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This week in history: Lincoln arrives secretly in Washington

Allan Pinkerton, left, President Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand pose. On Feb. 23, 1861, Lincoln arrived in Washington after traveling in secret. Having been warned of a conspiracy against his life centered in Baltimore, Lincoln agreed to
Allan Pinkerton, left, President Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand pose. On Feb. 23, 1861, Lincoln arrived in Washington after traveling in secret. Having been warned of a conspiracy against his life centered in Baltimore, Lincoln agreed to take precautions on his journey to the capital.
Associated Press

On Feb. 23, 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln arrived safely in Washington, D.C., after learning of a plot to assassinate him as he passed through Baltimore, Maryland. Unconvinced that the conspiracy to kill him was real, Lincoln nevertheless agreed to alter his plans to avoid the possibility.

Lincoln had been elected to the presidency on Nov. 6, 1860, to much controversy. The first Republican to be elected president, Lincoln's politics were despised by many in the South. Though the Republican party platform and Lincoln's own positions assured Southerners that the federal government had no power to end slavery in states where it already existed, the Republicans insisted the Constitution did not authorize the expansion of slavery to the western territories of the United States. Believing that Southern rights to “property” would be violated by a Republican president, South Carolina had seceded from the Union in December 1860, and more Southern states soon followed.

Lincoln was undeterred. In early February 1861, Lincoln began a tour of eastern cities before his arrival in Washington to be sworn in as president. Stopping in various towns, Lincoln's itinerary had him visiting such large cities as New York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and, briefly, Baltimore.

Baltimore was a crossroad between the North and South and contained a mix of sentiment. Most residents of the state disapproved of secession, though they cherished the institution of slavery. (Indeed, during the Civil War, Maryland was one of four slave states that remained loyal to the Union.) The city of Baltimore, however, was overwhelmingly pro-Southern and also had a history of street violence and rough characters.

On the evening of Feb. 21, Lincoln was in Philadelphia, preparing a speech for delivery at Independence Hall the next day. Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency had been informed of a plot against Lincoln's life.

In the book, “Lincoln,” biographer David Herbert Donald wrote:

“When Lincoln's train from Philadelphia arrived at the Calvert Street Station, the President-Elect and his party would have to get out and go across town to the Camden Street Station in order to board the Baltimore & Ohio train for Washington. Just as Lincoln emerged from the narrow vestibule... Cypriano Ferrandini, a Baltimore barber, and a few associates planned to assassinate him.”

With this information in hand, Pinkerton recommended that Lincoln abandon his speech the next day and head for Washington as soon as possible to throw off the would be assassins. Lincoln refused, however, saying he doubted the veracity of the story, and the next day he delivered his speech amid much fanfare at Independence Hall. Not long after, as Lincoln's party was preparing to leave for Harrisburg, Frederick W. Seward, the son of Republican Senator William Seward, approached the president.

Seward had received word from both his father and the commanding general of the U.S. Army, Winfield Scott, which appeared to confirm the Baltimore plot. In Harrisburg, Lincoln addressed members of the Pennsylvania state government before meeting with his advisers and discussing his itinerary in light of the conspiracy. He met with a range of opinions, with some in his circle urging him to stick to his schedule lest he look like a coward. Some told him that his safety was paramount, and he should heed whatever advice Pinkerton offered.

When one of his advisers asked for his opinion, Lincoln said he did not believe the plot was real and did not want to be perceived as timid. Still, he felt he must bow to Pinkerton's judgment, especially in light of the warning from Seward and Scott. Donald noted Lincoln's decision to his advisers: “Unless there are some other reasons besides fear of ridicule, I am disposed to carry out Judd's plan.”

The Judd in question was Norman B. Judd, a Chicago Democrat and early adviser to Lincoln. Together with Pinkerton, Judd had suggested that Lincoln should return to Philadelphia with few men around him and wearing a disguise. Catching a train in Philadelphia and traveling at night, Lincoln would arrive in Baltimore while the city slept. From there, he could quickly move between train stations and be on his way to Washington before the conspirators had learned he'd left Pennsylvania.

In his book, “A. Lincoln,” biographer Ronald C. White, Jr. wrote, “At dusk, the plans for Lincoln's secret trip to Washington were put into action. Instead of traveling with his usual stovepipe hat, Lincoln wore a soft Kossuth hat given to him in New York. At Philadelphia, Lincoln boarded a sleeping car, accompanied by only Pinkerton and Ward Hill Lamon, his Illinois lawyer friend and now bodyguard, but no one slept.”

Lincoln proved too tall for the modest berth and continually stretched or moved during the trip. Arriving in Baltimore around 3:30 in the morning, Lincoln moved quickly to the Camden Street Station, where he boarded a train bound for Washington.

White wrote, “Lincoln arrived at the Baltimore and Ohio depot at New Jersey Avenue and C Street at six in the morning, almost ten hours ahead of his schedule late-afternoon arrival and reception. He arrived in Washington virtually alone, unannounced and unrecognized.”

Though he arrived without incident, and Lincoln remained skeptical that the conspiracy had been real, the story of his secret journey soon got out. Newspaper reporters took an unfavorable light and one, Joseph Howard of the New York Times, exaggerated Lincoln's disguise, giving the incident an air of farce. Some commentators expressed concern that the president-elect could act in such a timid fashion.

Donald noted Lincoln's remarks about the episode to Isaac N. Arnold, an Illinois congressman: “I did not then, nor do I now believe I should have been assassinated had I gone through Baltimore as first contemplated, but I thought it wise to run no risk where no risk was necessary.”

Though Lincoln's secret journey to Washington remained a minor embarrassment for Lincoln throughout his presidency, the more immediate and pressing issues of secession and Civil War soon dominated his administration and pushed such trivial events to the periphery.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at Email: