Military history



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 so full of simple and touching eloquence, so exactly adapted to the occasion, so worthy of the man and the hour.

—EDWARD L. BAKER, editor of the Illinois State Journal

JUST BEFORE 7:30 ON THE MORNING of Monday, February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln ducked into the office of the Chenery House, the hotel in Springfield where his family had spent the past three nights, and began knotting a hank of rope around his traveling cases. When the trunks were neatly bundled, he attached a series of hotel note cards and hastily scrawled an address: “A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C.” This done, the president-elect stepped outside and climbed aboard a horse-drawn omnibus coach. The Lincoln Special was due to depart for Washington in half an hour’s time.

The weather had been frigid for several days, but there was a thaw in the air that morning. In spite of the early hour, the residents of Springfield were already stirring, eager to pay their respects. As Lincoln made his way toward the Great Western depot on the east side of town, a group of well-wishers trailed along behind, growing larger as it wound through the streets. Arriving at the depot, Lincoln was surprised to find an enormous throng of supporters waiting to see him off—“almost all of whom,” he later said, “I could recognize.” The boys in the crowd let loose with a chorus of cheers at his arrival.

Stepping down from the omnibus, Lincoln gazed out over the crowd. “His face was pale, and quivered with emotion,” declared journalist Henry Villard, “so deep as to render him unable to utter a single word.” The bulky Ward Lamon and the diminutive Colonel Ellsworth appeared suddenly at Lincoln’s side, stepping smoothly into their bodyguard roles. Gripping the president-elect lightly by the elbows, they led him into the small brick depot building, where friends and neighbors were waiting to say their good-byes. As he made his way through the small waiting room, Lincoln paused every few steps to grasp hands and exchange a few words.

Lincoln also said a brief farewell to his wife at the depot. With her porcelain skin and glossy auburn hair, Mary Todd Lincoln had been a striking beauty in her youth—“one who could make a bishop forget his prayers,” said one admirer. Now, though thickened with age, Mrs. Lincoln could still captivate a roomful of callers. Behind her back, however, there were whispers about her anxious, stormy disposition. She had, a cousin remarked, “an emotional temperament much like an April day.”

It had been decided that Mrs. Lincoln would not be on board as her husband’s train left Springfield, a last-minute change of plan ascribed to a preinaugural shopping trip in St. Louis. The announcement had prompted unwelcome speculation to the effect that Mrs. Lincoln was afraid to make the journey, owing to the “many vapory rumors” of an assassination attempt. According to one account, Mrs. Lincoln had considered remaining behind with her two younger sons until the Lincoln Special arrived safely in Washington, but she was persuaded otherwise by a telegram from Winfield Scott. The general warned that her absence would draw much comment, as it “might be regarded as proceeding from an apprehension of danger to the President.” Instead, it was decided that she, along with Tad and Willie Lincoln, would skip only the first leg of the journey, joining the train in Indianapolis the following day. Writing in the New York Herald, Henry Villard gave a gentle polish to Mrs. Lincoln’s change of plan:

A number of lady friends of Mrs. Lincoln have, with characteristic solicitude, taken up the newspaper rumors of intended attacks upon the President-elect while on his way to the Federal capital, and used them as arguments to induce her to delay her removal to Washington until her husband was safely installed in the White House. But the plucky wife of the President met all these well meant propositions with scorn, and made the spirited declaration before she started on her Eastern trip that she would see Mr. Lincoln on to Washington, danger or no danger.

Privately, Villard was glad to be rid of her, however briefly. In a memoir written many years later, he lambasted Mrs. Lincoln as greedy and utterly lacking in propriety, and accused her of accepting gifts for “the use of her influence with her husband” in securing political appointments. Villard claimed that Mrs. Lincoln had nearly delayed her husband’s departure that morning, throwing herself on the floor “in a sort of hysterical fit” until he yielded to yet another of her demands.

