Military history



The President-elect will need no armed escort in passing through or sojourning within the limits of this city or State, and, in my view, the provision of any such at this time would be ill-judged. The insult offered to President Buchanan in the streets of this city on the eve of his inauguration, to which reference has been made as the ground for apprehending a similar indignity to the President-elect, it is well known, was the act of two or three members of one of the fanatical clubs of his political opponents which at that time infested our city, but which have long since been numbered among the things that were.

—GEORGE PROCTOR KANE, marshal of the Baltimore police, January 16, 1861

LINCOLN HAD NOT YET heard the news of the electoral results when his train rolled into Columbus at two o’clock on the afternoon of February 13. Eager to carry on with business as usual, he kept to a now-familiar round of processions, speeches, and receptions. Republican governor William Dennison, Jr., led him on a tour of the newly completed state capitol, where Lincoln offered a few remarks to the legislature, touching on the subject of his so-called “masterly inactivity” in Springfield. “I have not maintained silence from any want of real anxiety,” Lincoln told the Ohio lawmakers. “It is a good thing that there is no more than anxiety, for there is nothing going wrong. It is a consoling circumstance that when we look out there is nothing that really hurts anybody. We entertain different views upon political questions, but nobody is suffering anything … all we want is time, patience, and a reliance on that God who has never forsaken this people.”

Once again, in attempting to strike a reassuring note, Lincoln had misfired. Though he intended to suggest that the crisis had not yet advanced to the point where it could not be resolved peaceably, his comments gave the impression that he was out of step with the nation’s concerns. “Nothing going wrong?” asked the New York Herald. “Why, sir, we may more truly say there is nothing going right.”

Adding to the cares of the day was another pointed reminder of safety concerns. “At Columbus,” wrote John Nicolay, “Mr. Lincoln’s friends had a chance to observe how necessary it was to look carefully to his personal surroundings at every moment.” The trouble arose at a public reception in the state capitol, where plans had been laid for a receiving line that would cross in a straight line through the spacious rotunda, allowing an orderly progression of guests from the entrance on one side to the exit at the opposite end. As Nicolay related, however, “an inadequate police force” had been detailed to guard the building’s other entrances, with the result that eager visitors began swarming in from all directions. Soon, to Nicolay’s dismay, Lincoln was at the center of a swirling mass of admirers, “which threatened to crush him and those about him.” It fell to Ward Lamon to rescue the situation: “Fortunately Colonel Lamon, a man of extraordinary size and Herculean strength, was able to place himself before him and by formidable exertion to hold back the advancing pressure until Mr. Lincoln could be hurried to a more secure place.” It would not be the only time that Lamon quite literally pulled Lincoln out of a tight spot.

Even casual observers could see that the hectic pace of the inaugural trip was taking a toll on Lincoln. “For his own sake, it is to be regretted that this excursion is being made,” wrote Joseph Howard in the New York Times. “His original plan, which was to proceed directly and quietly to Washington, was much better, and it was with great reluctance that he acceded to the desires of his friends, who are now thoughtlessly and foolishly wearying him, and wearing the life out of him by inches.” Howard may have been wrong about Lincoln’s own wishes in the matter, but he was sincere in his belief that the tumultuous journey had placed an unnecessary strain on the new president. “Mr. Lincoln submits with pleasure to the infliction,” he wrote, “but it is a terrible ordeal through which to pass, when bound as he is not to a place of rest and easeful quiet, but to a scene of discord, trouble and possible danger.”

At last, during a lull in the events at the rotunda, a telegram arrived bearing the Electoral College results from Washington: “The votes have been counted peaceably,” it read. “You are elected.” A small crowd of friends gathered around as Lincoln studied the message. “When he read it he smiled benignly,” wrote one witness, “and looking up, seeing everyone waiting for a word, he quietly put the dispatch in his pocket.” Pausing for a moment, Lincoln deflected his satisfaction into an innocuous comment about the new state capitol, as if to suggest that the outcome had never been in doubt: “What a beautiful building you have here, Governor Dennison,” he said.

