Military history



All governments have their crises. Our republic never escaped one more alarming than that of February 13th, 1861. It was the day appointed for the seizure of Washington. Preparations had been made; armed bodies of men had been enlisted and drilled, and many of them had reported in the city pursuant to orders. When the managers were compelled to postpone the rebellion, these recruits declined to accept the necessity or to put off the opening drama. They had assembled for a revolution with its natural consequences—booty and plunder.

—LUCIUS CHITTENDEN, Recollections of President Lincoln, 1891

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12, was Abraham Lincoln’s fifty-second birthday, though little mention was made of it at the time. The president-elect awoke in Indianapolis to face another long day of travel, speeches and handshaking levees, beginning with breakfast at the governor’s mansion. Afterward, Lincoln called in at the capitol to pay his respects to the state legislators. He rounded out his morning with yet another short speech from the balcony of the Bates House, at the conclusion of which the crowd began shouting for a glimpse of Robert Lincoln, whose charm and good looks continued to draw notice in the press. “Bob, with a fine display of pluck, came forward,” reported John Hay, “and with a still firmer display of pluck declined to make a speech. He waved his hat, however, bowed, and retired, his debut being pronounced a success.”

William Wood had scheduled a late departure from Indianapolis that morning to allow for the arrival of Mary Lincoln, who had taken an overnight train with Willie and Tad to catch up with the inaugural party. They found a scene of frantic confusion at the depot. “The railway people,” explained the New York Times, “without permission, invited some two hundred guests, which has caused some feeling, and hereafter none but those invited by Mr. Wood will be allowed upon the train.” In the tumult, the arrival of the rest of Lincoln’s unofficial military escort—Colonel Sumner, Major Hunter, and Captain Pope—went largely unnoticed. Officially, Captain Pope was now absent without leave from his army post, which sent a citation for court-martial across the desk of President Buchanan. In the circumstances, no punitive action would be taken.

As the military men took their places at Lincoln’s side, the Springfield contingent that had accompanied him on the first day prepared to return home. Lincoln’s old Illinois friends “took hold of him in a melodramatic manner,” wrote Henry Villard. “They hugged him and told him to behave himself like a good boy in the White House, and lastly even cut a lock of hair off his head with which they rushed triumphantly out of his room.”

By 10:30, having extracted himself from the “hydraulic embraces” of his friends, Lincoln arrived at Indianapolis’s Union Depot. A fresh train adorned with presidential portraits and patriotic bunting waited to transport him over the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad. A substantial crowd—“apparently,” said Hay, “the entire population of Indianapolis and the surrounding territory”—gave a raucous cheer as the train lurched out of the station at 11:00 sharp. Once again, conspicuous security measures could be seen along the track. “Flagmen are stationed at every road and crossing, and half way between them,” reported the Philadelphia Inquirer, “they display the American flag as the signal for ‘all right.’”

On board the train, Lincoln appeared to be in high spirits. “He has shaken off the despondency which was noticed during the first day’s journey,” said Hay, “and now, as his friends say, looks and talks like himself.” No doubt Lincoln was cheered by the arrival of Willie and Tad, and perhaps amused as they hatched a plan to confound reporters at various stops along the way. Taking advantage of the fact that their father’s appearance was not yet widely known, the Lincoln boys would stop random newspapermen and ask, “Do you want to see Old Abe?” Then, instead of pointing out their father, they would direct the victim’s attention to some random bystander. At times, as the trip wore on, the boys grew restless and quarrelsome. On one occasion, when a trackside audience called for a sight of the Lincoln sons, Robert dutifully stepped forward, but seven-year-old Tad refused to appear. “[T]he young representative of the house of Lincoln proved refractory,” said a reporter, “and the more his mother endeavored to pull him before the window the more he stubbornly persisted in throwing himself down on the floor of the car.” Norman Judd, alluding darkly to his poor opinion of the younger Lincoln sons, would write to his wife that Willie and Tad were behaving fairly well on the journey—“considering what they are.”