Whatever may have transpired privately, the Lincolns gave a convincingly affectionate show of parting at the depot. This done, William S. Wood, the self-styled superintendent of arrangements, stepped forward. Eager to keep to schedule, Wood led the president-elect toward the tracks, where a three-car train pulled by a gleaming Rogers steam-powered locomotive waited. It was only the first of several well-appointed trains upon which Lincoln would travel over the next two weeks, as each of the railroad companies transporting the president-elect vied to set new benchmarks for speed and comfort. Descriptions of the lavish trappings of the special cars—including walnut furniture, whale-oil lamps, and crystal flower vases—would become a regular feature of the coverage of the journey. On one segment of the trip, Lincoln would occupy a rolling stateroom with a large portrait of George Washington at one end and a likeness of himself opposite it. On another, Lincoln would recline on a splendid lounge “covered with a mazarine of dark blue cloth of fine texture, trimmed with tri-colored gimp braid and tassels.” The latest technology was also in evidence, including a portable telegraph machine, so that the president-elect’s party could send and receive messages en route.

The roster of friends and political worthies who would be joining Lincoln on the journey had been shuffled and revised up until the moment of departure. The newspapers estimated that “about fifteen persons” boarded the train that morning, along with a fair number of “special reporters for the leading newspapers.” One Lincoln intimate complained that the guest list was “very badly made up,” but another chose to make light of the situation, claiming that the train now carried representatives of all parties and political views, “with the exception of the secessionists.” Even so, there was little in the way of military trappings, as Lincoln had wished. Though Colonel Ellsworth, in his Zouave garb, hovered protectively at Lincoln’s side, the rest of the uniformed escorts were conspicuously absent. Colonel Sumner, Major Hunter, and Captain Pope had all been sent ahead to join the train in Indianapolis.

A great deal of press attention focused on seventeen-year-old Robert Lincoln, a Harvard freshman, whose striking good looks had drawn much attention from the young women of Springfield. A head shorter than his father, Bob had a smooth round face with dark, hooded blue eyes and the beginnings of a gallant mustache. In contrast to the rough-hewn image of his rail-splitter father, the younger Lincoln’s dapper polish inspired the newsmen to dub him the “Prince of Rails.” Also joining the Lincoln party was Mrs. Lincoln’s brother-in-law, William S. Wallace—“an elderly and amiable personage,” according to the New York Times—who was also the family doctor. A decade earlier, Dr. Wallace had tended to the Lincolns’s second son, Eddie, during the illness that claimed his life five weeks short of his fourth birthday. Ten months later, when the couple’s third son arrived, he had been named William Wallace Lincoln, in the doctor’s honor.

With so many seats on the train claimed by family and members of the press, only a limited number remained for the advisers and confidants who had received personal invitations from Lincoln himself, a group William Wood had designated as the president-elect’s “suite.” John Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary, was expected to be close at hand throughout the journey. Nicolay had pushed hard to find space for his best friend, twenty-two-year-old John Hay. An aspiring poet with wavy, unkempt hair and a quick, ingratiating smile, Hay had been admitted to the bar only one week earlier but had long since made himself indispensable as Nicolay’s assistant. Even so, Lincoln was reluctant to add Hay to the traveling party. “We can’t take all of Illinois with us down to Washington,” he is said to have remarked, though he soon relented: “Well, let Hay come.”

John Nicolay (seated) and John Hay, secretaries to Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

At the stroke of eight, the train bells sounded, signaling that it was time for departure. Mounting the steps of the passenger car, Lincoln turned to face the crowd from the rear platform. The previous day, he had remarked to the press that he did not plan to say anything “warranting their attention” to mark his departure. Now, humbled by the outpouring of support from his friends and neighbors, he bared his head and prepared to speak. As he did so, a ripple of movement passed through the crowd as hundreds of men removed their own hats. Lincoln paused to gather himself. “His own breast heaved with emotion,” reported James Conkling, a neighbor who was in the crowd that morning, “and he could scarcely command his feelings sufficiently to commence.”

At last he began to speak:

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether I may return, to a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Speaking without notes or evident preparation, Lincoln somehow managed to capture in a few brief lines the full weight of his emotion at this fateful hour, and his resolve in the face of the task ahead. As Lincoln turned and stepped through the doorway of the train, the crowd burst into three rousing cheers. “Many eyes were filled to overflowing,” Conkling wrote, “as Mr. Lincoln uttered those few simple words. He is now fairly on his way for weal or woe of the nation.”

