exploiting human chattel, could not take advantage of new settlement opportunities. It had to claim at least an equal amount of new States, or else the political clout of the Slavocracy would be diluted, with risk to the “peculiar institution” and possibly outright prohibition.

Having refused to acknowledge their own culpability in the outrage that had been eliminated in all other Western societies except Russia (which still enforced serfdom), Southerners had become adept at self-delusion. Thomas Jefferson said a half century before that the owning of slaves brutalized the masters. Yet the “gentlemen” of this society, who glorified soldiery, had whipped themselves into the belief that Northerners were intent of invading the South. They convinced themselves that it was their “Christian” duty to domineer the African peoples. And they saw themselves as the only pristine followers of the U.S. Constitution. (Does this characterization resemble other reactionary movements in our history?)

When Lincoln was elected, the spleen of violated Southern sense of entitlement now had one target. The Southern presses could not conceive of enough calumny about Lincoln’s intelligence, morality or intentions. (Even Samuel L. Clemens profited by this frenzy in sending caricatures of  Lincoln to a New Orleans paper for publication.) By the time Lincoln was about to set off for Washington, Southern opinion was wound up like a watch spring in the belief that Lincoln represented the gravest threat the U.S. Constitution (not to mention the “peculiar institution”) had ever yet encountered. It didn’t help calm the exposed nerves of the South that Lincoln maintained an eery silence about his plans for his administration.

Northern opinion likewise was heightened. The election of Lincoln was one of the remarkable instances of coalition building leading to a new political perspective. The new Republican Party put together a coalition of disparate groups: Know Nothings, Free Soilers, Abolitionists and Whigs. None of these groups had much in common with the others. But brilliant practical (and theoretical) politicians like Salmon P. Chase, William H. Seward, Henry Wilson, Edward Bates, among others, formulated an overarching theme explaining how Slave Power threatened the values of all. The motto of the Free Soil party came closest to describing the view of the new Republican Party: “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.” Lincoln was selected as the man who could best appeal to all parts of the coalition and who could best articulate the vision of the Republican Party.

Now on the eve of his inauguration, the North rightly expected a break from the craven, concessionist Democrats and an end to the overreaching by the South. And so to greet and fortify his Northern supporters an elaborate train route was planned for the President-elect. He would speak at stops along the way. It was planned that he would take part in a great celebration in Philadelphia on February 22, the birthday of George Washington, a highly symbolic act to assume the mantle of the one great symbol of national unity. He would then proceed to the capital for the inauguration.

Planned inaugural train route. Click to enlarge.

Lincoln was about to depart from the capital of Illinois, where his practice centered most of his adult life. He would leave with his family and a small group of intimate confidants. Before he left he gave a short speech. The scene was described in the next day’s Illinois State Journal, the Springfield paper (and state paper of record):

“It was a most impressive scene. We have known Mr. Lincoln for many years; we have heard him speak upon a hundred different occasions; but we never saw him so profoundly affected, nor did he ever utter an address, which seemed to us as full of simple and touching eloquence, so exactly adapted to the occasion, so worthy of the man and the hour. Although it was raining fast when he began to speak, every hat was lifted, and every head bent forward to catch the last words of the departing chief. When he said, with the earnestness of a sudden inspiration of feeling, that with God’s help he should not fail, there was an uncontrollable burst of applause.”

The short farewell address he gave has survived in three different versions. The one generally given in collections of Lincoln writings is the one that he and his secretary John G. Nicolay wrote out in pencil after the train left the station. Another version is the one that appeared in Harper’s Weekly on February 23 (and other Eastern papers at other dates). The version below is the one that appeared in the Springfield paper with the above report. Although it’s less “crafted” than the other versions, it literally breathes with the confused emotions that all must have felt that day. The paper’s version:


No one who has never been placed in a like position, can understand my feelings at this hour, nor the oppressive sadness I feel at this parting. For more than a quarter of a century I have lived among you, and during all that time I have received nothing but kindness at your hands. Here I have lived from my youth until now I am an old man. Here the most sacred ties of earth were assumed; here all my children were born; and here one of them lies buried. To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am. All the strange, chequered past seems to crowd now upon my mind. To-day I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington. Unless the great God who assisted him, shall be with and aid me, I must fail. But if the same omniscient mind, and Almighty arm that directed and protected him, shall guide and support me, I shall not fail, I shall succeed. Let us all pray that the God of our fathers may not forsake us now. To him I commend you all—permit me to ask that with equal security and faith, you all will invoke His wisdom and guidance for me. With these few words I must leave you—for how long I know not. Friends, one and all, I must now bid you an affectionate farewell.