The behavior of the Lincoln boys would not have been Judd’s foremost concern as the train thundered toward Cincinnati that morning. Moments before leaving the Bates House, Judd had received Allan Pinkerton’s telegram asking where to send his “message of importance” by special messenger. Pressed for time, Judd cabled back a terse reply, informing Pinkerton that the Lincoln train would be in Columbus the following day, and Pittsburgh the day after. Judd must have been disconcerted by Pinkerton’s cryptic tone, but he knew the detective well enough to take his message seriously. For the moment, he did not mention the telegram to anyone on board the train.

The Lincoln family in 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

While Judd kept his own counsel, the Lincoln Special pressed on toward Ohio, pausing at four points along the way so that Lincoln could deliver brief speeches and “bow to friends.” In Lawrenceburg, the last stop before leaving Indiana, Lincoln’s route skirted the northern edge of Kentucky, the state of his birth. Lincoln was keenly aware of how important Kentucky would be in any coming conflict. “I hope to have God on my side,” he would remark later that year, “but I must have Kentucky.” Before leaving Springfield, Lincoln hoped to arrange a brief detour so that he might stop in the state. He took pains to prepare an appropriate speech, blending passages from the forthcoming inaugural with a special appeal to his fellow Kentuckians’ sense of fair play. Lincoln promised that he would live up to his campaign vow of upholding the Constitution, as surely any right-thinking resident of Kentucky would wish him to do, no matter which candidate they had supported in the election. “What Kentuckian, worthy of his birthplace, would not do this?” Lincoln planned to say. “Gentlemen, I too am a Kentuckian.”

In the end, the foray into Kentucky was deemed impractical, which meant that Lincoln’s first opportunity to address an audience in a slaveholding state would come in Baltimore. For the moment, in Lawrenceburg, Lincoln had to content himself with pointing across the Ohio River to Kentucky and declaring his intent of “doing full justice to all,” on both sides of the water.

At 3:00 that afternoon, outside Cincinnati’s Fifth Street depot, the crowd of people that had gathered to greet Lincoln grew so large that it spilled over onto the railroad track, blocking the progress of the presidential train. Police and military forces had to be called in to clear the way. Joseph Howard, Jr., the New York Times correspondent who joined the party in Cincinnati, reported that the crowd “cheered, huzzahed and roared a hearty welcome” as the president-elect made his way to the open carriage that would carry him to the Burnet House hotel. “Mr. Lincoln stood up bareheaded, holding on by a conveniently arranged board, and bowed his backbone sore, and his neck stiff, all the way to the hotel.” After a two-hour procession, Lincoln arrived at the Burnet House, where he found an even more chaotic scene than the one he had faced the day before, with every resident of the town seemingly determined to shake his hand “as if it were a pump handle.”

Though Howard would describe the day as “one continual ovation,” his account made it clear that security concerns remained. Readers were told that a “queer-looking box” had been left for Lincoln at his hotel that afternoon under suspicious circumstances, and was handed over to the police for disposal. Later it would also be reported that “a grenade of the most destructive character” had been found aboard Lincoln’s train in Cincinnati. Concealed in a carpetbag, the device was said to be “so arranged that within fifteen minutes it would have exploded, with a force sufficient to have demolished the car and destroyed the lives of all the persons in it.” Ward Lamon would later dismiss this story as a fabrication, like the report of the attempt to throw the train off the track the previous day. At the time, Lamon insisted, he had heard nothing of the sort.

At the Burnet House, Lincoln’s itinerary unfolded much as it had the previous day in Indianapolis—a speech from the hotel balcony, a handshaking levee and a reception for a “plethora of politicians” that had gathered in the city. “Some of them are much given to embracing the President, as if he required a little of that sort of affectionate fortification,” wrote Hay. “He puts up with it gravely, although I think he wishes they wouldn’t.” Toward the end of this greeting period, Lincoln was urged to stand on a chair to make a speech, so that everyone would get a chance to have a look at him. Lincoln reluctantly did so, seizing the occasion to bid farewell to the crowd. “Instantly a ring of policemen and friends was formed around him,” wrote Howard, “and with some difficulty he was escorted to his room.”