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THAT SAME DAY, EVEN AS THE LINCOLN Special gathered steam and pushed east toward Indianapolis, a second, oddly parallel journey was launched in Mississippi, some five hundred miles to the south. Climbing aboard a small boat rowed by slaves, Jefferson Davis took leave of Brierfield, his plantation home in Warren County, to catch a steamboat bound for Vicksburg. It was the first leg of a five-day journey to Montgomery, Alabama, where he had been selected as the provisional president of the newly formed Confederate States of America.

For Davis, a former United States senator and secretary of war under Franklin Pierce, it was a bitter turn of events. In Washington the previous month, upon being notified of his home state’s secession, Davis had delivered a solemn farewell address on the floor of the Senate. He sorely regretted, as he told his colleagues, that Mississippi’s secession had forced his resignation. Throughout his career, Davis held to a firm belief that each state had a sovereign right to secede, but he had also argued forcefully for the preservation of the Union. “I hope,” he told his colleagues from the North, “for peaceful relations with you, though we must part.… The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country.” Privately, he feared that armed conflict was now inevitable. It was, as he told a friend, “the saddest day of my life.”

Even as Lincoln and Davis set off on their separate journeys, there were many who believed that the secession crisis would yet be defused. One week earlier, on February 4, a widely publicized Peace Convention had convened at Willard’s Hotel in Washington. One hundred and thirty-two delegates from twenty-one states assembled under the gavel of former president John Tyler, a pro-slavery Virginian, to consider “some suitable adjustment” to the nation’s policies. It was by no means clear how this adjustment was to be reconciled with the platform upon which Lincoln had been elected. Some believed that the Peace Convention would buy time for the secessionist fervor to run its course. Others viewed the gathering as a calculated and even treasonous effort to undermine the incoming president. Lincoln himself anticipated “no good results,” though he expressed these doubts privately. In spite of the misgivings, the proceedings opened on a hopeful note. “What is party when compared to the task of rescuing one’s country from danger?” Tyler asked the delegates. “Do that, and one loud, long shout of joy and gladness will resound throughout the land.”

As it happened, few shouts of gladness were heard that day. Even as Tyler’s Peace Convention came to order in Washington, thirty-eight representatives of the six states that had seceded were convening in Montgomery to organize a provisional government—one that would “declare its independence of the late United States, as the Congress of the thirteen colonies declared their independence of Great Britain.”

Even now, as the rising Confederacy drew up its constitution, many remained convinced that the North would not take up arms. “There will be no invasion of Southern soil,” insisted an editorial in the New York Times. “Such a project is as impracticable as it would be unwise—and no one looks to it as a remedy for any of the evils which afflict or threaten the country.” This conviction rested in part on a belief that the border states would continue to act as a buffer, preventing a “hostile collision” between North and South: “It is unquestionably true that, whatever may be their sentiments on the general subject—whatever they may think of the policy of secession, or of the advantages of the Union—neither Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky nor Tennessee would assent to the advance of armies from the North through their borders.” If these states cast their lot with the Confederacy, the Times warned, their interests and wishes would be dashed against the “bold and unprincipled ambition” of the movement’s leaders.

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THIS WAS PRECISELY THE DILEMMA that plagued Maryland’s governor Hicks, who continued to engage in stalling maneuvers as his constituents rallied to join the new Southern Confederacy. As frustrations mounted, the Maryland state legislature resolved to sidestep the governor, announcing that a special convention would be held on February 18 to address the matter of Maryland’s secession—with or without Hicks. By that time, Lincoln would be seven days into his inaugural journey, and only five days away from Baltimore.

Allan Pinkerton, posing as the gregarious stockbroker John Hutchinson, had found a way to turn the controversy to his own purposes. At his office on South Street, Pinkerton was engaged in a running debate with a businessman named James H. Luckett, who had been elected as a delegate to the special convention of the legislature. Luckett, who occupied a neighboring office, proudly told Pinkerton that he had won the position on the strength of a speech calling for immediate secession. “Let them call it Treason,” he told Pinkerton, “but let us act.”