Lincoln would address enthusiastic crowds at the stops along the route. In Indianapolis he said: “it is your business … if the Union of these States, and the liberties of this people, shall be lost. … It is your business to rise up and preserve the Union.” In Columbus, after meeting a joint session of the legislature, he addressed a crowd of citizens from the statehouse steps: “I am doubly thankful that you have appeared here to give me this greeting. It is not much to me, for I shall very soon pass away from you; but we have a large country and a large future before us, and the manifestations of good will towards the government, and affection for the Union which you may exhibit are of immense value to you and your posterity forever.” He spoke to a large crowd from an erected platform in Steubenville, Ohio, where Judge W.R. Lloyd introduced him as the only person who could preserve the Union during this time of national crisis.

Lincoln addressed a crowd of 10,000 from the balcony of the hotel in Cleveland where he argued that the crisis generated by the South was “artificial.”

After a long day travelling he spent the night of February 14 at the Monongahela Hotel in Pittsburgh. The next day he gave a disappointing speech on the tariff, not mentioning the national crisis at all. He left Pittsburgh and proceeded to Cleveland. At a lunch stop in Alliance, Ohio, a rifle salute went awry and a window was shot out spray glass on Mary Todd Lincoln. She took it in stride. When they arrived in Cleveland it was snowing. They left the train to stay at a downtown hotel two miles away. A crowd thronged the route. Although physically exhausted already (the route was not even half over), he spoke from the balcony of a hotel in downtown Cleveland:

“We have been marching about two miles through snow, rain, and deep mud. The large numbers that have turned out under these circumstances testify that you are in earnest about something or other. But do I think so meanly of you as to suppose that that earnestness is about me personally? I would be doing you an injustice to suppose you did. You have assembled to testify your respect for the Union, the Constitution, and the laws; and here let me say that it is with you, the people, to advance the great cause of the Union and the Constitution, and not with any one man. It rests with you alone.”

On Saturday, February 17, the train left Cleveland for Buffalo. It made the ordinary stops along the way, including one at Westfield, New York, where Lincoln asked to see the little girl who had written him during the campaign that he should let his beard grow. She appeared for a kiss by the President-elect. At Dunkirk Lincoln electrified the crowd when he said: “I hold here in my hand the flag staff of the Union. Will you, my countrymen, stand by me so long as I stand by it?”

The crowd on Main Street, Buffalo to greet President-Elect Lincoln on February 16, 1861

The crowd on Main Street, Buffalo to greet President-elect Lincoln on February 16, 1861

When the train arrived in Buffalo, it was met with a crushing mob of admirers. According to the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser: “Women fainted, men were crushed under the mass of bodies and many others had their bones broken. Once out of the depot every man uttered a brief ‘Thank God!’ for the preservation of his life. More with personal injuries were carried away and the fainted women were recovering under a free use of hydrant water.” The paper described the procession downtown:

“The route that Lincoln’s carriage took was very brief, being directly to the American Hotel on Main Street. The street was magnificent. The rush and roar and surge of the crowd was its grandest feature, but all the roofs and windows of buildings were filled with people, the gay winter attire of the ladies and the waving of their handkerchiefs as the cortege passed, added brilliance to the scene. All the principle [sic] buildings were decorated with banners, from every flag-staff waved the stars and stripes — now dearer than ever to the American eye. A fine sight was presented from the lofty unfinished buildings on the corner of Main and South Division streets, the windows of which were filled with laborers, each waving the American flag.”

