Sunday, February 15, 2009

Early Assassination Plot Against Lincoln Threatens His Carefully Cultivated Image

A cartoonist mocked Lincoln for disguising himself to avoid plotters
Abraham Lincoln typically shrugged off reports that people were plotting to kidnap or kill him, although you have to wonder what went through his mind in the split second before he lost consciousness after a bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth tore through his brain at Ford's Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.

But in March 1861 there was another very real plan to kill Lincoln -- the so-called Baltimore Plot -- as he traveled to Washington by train for his inauguration. While never carried out, his response to it sullied a carefully cultivated image of dignified courage that had helped propel him seemingly out of nowhere to the presidency.

With the possibility of a Civil War looming larger with Lincoln's election and the specter of slave-holding states seceding, there already were assassination threats before the president-elect even left his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. These prompted General Winfield Scott and Secretary of State-elect William H. Seward to implore Lincoln to travel alone to Washington.

"Don't let your family travel with you," Seward is said to have warned, "because God knows what could happen. There could be an obstruction; the train could go off the track."

When Lincoln arrived in Philadelphia on February 22, 1861, he was approached by detective Allan Pinkerton (left of Lincoln in photo), who had met him years earlier when his already famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency was living up to its "We Never Sleep" motto by solving an epidemic of train robberies.

The shrewd Pinkerton was an early abolitionist who had infiltrated secessionist cells under the guise of being a secessionist himself and knew that Baltimore, the last stop on the president-elect's route from Springfield to Washington, was a virulently anti-Lincoln city.

Pinkerton told Lincoln that he had gone undercover and met on February 15 with plot leader Cipriano Fernandini(photo, below right) and an associate, a Captain T, who were working to get Maryland, which was a Border State, to leave the Union. The detective explained that these secessionists were planning an attack involving several men armed with knives who would pounce when Lincoln walked down a narrow corridor as he switched Baltimore and Ohio Railroad trains at the President Street Station in Baltimore.

"That d----d abolitionist shall never set foot on Southern soil but to find a grave . . . one week from today the North shall want a new president, for Lincoln will be dead," Pinkerton quoted Captain T as saying.

Lincoln already was quite upset because he had left Mary and his children, who would travel separately, and his wife had thrown one of her legendary fits when she was told she could not be at her husband's side. He insisted that he would not further alter his schedule, which included making a speech during the Baltimore stopover.

He vowed to fulfill those engagements "under any and all circumstances, even if he met death doing so," but eventually relented even though Seward called the plan that Pinkerton hatched for Lincoln to travel practically alone and in secret "a d----d" piece of cowardice." Seward argued that sending a cavalry squad to accompany Lincoln was preferable.

Pinkerton and Norman Judd (photo, below left), an old Illinois friend and manager of Lincoln's unsuccessful 1858 Senate campaign, dressed him in a cap and fusty old jacket and whisked him away to West Philadelphia by carriage where disguised as an invalid he was hustled into the rear berth of the last car of a Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad train. When friend and personal bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon (photo, below right) offered Lincoln a revolver and a Bowie knife, Pinkerton protested. He later wrote that he "would not for the world have it said that Mr. Lincoln had to enter the National Capital Armed."

The train chugged to Baltimore with only Lamon to guard Lincoln, who laid in a tiny berth too small for his long legs. The president-elect fully understood for the first time how dramatically his life had changed. He had delivered a poignant farewell address in Springfield and close friends observed that he seemed to realize he might never return home when he described the town as where "my children have been born, and one is buried."

Lincoln was wracked with recriminations, couldn't take his mind off of Mary and asked himself over and over again, My God, what have I done?"

When the train arrived at the Calvert Street Station in Baltimore, Lincoln's car was detached and pulled by a trolley to the Camden Street Station where it was to be hooked to another train. It was about 2 in the morning of February 23 and the other train had not yet arrived.

The only thing Lincoln and Lamon could hear was a drunk on the platform singing "Dixie." Lincoln turned to his bodyguard and said, "I reckon there'll be a high old time in Dixie, by and by."

A train finally picked them up and pulled out of the station without incident, and once Lincoln had safely left Baltimore, Pinkerton sent a one-line telegram to the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad: "Plums delivered nuts safely." Lincoln was soon reunited with Mary and his children at the Willard Hotel in Washington.

With his inauguration still 10 days away, Lincoln had to endure scathing criticism after he did not get off his original train at the President Street Station where a large crowd had gathered to hear him speak. After word leaked out that the president-elect had sneaked through the city in disguise, anti-Lincoln papers branded him a "coward" and "baboon," while Vanity Fair magazine ran a caricature of him in Scottish kilts and a cloak dancing his way into the capital.

As extraorinary as it seems in today's security conscious world where the president is constantly surrounded by Secret Service agents, Lincoln's foes continued to criticize him for sacrificing his honor for his safety until he drew his last breath.

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