Pinkerton nodded vigorously as Luckett spoke, and he went on to express impatience with the obstructive tactics of Governor Hicks. Luckett appeared highly pleased. “I tell you, my friend,” he said fervently, “it will be but a short time until you will find Governor Hicks will have to fly, or he will be hung. He is a traitor to his God and his Country.” Troops were being readied to move on Washington in tandem with Maryland’s secession, he continued, “and then see where General Scott would be.”

Pinkerton, eager to keep his new friend talking, “cordially sympathized” with everything Luckett said. As Luckett became more and more expansive, the detective steered the conversation toward Lincoln’s impending passage through Baltimore, hoping to untangle the threads that Harry Davies had picked up during his revels with Otis Hillard. At the mention of Lincoln’s journey, Luckett turned suddenly cautious. “He may pass through quietly,” Luckett said, “but I doubt it.”

Pinkerton pressed the point, mentioning that the Baltimore police had promised Lincoln safe transit through the city. “Oh,” said Luckett dismissively, “that is easily promised, but may not be so easily done.”

Pinkerton was unnerved by this sudden reticence. Luckett had been eager enough to talk about secession matters and the capture of Washington, but the subject of Lincoln’s travels appeared to be off-limits. Pinkerton felt certain that his companion knew more than he was willing to say. Hoping to force the issue, the detective pulled out his wallet and counted out twenty-five dollars with a dramatic flourish. “I am but a stranger to you” Pinkerton said, “but I have no doubt that money is necessary for the success of this patriotic cause.” Pressing the bills into Luckett’s hand, Pinkerton asked that the donation be used “in the best manner possible for Southern rights.” Shrewdly, Pinkerton offered a piece of advice along with his largesse, seizing on the occasion to warn his new friend to be “cautious in talking with outsiders.” One never knew, Pinkerton said, when Northern agents might be listening.

The ploy worked. Luckett took the warning—along with the money—as proof of Pinkerton’s trustworthy nature. He told the detective that he and his colleagues were “exceedingly cautious as to whom they talked with,” and that only a small handful of men, members of a secret cabal sworn to the strictest oaths of silence, knew the full extent of the plans being laid. Luckett might have stopped there, but Pinkerton’s display of caution had inspired a new level of confidence. Perhaps, Luckett said, Pinkerton might like to meet the “leading man” of the secret organization. Leaning forward, Luckett disclosed in a confidential whisper that the gentleman concerned was a “true friend of the South” who stood ready to give his life for the cause. His name was Capt. Cypriano Ferrandini.

Pinkerton’s records give no hint as to whether he had considered Cypriano Ferrandini a credible suspect before this moment. The name was familiar to him—perhaps all too familiar—as that of the barber who plied his trade in the basement of Barnum’s Hotel, the preferred gathering place of the city’s secessionist element. An immigrant from Corsica, Ferrandini was a dark, wiry man with a jet-black chevron mustache and watery eyes that were dimmed by shortsightedness. Ferrandini was a popular figure among the hard-drinking crowd at Barnum’s, and his modest shop drew some of the city’s most prominent citizens. There, as Ferrandini deftly wielded his blades and brushes, his courtly manner drew forth a great many confidences. It was known that the Corsican barber always had the latest gossip, and the shop became a regular stopping place for the city’s “young sports.” Otis Hillard had taken Harry Davies around to the barbershop, but Ferrandini had not been there that day to receive them.

Later, as Pinkerton studied him more closely, he would conclude that the charismatic Ferrandini was involved in more than idle gossip. Ferrandini was said to be an admirer of the Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini, a leader of the secret brotherhood known as the Carbonari. In Baltimore, Pinkerton believed, Ferrandini was channeling the inspiration he drew from Orsini into the Southern cause. Sixteen months earlier, when John Brown seized the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Ferrandini had signed on with a group of Baltimore militiamen who determined to proceed at once to the “seat of war.” Though the crisis passed before they could mobilize, Ferrandini’s passions had been inflamed. It was also said that he had briefly decamped for Mexico City the previous winter to join the revolutionary forces of Benito Juárez. Upon his return to Baltimore, he rose rapidly through the ranks of the National Volunteers, acquiring the honorary title of captain. Ferrandini’s activities had been conspicuous enough to elicit a summons earlier that month to appear before the select committee in Washington. There, Ferrandini steadfastly denied any knowledge of a plot to interfere with Lincoln or his inauguration, but—like Otis Hillard—he readily acknowledged that Maryland militiamen planned to “prevent northern volunteer companies from passing through” the state. It may have seemed unlikely that Ferrandini—a humble immigrant who plied a simple trade—could be what Luckett had called him, the driving force in a maturing conspiracy, but Pinkerton would not have dismissed it out of hand. Only a few years earlier, he himself had been a humble immigrant plying a simple trade.

Now, sitting in his South Street office, Pinkerton was considering how best to proceed, when James Luckett made an unexpected suggestion. Ferrandini, Luckett said, was very particular about taking strangers into his confidence, but, as it happened, the barber considered Luckett to be “a particular friend” of the cause. “Mr. Luckett said that he was not going home this evening,” Pinkerton reported, “and if I would meet him at Barr’s Saloon on South Street, he would introduce me to Ferrandini.” This sudden impulse of Luckett’s, Pinkerton realized, might well lead to hard evidence of a conspiracy. He gratefully accepted the offer.

As it turned out, Luckett still had more to say. The decision to bring Pinkerton and Ferrandini together, along with the detective’s twenty-five-dollar contribution, appeared to dispel the last of Luckett’s inhibitions about speaking freely. Before returning to his own office, he paused with his hand on the doorknob to offer one further revelation about the barber. Luckett counted himself lucky, he said, to be among the privileged few who were cognizant of Ferrandini’s secret designs, which would soon change the course of history. Pinkerton, being a man of high Southern character and dedication to the cause, would undoubtedly rejoice in knowing the full extent of these grand deeds. Pinkerton nodded vigorously and motioned for his visitor to continue.

Luckett lowered his voice to a reverential hush, as if delivering a benediction. Captain Ferrandini, he said, “had a plan fixed to prevent Lincoln from passing through Baltimore.” He would see to it that Lincoln would never reach Washington, and would never become president. “Every Southern Rights man has confidence in Ferrandini,” Luckett declared. “Before Lincoln should pass through Baltimore, Ferrandini would kill him.” Smiling broadly, Luckett gave a crisp salute and left the room, leaving a stunned Pinkerton to stare after him.

*   *   *

EVEN NOW, PINKERTON had heard nothing that rose to the level of definitive proof of danger, but Luckett’s revelations marked a turning point. Pinkerton had come to Baltimore to protect Samuel Felton’s railroad. Now, with Lincoln’s train already under way, he found himself forced to consider the possibility that Lincoln himself was the target.

Luckett had handed him an opportunity to assess for himself whether Ferrandini was a credible threat and, if so, to lay plans to foil his scheme. “This was unexpected to me,” Pinkerton admitted, “but I determined to take the chances.” Whatever the outcome of this meeting, it was clear to Pinkerton that a warning must be sent. He knew that any communication made directly to Lincoln could not be kept private, as it would pass through the hands of any number of secretaries and advisers. For the present, in order to be effective, Pinkerton remained determined to protect the secrecy of his operation. He would have to find another point of contact.

Years before, during his early days in Chicago, Pinkerton had often crossed paths with Norman Judd, the former Illinois state senator who had been instrumental in Lincoln’s election. Judd, Pinkerton knew, was now aboard the special train as a member of the president-elect’s “suite.” Snatching up a newspaper, Pinkerton consulted an account of Lincoln’s travels and decided that the best chance of intercepting the train would be in Indianapolis, at the president-elect’s first overnight stop. Tossing the paper aside, Pinkerton reached for a telegraph form. Addressing his dispatch to Judd, “in company with Abraham Lincoln,” Pinkerton fired off a terse message:

I have a message of importance for you—Where can it reach you by special Messenger.—Allan Pinkerton

The telegram would put Judd on notice. In the meantime, Pinkerton sat down to compose a longer message. If all went well, he would be able to fill in the missing details in a few short hours.

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