After another speech (former President Millard Fillmore was present at this one) and mingling with the crowd, the President’s party retired to the American Hotel. That night, Norman B. Judd, former Illinois State Senator, Lincoln delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago and now a member of the President-elect’s travelling party, received a communication from Allan Pinkerton. This was the second one he received during the inaugural train ride. The first, received in Cincinnati, advised Judd (who knew Pinkerton from Chicago) that he was in Baltimore and had uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln planned to take place when the President-elect passed through the city. He said that he would advise him further as the train proceeded eastward. The letter delivered in Buffalo said that the evidence was accumulating. Judd did not advise Lincoln yet, and he would not hear again until they reached New York. ([Allan Pinkerton,] History and Evidence of the Passage of Abraham Lincoln from Harrisburg, Pa., to Washington, D.C. on the 22d and 23d of February, 1861 (Chicago: Republican Print: [1868], p 7 [“History and Evidence“]).

Pinkerton even then was nationally famous as a detective, a profession he might justly be credited with having invented. He made a name for himself in the 1850s by solving a series of railroad robberies. Despite the reputation his agency would richly deserve as union busters later on, Pinkerton himself was something of a radical. He was anti-slavery, a superintendent of the underground railroad, and further back, when he was a cooper in England, a part of the Chartist movement. He was now in February 1861 in Baltimore working for the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad to investigate rumors that secessionists were intending to blow up the line or the bridge over the Susquehanna at Havre de Grace. There was a decided feeling among many in Maryland (a slave state) that if a coup de main were struck against Lincoln, Maryland would join the other slave states in opposition to the new Administration. Treason was in the air.

Pinkerton brought with him eight or nine associates from Chicago to investigate the rumors. The story was not told until 1868, and part of it comes from an article by Isaac Newton Arnold (Free Soiler, Lincoln supporter and later biographer of Lincoln and Benedict Arnold) in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (June 1868). Arnold explained how Pinkerton had several undercover agents. The principal was one he called “Howard,” a French-born highly educated and much travelled agent, with extensive knowledge of the South. He played the role of a fanatical New Orleans secessionist and by so doing (together with lavish spending) insinuated himself into a conspiracy of Baltimore would-be assassins. “Howard’s” daily reports to Pinkerton showed that much of Baltimore society (both social and political) was extremely compromised and could be easily induced to disloyalty. Another operative was Timothy Webster, who operated among the lower classes, the thugs and strongmen. Pinkerton said that Webster, “amongst all of the force who went with me, deserves the credit of saving the life of Mr. Lincoln, even more than I do. He was a native of Princeton, New Jersey, a life-long democrat, but he felt and realized, with Jackson, that the Union must and should be preserved.” (History and Evidence at 4.) Webster would continue with Pinkerton when he directed the secret service for the Army of the Potomac. He infiltrated enemy lines but was eventually uncovered and executed in Richmond as a spy. Pinkerton also used a “Mrs. Warne” who also inveigled herself into Baltimore society.

“Howard” was eventually introduced to a recent Italian immigrant named Captain Fernandina. Fernandina was the head of a group of ruffians who assumed a sort of martial hierarchy.  “Howard” was told by him at a saloon in front of some of his military company “Lincoln shall never, never be President. My life is of no consequence. I am willing to give it for his. I will sell my life for that of that abolitionist. As Orsini gave his life for Italy, I am ready to die for the rights of the South.”

“Howard” also met an unstable, dissipate youth by the name of Hill, who dreamed of glory, yet worried whether he was man enough for the task. Arnold tells his story from “Howard’s” reports:

The plan was to excite and exasperate the popular feeling against Mr. Lincoln to the utmost. On the published programme he was to enter Baltimore from Harrisburg on the 23d of February by the Northern Central Railroad, and would reach Baltimore about the middle of the day. A vast crowd would meet him at the Calvert Street dépôt, at which it was expected he would take an open carriage, and ride, nearly a mile and a half, to the Washington dépôt. It would be very easy for a determined man to shoot him on his passage. Agents of the conspirators had been in the principal Northern cities, watching the movements of the Presidential party, ready to telegraph to Baltimore any change of route. A cipher was agreed upon, so that the conspirators could communicate with each other without the facts leaking out through the telegraph offices. Meanwhile the idea of assassination preyed upon the mind of Hill; he grew sad and melancholy, and plunged still deeper into dissipation. Howard is his constant companion and confidential friend, his “shadow,” in the language of the profession; at times he is thoughtful, and then he breaks out into rhapsodies. He talks to Howard of dreams and death. “I am destined to die,” said Hill, “shrouded with glory. If a man had nerve he could immortalize himself by  plunging a knife into Lincoln’s heart. Let us,” said he, “have another Brutus. I swear,” said he, “I will kill Lincoln before he reaches the Washington dépôt, not that I love Lincoln less, but my country more. I am ready to do the deed, and then I will proudly announce my name, and say: ‘Gentlemen, arrest me, I am the man’ and then I will be called one ‘that gave his country liberty.’ When our company draws lots, if the red ballot falls to me, I will do it willingly. Perhaps,” said he, “Lincoln may conclude to come by way of Havre de Grace; if so, the ferry-boat across the Susquehanna be the best place to do the deed. I will go out there and kill him if it is so ordered.”

In the meantime Webster had gone to Perrymansville and become part of the militia that was training to blow up bridges and track and attack the ferry-boat at Havre de Grace.

As the time for the President-elect’s arrival was fast approaching, Pinkerton was finally putting together the plot. It was to take place at the Calvert Street depot, where the train would arrive. A crowd of secessionists would be placed at that point filling the streets around the station. The Baltimore Marshal of Police, George P. Kane, a traitor who would later fight for the confederates, would detail a small detachment, which, when the President-elect arrived, would be called away by a diversion, allowing Lincoln to be surrounded by a hostile mob. The night of February 18 twenty of the conspirators met to decide who would kill Lincoln. Since the leaders distrusted Hill, they secretly filled the hat not with one but with eight red ballots and then made the drawing in a dark room. The conspirators were sworn to secrecy about whether or not they drew the red ballot.

Pinkerton dispatched Mrs. Warne to New York with a letter for Judd. When Lincoln’s suite entered the Astor Hotel, Judd was directed to a room where Warne introduced herself to him and handed him a letter. In it Pinkerton requested Judd to inform him where they could meet when the President arrived in Philadelphia. Judd replied that he would ride in Lincoln’s carriage from the station in Philadelphia to the Continental Hotel. They could meet there.

Allan Pinkerton (seated right, with beard) with his officers during the war when he ran the secret service (from cia.gov).

Pinkerton met Judd in Philadelphia on February 21. He laid out all the information he had developed: the armed militia, the “red ballot” assassins, the police marshal playing the part of traitor, and a hostile crowd arranged to greet the party at the depot. Arnold wistfully notes: “Assassination was then a crime scarcely known in the United States, and assassination for political reasons was almost incredible. It is a sad commentary on the wickedness of the rebellion that a plot to assassinate a prominent public man would to-day be credited upon far less evidence than before the war.” Judd considered the matter and determined that Lincoln should hear it.

At the meeting Judd spoke first. Pinkerton noted in his diary: “While Mr. Judd detailed the circumstances of the conspiracy, Mr. Lincoln listened very attentively but did not say a word, nor did his countenance, which I closely watched, show any emotion. He was thoughtful, serious but decidedly firm.”

Pinkerton then laid out all his facts. He concluded by suggesting that Lincoln take the night train to Washington that very night. Lincoln was silent for a few moments then with decision said that he would raise the flag the next morning at Independence Hall in honor of Washington’s birthday, then travel to Harrisburg to meet the Pennsylvania legislature. He said that would conclude all his obligations. “After this, if you (Judd), and you, Allan (Pinkerton), think there is positive danger in my attempting to go through Baltimore openly, according to the published programme–if you can arrange any way to carry out your purposes, I will place myself in your hand.” There was no questioning this decision; Lincoln had become presidential.

The next day was a glorious one for Lincoln and the Union. The March 9, 1861 issue of Harper Weekly gave its cover over to illustrating the event.

Among the remarks Lincoln supposedly gave at the event were the following (I say supposedly only because these remarks are not in the Harper’s Weekly version of the speech):

“I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

“Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it. (Applause.)

The magazine quoted the Philadelphia Press‘s account:

“The excitement was of a fearful character when the President-elect seized the rope to hoist the flag of the country to the crest of the staff over the State House. The souls of all seemed starting from their eyes, and every throat was wide. The shouts of the people were like the roar of waves which do not cease to break. For full three minutes the cheers continued. The expression of the President-elect was that of silent solemnity. His long arms were extended. Each hand alternately pulled at the halyards, and a bundle of bunting, tri-colored, which had never been kissed by the wind before, slowly rose into the sky. If the shouting had been fearful and tumultuous before, it became absolutely maniacal now. From the smallest urchin to the tall form which rivaled the President’s in compass of chest and length of limb, there rose a wild cry. It reminded us of some of the storied shouts which rang among the Scottish hills in the days of clans and clansmen. Suddenly, when the broad bunting had reached the summit of the mast it unrolled at once, and blazed in the sunlight. At the same moment the band struck up the Star Spangled Banner, and a cannon ranged in the square sent up peal after peal.”

That day Lincoln travelled to Harrisburg to address the Legislature. He had dinner with the Governor and local dignitaries. A special train for Philadelphia was waiting. He excused himself at 6, went to his room and changed clothes. He wore the wide-brimmed felt hat that was given to him in New York. He slipped out a side door and secretly left with Ward H. Lamon for Philadelphia. A train for Washington had been held up on a pretext to wait for Lincoln. When Lincoln arrived, Pinkerton escorted him to the waiting train. The last three sections of the sleeping car had been reserved by Pinkerton, and his guards were aboard. During the trip to Washington, Pinkerton’s agents signalled him from every bridge that all was well. They reached Baltimore at 3:30 a.m. The superintendent of the road entered and informed Pinkerton that “All’s well.” The train reached Washington, D.C. at 6 a.m. where he was met by some Illinois friends.

Lincoln would take some criticism for his supposed cowardice in the next few weeks. Harper’s Weekly, which had supported Stephen A. Douglas over Lincoln and had not yet fully endorsed the cause of Lincoln, was not above using the occasion to humiliate the new President with vicious cartoons in the very issue it described his triumph in Philadelphia. They were hardly the worst that he would receive in the next four years, and the editors themselves shortly thereafter chose to replace this kind of humor with the editorial (and staunchly pro-Union) artwork of Thomas Nash. In any event, Lincoln was inaugurated under a half-finished Capitol Dome on March 4. But that requires a separate story.

   HARPER'S WEEKLY. [MARCH 9, 1861. 160  THE FLIGHT OF ABRAHAM. (As reported by a Modern Daily Paper.) (1.) THE ALARM. "On Thursday night, after he had retired, Mr. LINCOLN was aroused, and informed that a stranger desired to see him on a matter of life and death. * * * A conversation elicited the fact that an organized body of men had determined that Mr. LINCOLN should never leave the City of Baltimore alive. * * * Statesmen laid the plan, Bankers indorsed it, and Adventurers were to carry it into effect " (2.) THE COUNCIL. "Mr. LINCOLN did not want to yield, and his friends cried with indignation. But they insisted, and he left." (3.) THE SPECIAL TRAIN. " He wore a Scotch plaid Cap and a very long Military Cloak, so that he was entirely unrecognizable."

THE FLIGHT OF ABRAHAM. (As reported by a Modern Daily Paper.) (1.) THE ALARM. “On Thursday night, after he had retired, Mr. LINCOLN was aroused, and informed that a stranger desired to see him on a matter of life and death. * * * A conversation elicited the fact that an organized body of men had determined that Mr. LINCOLN should never leave the City of Baltimore alive. * * * Statesmen laid the plan, Bankers indorsed it, and Adventurers were to carry it into effect.” (2.) THE COUNCIL. “Mr. LINCOLN did not want to yield, and his friends cried with indignation. But they insisted, and he left.” (3.) THE SPECIAL TRAIN. “He wore a Scotch plaid Cap and a very long Military Cloak, so that he was entirely unrecognizable.” From Harper’s Weekly, March 9, 1861.

  1. May 3rd, 2011
  2. August 7th, 2016

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