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AT 2:00 IN THE MORNING, long after Lincoln and his colleagues had gone to bed, the heavy wooden doors of the Burnet House swung open once again to admit a young Pinkerton agent named William H. Scott, acting as a special messenger for his boss. The resourceful operative had straggled into Cincinnati on an overnight train, in hopes of catching up with Norman Judd before the Lincoln Special departed for Columbus in the morning. He managed to intercept Lincoln’s party sooner than anticipated by the simple expedient of tracking their movements through the newspapers. As Pinkerton himself had now come to realize, it was all too easy for anyone—friend or foe—to determine where Abraham Lincoln would be at any given moment.

Pinkerton had been extremely cautious about making contact. In the field, he and his operatives invariably used a simple word-substitution cipher for telegraph communications in order to keep sensitive information from being intercepted in transit. The cipher keys were changed at regular intervals, with the code words drawn from random lists of topics—gardening terms, figures from Greek mythology, or simple fruits and vegetables. One cipher found the Pinkertons replacing the word forger with the name Irene, and the title superintendent with the name Dolores. The resulting transmissions would have been suitably innocuous, if perhaps a bit nonsensical.

Pinkerton’s telegram to Judd had been a simple matter of arranging a rendezvous with his “special messenger.” Nevertheless, the wire had gone out using the latest cipher, so as to avoid drawing suspicion to the operation in Baltimore. Since Judd did not have a copy of the cipher key, and would not have been able to decode the message, Pinkerton sent the telegram to George Bangs in Chicago, who decrypted the message before forwarding the contents to Indianapolis—across presumably friendly wires. It would not do for “John H. Hutchinson” of Georgia to be seen communicating directly with a colleague of Abraham Lincoln.

For all of this effort, William Scott would not be able to place the “message of importance” in Judd’s hands until the following morning. Scott was informed at the front desk of the Burnet House that Judd had retired at 11:00 P.M. and had left instructions he did not want to be disturbed. The night clerk refused to wake him, and would not give out the room number. Exhausted, Pinkerton’s messenger took a room for the night.

The next morning, Scott pounced. “I got up at 7 o’clock,” he reported, “and waited until 8 o’clock, when I saw Judd and gave him Pinkerton’s letter.” Judd tore open the envelope and studied the message carefully, the color draining from his face. Though the original of the letter is now lost, perhaps destroyed on Pinkerton’s instructions, the detective would later summarize its contents: “I had reason to believe that there was a plot on foot to murder the President on his passage through Baltimore.” Pinkerton promised to advise Judd further as soon as a personal meeting could be arranged.

Judd had been expecting grim tidings of this type ever since Pinkerton’s telegram had reached him in Cincinnati the previous day. Gathering himself, he told Scott that “he had been looking for this,” and wondered aloud what to do next. It is reasonable to suppose, given Pinkerton’s passion for secrecy, that he offered little in the way of corroborating detail. He would have been wary of revealing too much in a letter, especially one sent to a politician. As Pinkerton had told Samuel Felton at the start of the operation, “on no conditions would I consider it safe for myself or my operatives were the fact of my operating known to any Politician—no matter of what school, or what position.”

Judd, by contrast, appeared willing to take Pinkerton at his word until further information could be given. “He spoke feelingly of Pinkerton,” Scott recalled, “and said they had trained in the same school together.” Scott apparently misunderstood Judd on this point, as Pinkerton had not attended a school of any kind since his boyhood in Scotland. Judd likely meant to suggest that the two of them had moved in the same political circles in Chicago.

In any case, once he recovered from his initial shock, Judd told Scott that he was “very much obliged” for the information, and would await further details from Pinkerton himself. Scott offered Judd the chance to send a telegraphic reply to the detective in Baltimore, using the agency’s latest cipher. After a moment’s reflection, Judd decided against it, saying instead that he would contact Pinkerton when he had more time to consider the situation.

As Scott rose to take his leave, he reminded Judd of the need to hold the information in strictest confidence, so as not to endanger the operation in Baltimore. Though Judd would later be criticized for his silence, for the moment he chose to honor the request. As Pinkerton explained it, “Mr. Judd did not divulge [the information] to anyone, fearing to occasion undue anxiety or unnecessary alarm, and knowing that I was upon the ground and could be depended upon to act at the proper time.” From Judd’s point of view, this was also a politically expedient course. Although he himself was willing to take Pinkerton’s warning on faith, Lincoln and his other advisers would need proof. He was counting on Pinkerton to provide it before the Lincoln Special reached Baltimore.

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AS JUDD WELL KNEW, Lincoln himself had other concerns pressing on his mind that morning. Wednesday, February 13, was a date Lincoln had awaited with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation throughout the long winter months. At noon, in Washington, a joint session of Congress would convene to witness the formal proceedings of the Electoral College. Even at this late date, as Lincoln had previously admitted to William Seward, there remained a lingering concern that the Electoral College might decline to assemble, or that it would be prevented from doing so by an uprising of some kind. In Washington, conspicuous measures were being taken to calm the public. Along with “other fears,” declared the New York Times, “the blowing up of the Capitol was regarded as an event not impossible.” Readers were assured, however, that police were conducting nightly inspections “to be sure that no explosive materials had been there clandestinely deposited for such purpose.” Lincoln made a show of good cheer as he climbed on board the train in Cincinnati, but his thoughts would be focused on Washington that morning.

The Lincoln Special pulled out of the depot at 9:00 sharp, with Pinkerton’s agent William Scott watching from the platform. “The arrangements here throughout were admirable,” John Hay noted. “Cincinnati has honored herself in her manner of honoring the President.” Henry Villard reported that Lincoln, “although somewhat stiffened in his limbs by his handshaking exertion last night,” appeared to be in excellent spirits, though vocal strain and a bad head cold had reduced his speaking voice to a croak. Mrs. Lincoln was reported to be “in her most pleasant mood,” chatting and laughing with guests, while Robert “did not seem to feel any worse from the sparkling Catawba with which the Republican youths of Cincinnati had plied him so liberally the previous evening.” To all outward appearances, the only dark cloud that morning was the discovery that no provision had been made for lunch. The sudden appearance of two baskets of baked goods shortly after noon, said Villard, was therefore “the signal of great rejoicing among the company.”

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BY THAT TIME, the counting of the electoral vote was under way in Washington. It had already been an eventful day on Capitol Hill. The select committee wrapped up its inquiry into “alleged hostile organizations” that morning, having finally completed its examination of Maryland’s governor Hicks. The press issued a reassuring summary of its findings: “The Special Committee are unanimously of the opinion, whatever combination of intents may have existed at any earlier period, that for the last six weeks there has been no appearance or vestige of an organization with a hostile intent on Washington or the public property therein.” Not everyone was reassured. “The air was filled with rumors,” wrote Lucius Chittenden, a Vermont delegate to the ongoing Peace Convention at Willard’s Hotel. “Few Northern men in the city doubted that a conspiracy to seize the government existed … that the force to execute it was organized, armed, and to be furnished by the adjacent states of Maryland and Virginia. Whether any adequate preparations had been made for the defense of the city against such a force, we did not know. There was, consequently, a general feeling of uneasiness; and if a revolution had broken out at any time, it would not have caused much surprise.”

Chittenden was a member of a group of younger Republicans who had taken it upon themselves to act as an “independent committee of safety” to chase down the rumors of attacks on Washington and the threats against Lincoln. In that capacity, Chittenden had called on Gen. Winfield Scott the previous week to see what measures were being taken to ensure the safety of the electoral count. The general had now recovered from his earlier illness and was in a resolute frame of mind: “It is my duty,” he declared, “to suppress insurrection—my duty!” General Scott had said much the same thing in a letter to Lincoln the previous month, promising his “utmost exertions” to ensure an orderly transfer of power. Now that the date of the vote had finally arrived, the general made good on his promise with a conspicuous display of artillery, including two batteries of cannon outside the Capitol. “At every entrance to the building stood a guard of civil but inflexible soldiers, sternly barring admission,” wrote Chittenden. “Prayers, bribes, entreaties, oaths, objurgations, were alike unavailing. No one could pass except senators and representatives, and those who had the written ticket of admission signed by the Speaker of the House or the Vice-President. Even members could not pass in their friends. Consequently the amount of profanity launched forth against the guards would have completely annihilated them if words could kill.”

Chittenden, a Vermont state senator, managed to secure a seat in the gallery of the House chambers. Although there were many disgruntled faces among the Southern electors, Chittenden observed few expressions of open dissent, even from the many secessionists present. “To one who knew nothing of the hot treason which was seething beneath the quiet exterior,” he wrote, “the exercises would have appeared to be tame and uninteresting.” General Scott had let it be known that disruptions would not be tolerated and that any man who attempted to interfere with the count risked being “lashed to the muzzle of a twelve-pounder and fired out of a window of the Capitol.” Furthermore, Scott promised, “I would manure the hills of Arlington with fragments of his body.”

As it happened, the hills of Arlington received no fresh manure that day. At the appointed hour, Vice President Breckinridge, in his role as president of the Senate, stepped forward to tally the official election certificates from each state, which had been in his custody since the election. This duty can only have been a bitter one for Breckinridge, a future Confederate general and secretary of war. As vice president under Buchanan, he had contended for the presidential nomination himself after the split within the Democratic party, finishing second in the electoral tally, well ahead of Stephen Douglas. On this day, however, Breckinridge conducted himself with “marked dignity and courtesy,” according to theNew York Times, having repeatedly declared that he would perform the duties of his office under the sanction of his oath until the end of his term. “If he could be remembered only for his services on that day, Vice President Breckinridge would fill a high place in the gallery of American statesmen,” said Chittenden. “[H]e had determined that the result of the count should be declared, and his purpose was manifested in every word and gesture. Jupiter never ruled a council on Olympus with a firmer hand. It was gloved, but there was iron beneath the glove.”

Under Breckinridge’s resolute gaze, each of the ballot envelopes was opened and its contents read aloud. As the results were tallied, an “absolutely profound” silence settled over the chamber. The vice president rapped his gavel and declared that “Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, having received a majority of the whole number of electoral votes, is duly elected President of the United States for the four years beginning on the fourth day of March, 1861.”

Their duty completed, the members of the Senate rose and silently filed out of the chamber. Then, according to Chittenden, chaos erupted. “A dozen angry, disappointed men were on their feet before the door had closed upon the last senator, clamoring for recognition by the speaker,” he recalled. “For a few minutes the tumult was so great that it was impossible to restore order.… There were jeers for the ‘rail-splitter,’ sharp and fierce shouts for ‘cheers for Jeff Davis,’ and ‘cheers for South Carolina.’ But hard names and curses for ‘Old Scott’ broke out everywhere on the floor and in the gallery of the crowded hall. The quiet spectators seemed in a moment turned to madmen. ‘Superannuated old dotard!’ ‘Traitor to the state of his birth!’ ‘Coward!’ ‘Free-state pimp!’ and any number of similar epithets were showered upon him.”

If such a scene occurred, it escaped the notice of the journalists in the room. “There were no manifestations of applause, disapprobation or uneasiness,” insisted the New York Times. “The vast audience, satisfied that the interesting event was consummated in peace, arose silently and withdrew in an orderly manner from the chamber.”

In either case, all parties agreed that any signs of discord—both in and outside of the Capitol—were short-lived. “Thus has vanished one of the supposed points of danger to the public peace,” the Times concluded, “and the public pulse beats freer. There really has been so much apprehension that many families left town. Such fears are now dissipated, and people are flocking to town in crowds. True, we hear occasional foolish rumors of plots to take the city, blow up the public buildings, and prevent the inauguration of Lincoln, but they disturb nobody.”

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AS WASHINGTON’S JITTERS SUBSIDED, tempers flared in Maryland. Until that moment, many in Baltimore had expected that Southern lawmakers would seize upon the electoral vote to thwart Lincoln’s inauguration and bring the secession crisis to its boiling point. Now that the occasion had passed without incident, the more vocal contingent of Baltimore agitators—including Cypriano Ferrandini and his followers—believed that it now fell to them to secure the rights of the South. Even the normally ambivalent Otis K. Hillard, from whom Pinkerton’s Harry Davies was still trying to extract information, appeared hardened in his resolve. “What a pity,” he told Davies, “that this glorious Union must be destroyed all on account of that monster Lincoln.”

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