The news had a bracing effect on Lincoln, who appeared cheerful and relaxed the following day at a stop near Rochester, Pennsylvania, where a local “coal-heaver” proposed a friendly contest: “Abe, they say you are the tallest man in the United States, but I don’t believe you are any taller than I am.” Lincoln, peering down from the rear platform of the train, immediately took up the challenge. “Come up here,” he called, “and let us measure.” The miner pushed his way through the crowd and climbed aboard. At Lincoln’s direction, he spun around and the two men stood back-to-back. Colonel Ellsworth, the dashing young Zouave officer, was hovering nearby as the spectacle unfolded. Turning toward him, Lincoln asked for a verdict: “Which is taller?” It was an awkward moment for Ellsworth, who stood barely five feet tall. Unable to see the tops of the taller men’s heads from his vantage point, Ellsworth scrambled onto a guardrail for a better view, amid much laughter from the crowd. “I believe,” he called out, “they are exactly the same height.” The locals cheered this diplomatic solution as Lincoln pumped the miner’s hand.

It marked a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy and rain-soaked day. Henry Villard believed that Lincoln felt relief at the sight of the “perfect torrents” of rain that began falling that morning, as the foul weather promised to reduce the size of the “uncomfortable crowds as had pestered him” in the previous days. This proved to be a vain hope. “Immense multitudes” turned out to greet the Lincoln Special as it cut through eastern Ohio toward Pennsylvania, where Lincoln would make an overnight appearance in Pittsburgh. Making light of his crisscrossing route and rapid pace, Lincoln trotted out a joke that would become familiar over the course of the journey. “I understand that arrangements were made for something of a speech from me here,” he told a crowd in Newark, Ohio, when the train accidentally overshot its scheduled stop, “but it has gone so far that it has deprived me of addressing the many fair ladies assembled, while it has deprived them of observing my very interesting countenance.”

In Pittsburgh the following morning—Friday, February 15—some five thousand people gathered outside the stately Monongahela House hotel to see the newly elected president. Lincoln stepped out onto the balcony of his second-floor room, only to find that the grim weather had followed him from Ohio, transforming the crowd below into an “ocean of umbrellas.” Though he had prepared some remarks of local interest, Lincoln once again paused to address the secession crisis, attempting to recast some of his ill-received sentiments of the previous days. “Notwithstanding the troubles across the river,” he began, pointing a finger in a southerly direction, “there is really no crisis springing from anything in the Government itself. In plain words, there is really no crisis, except an artificial one. What is there now to warrant the condition of affairs presented by our friends ‘over the river’? Take even their own view of the questions involved, and there is nothing to justify the course which they are pursuing. I repeat it, then—there is no crisis, excepting such a one as may be gotten up at any time by turbulent men, aided by designing politicians. My advice, then, under such circumstances, is to keep cool. If the great American people will only keep their temper on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end.”

Once again, Lincoln’s effort to downplay the nation’s troubles fared poorly in the press. The New York Herald despaired over his suggestion that “the crisis was only imaginary” and went on to list the many challenges facing his administration, including the potential dissolution of the Union, an empty public treasury, and “a reign of terror existing over one-half of the country.” It was worrying, the Herald claimed, that the new president seemed to regard these conditions as “only a bagatelle, a mere squall which would soon blow over.”

At the Pittsburgh train depot, Lincoln stood in the rain “without any signs of impatience” to shake hands with admirers, even pausing to bestow a kiss on a child who was passed over the heads of the crowd. At this, Henry Villard reported, “three lassies also made their way to him and received the same salutation.” As members of Lincoln’s escort stepped forward to offer a similar greeting, they were “indignantly repulsed amidst the laughter of the spectators.” When the time came to board the train, however, Lincoln and his party found their way barred by a “solid mass of humanity.” Herded forward by local Republican James Negley, later a Union general, they managed with difficulty to thread their way through the crowd “one by one in Indian file.”

The Lincoln Special pulled out of Pittsburgh at 10:00 A.M., with Lincoln bowing and doffing his hat from the rear platform. Up to this stage of the journey, the train had made a reasonably direct progress toward Washington, veering to the north and south as necessary to stop at the major cities along the way, but always keeping to an easterly heading. Now, instead of cutting directly across Pennsylvania toward Harrisburg, the itinerary took a wild, looping swing to the north to allow for stops in New York—“the greatest, richest and most powerful of the states,” as John Hay noted. As if to emphasize the impracticality of this leg of the journey, the day began with the train backtracking across the previous day’s route, heading west into Ohio for an overnight stop in Cleveland.

The driving rain had turned to snow by the time the Lincoln Special reached Cleveland at 4:30 that afternoon, but “myriads of human beings” turned out nonetheless, their ranks swelled by several companies of firemen and soldiers. “The anxiety to greet Honest Old Abe was evidently intense,” noted Villard. Heedless of the swirling snow, Lincoln stood and bowed as usual as an open carriage conveyed him along Euclid Avenue to the Weddell House, the five-story “Palace of the Forest City.”

By now, it had become the established custom that Lincoln’s arrival would be marked by a speech from the balcony of his hotel room. In Cleveland, he took the opportunity to repeat the substance of what he had said in Pittsburgh. “I think that there is no occasion for any excitement,” he insisted. “It can’t be argued up, and it can’t be argued down. Let it alone, and it will go down of itself.” This last remark drew appreciative laughter from the crowd but a good deal of acid from the press. The lead column of the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day featured an “Epitaph” for the Union: “Here lies a people, who, in attempting to liberate the negro, lost their own freedom.” As an exercise in public relations, designed to reassure the North and placate the South, Lincoln’s inaugural trip had hit its lowest point. Writing in his diary, Congressman Charles Francis Adams—the son of one president and the grandson of another—expressed a fear that Lincoln’s speeches were “rapidly reducing” the public’s confidence. “They betray a person unconscious of his own position as well as the nature of the contest around him,” Adams wrote. “Good natured, kindly, honest, but frivolous and uncertain.”

The following day—Saturday, February 16—began on a disturbing note. Soon after the Lincoln Special left Cleveland, word came that a man had been killed during preparations for yet another thirty-four-gun salute along the route. The travelers were greatly relieved when a subsequent report corrected the first, informing them that the unfortunate man had merely been injured. By this time, however, Lincoln had cause to be thoroughly disenchanted with ceremonial displays of artillery. The previous day, while lunching at a hotel in Alliance, Ohio, the percussion of a nearby cannon salute shattered a window in the dining room, showering Mrs. Lincoln with glass. She recovered her composure quickly but came away thoroughly shaken by the experience.

By early Saturday afternoon, the Lincoln Special had pushed through the upper reaches of Pennsylvania and arrived at “the porch of the Empire State,” in the remote northwesterly village of Westfield, New York. “It was like entering St. Peter’s through a trap door,” wrote Hay. As it happened, Westfield was the home of Grace Bedell, the eleven-year-old girl who had written to advise Lincoln to grow his “whiskers” as a means of improving his appearance. “Some three months ago, I received a letter from a young lady here,” he declared from the rear of the train. “It was a very pretty letter, and she advised me to let my whiskers grow, as it would improve my personal appearance. Acting partly upon her suggestion, I have done so; and now, if she is here, I would like to see her.” Lincoln was immediately pointed in the direction of a girl who stood “blushing all over her fair face.” He climbed down from the platform and bent low to give her “several hearty kisses,” amid cheers from the crowd. “You see,” he told her, “I let these whiskers grow for you, Grace.”

As it happened, there was another celebrated set of whiskers to be seen aboard the Lincoln Special that day. Horace Greeley, whose “absurd fringe of beard” was the delight of editorial cartoonists, had come aboard earlier that morning at Girard, Pennsylvania. Though his arrival was unexpected, the famous editor of the New-York Tribune would have been hard to miss. He wore his trademark white coat—“that mysteriously durable garment,” as Hay described it—and carried a bright yellow case that announced his name “in characters which might be read across Lake Erie.”

The influence of Greeley and his pro-Republican Tribune was unparalleled. The previous year, his opposition to William Seward had helped to tip the presidential nomination to Lincoln. Accordingly, the editor’s sudden appearance aboard the Lincoln Special created “no little sensation,” according to Villard. “He was at once conducted into the car of the President-elect, who came forward to greet him.” After conferring privately with Lincoln, Greeley hopped off the train some twenty miles down the line to file an enthusiastic report: “His passage through the country has been like the return of grateful sunshine after a stormy winter day. The people breathe more freely and hope revives in all hearts.” Greeley had grave concerns, however, about Lincoln’s safety. A few days later, he would report that “substantial cash rewards” were on offer in the Southern states to anyone who succeeded in murdering the president-elect before the inauguration. Lincoln, he believed, was “in peril of outrage, indignity, and death.”

*   *   *

AS THE LINCOLN SPECIAL PRESSED on toward Buffalo on Saturday afternoon, Allan Pinkerton’s investigation in Baltimore was also gaining on speed. Even as Lincoln said farewell to young Grace Bedell, Pinkerton was again mingling among the patrons at Barnum’s Hotel, hoping to pick up the trail of Cypriano Ferrandini, the self-professed revolutionary who had sworn that Lincoln would not live to become president. Pinkerton’s earlier meeting with Ferrandini had been interrupted before the detective could extract any details of Ferrandini’s “fully arranged” plan. Now, Pinkerton hoped to uncover the facts he would need to thwart the conspiracy.

Though Ferrandini was nowhere to be seen that day, Pinkerton found himself unexpectedly presented with a chance to take the measure of one of Baltimore’s most-talked-about citizens. George P. Kane, a resolute-looking man with a dark beard and military bearing, was holding court at Barnum’s with a group of drinking companions. As the newly appointed marshal of Baltimore’s police force, Kane would play a central role in Lincoln’s passage through the city, and Pinkerton was anxious to know if he could be trusted.

Baltimore’s police marshal George P. Kane, whose loyalties Pinkerton doubted. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Marshal Kane had become a key figure in Baltimore’s effort to erase its “Mobtown” image. The previous year, a reform committee within the state legislature had enacted a bill to address the city’s “unchecked ruffianism,” and it had selected Kane to lead a newly revitalized police force. Kane was known to be a man of strong convictions as well as great personal courage. Years earlier, while on duty in Annapolis with his state militia unit, Kane had been called to the City Dock when fighting broke out between local townsmen and a group of “incorrigibles” aboard a Baltimore ship. Stones and bricks were thrown, and the matter soon escalated to the point where cannons were being readied to fire upon the ship. Kane and a pair of fellow officers coolly stepped forward and placed themselves at the mouths of the cannon to prevent the townsmen from firing. This display of unflinching bravery quieted the mob and defused the crisis.

By February 1861, Kane had been marshal of police for barely one year, but already he had made a dramatic impact. The new marshal, wrote one local journalist, “was perhaps the best man in the city for the task confided to him, and the new force organized by him, uniformed and thoroughly drilled, was the best and most efficient the city had ever known. Old abuses were done away with, and the citizens began to look back upon the period of ruffian rule as a terrible nightmare.”

With his reforms still in their early stages, however, Marshal Kane understood that the arrival of Abraham Lincoln in Baltimore would present a harsh test. Conscious of a possible eruption of violence, Kane had already made some questionable decisions. As the Baltimore American would report, members of the city’s Republican Committee—“a few hundred men, particularly obnoxious to the people and public sentiment of Baltimore”—were forming plans to greet the president-elect with a ceremonial procession from the Calvert Street Station. Although marches of this type were being staged in every other city on the Lincoln Special’s route, the Baltimore committee was well aware of local feeling against Lincoln and his supporters. Accordingly, they applied to Marshal Kane for police protection. In Kane’s view, a public display of this type was an invitation to disaster. “He advised against the proceeding,” the American noted, “assuring the parties that while Mr. Lincoln, in his passage through Baltimore, would be treated with respect due to him personally and to his high official position, there was no guarantee that the proposed procession would be similarly respected.” In fact, as Marshal Kane knew perfectly well, the procession was almost certain to be showered with rocks and rotten eggs, just as earlier Republican marches had been. Kane strongly advised the organizers to abandon their plan, “lest it might provoke some indignity which would involve the character of Baltimore and be very unpleasant to the President-elect.” Kane would even carry this argument down to Washington, where he discussed the matter with prominent Lincoln supporters. To go forward, he feared, would “place the people of Baltimore in a false position, as neither they nor the citizens of Maryland sympathized with Mr. Lincoln’s political views.”

Kane had expressed similar views in a letter to the mayor of Washington, in response to rumors that Baltimoreans were planning to disrupt the inauguration. The mere suggestion, he insisted, ran counter to the “conservative and law-abiding” nature of the city’s residents, who sincerely believed that “the day for mobs and riots in their midst has passed, never to return.” Although the citizens of Maryland were in “strong sympathy with their Southern brethren,” as Kane freely admitted, he rejected any suggestion that they would “tolerate or connive at the unlawful doings of a mob,” or countenance an act of “violence or indignity” toward any public official passing through her borders. “The whole thing is probably a political canard,” he said, “receiving a slight coloring of reality from the thoughtless expressions of a class of people who, in times of excitement, are mostly to be found at street corners or in public barrooms.” That being the case, Kane concluded, it would be unnecessary, and perhaps even provocative, to supply Lincoln with an armed escort in Baltimore.

At best, Kane’s comments reflect a naïve and perhaps overweening confidence that his reforms alone would be proof against violence on the day of Lincoln’s arrival. He may well have believed that the crowds at the Calvert Street Station would show due deference to the office of the president, in spite of their hostility toward the man who was about to occupy it, so long as they were not provoked by overt displays of Republican pageantry or military force. Right or wrong, it should be remembered that Lincoln himself had also been at pains to avoid provoking the secessionists with any suggestion of a “martial cortège.” Only a few days earlier, Otis K. Hillard had testified to the Washington select committee that Lincoln would be treated with respect in Baltimore so long as he did not bring a military escort—“which they look upon in the light of a threat.” Seen through this prism, Marshal Kane’s resistance to a procession by local Republicans, which would all but demand a heavy police presence, might be seen as a peacekeeping measure. One can argue the wisdom of such a position, but it does not necessarily stand as an indictment of Kane’s intentions.

There would be many, however, who saw a darker purpose in Kane’s maneuverings. Although the marshal had publicly guaranteed Lincoln’s safety, there were those who believed that Kane, a strong advocate of secession, could not be trusted to do his duty. For Pinkerton, the question of whether Kane was reliable would loom large in the days ahead, as he tried to determine how to proceed in the face of the emerging threat against Lincoln’s life.

Pinkerton’s doubts about Kane had been sparked by a comment from James Luckett, his neighbor at the office on South Street. When Pinkerton mentioned Kane’s vow to see the president-elect safely through the city, Luckett gave a high-handed dismissal. “Oh, that is easily promised, but may not be so easily done,” he declared. “Marshal Kane don’t know any more than any other man, and not so much as some others—but time will tell—time will tell.” Others would go further, claiming that Kane was either actively colluding with anti-Union conspirators or that he would turn a blind eye to their designs.

Now, watching Kane through a haze of cigar smoke at Barnum’s Hotel, Pinkerton hoped for some indication of whether the marshal could be relied upon. As he tried to edge closer without drawing suspicion, Pinkerton could only make out snatches of Kane’s conversation, but these few words seemed to confirm his darkest suspicions. The specifics were not clear, but Pinkerton heard Kane tell his companions that he saw no need for “giving a Police Escort” at some forthcoming event. Pinkerton assumed that Kane was referring to Lincoln’s arrival at the Calvert Street Station, because he knew of no other event “likely to transpire in Baltimore which might require a police escort.” Though Kane had not explicitly said so, Pinkerton took his words to mean that he “would detail but a small police force to attend the arrival,” as opposed to a cordon of armed officers, leaving Lincoln woefully underprotected. As he later explained to his employer Samuel Felton, “[I]t was impossible for Marshal Kane not to know that there would be a necessity for an Escort for Mr. Lincoln on his arrival in Baltimore.” If Kane failed to provide one, Pinkerton concluded, “I should from this time out doubt the loyalty of the Baltimore Police.”

Then, as now, opinions were strongly divided as to whether Kane was actually “disloyal” in the sense that Pinkerton assumed. It seems that Pinkerton never considered—at the time or at any later date—that Kane’s words might have referred to the plans of the Baltimore Republicans for a procession, which the marshal had done so much to discourage. It could easily be argued that any failure to protect the marchers would also, by the same fact, constitute a failure to protect Lincoln. What Pinkerton did not know, however, was that Kane was hatching a private scheme to make good on his guarantee of safe passage, one that would render the necessity of “giving a Police Escort” irrelevant.

Every action that Pinkerton took from this point forward would flow from his belief that the ranking officer of Baltimore’s police force could not be trusted to do to his duty. In other circumstances, Pinkerton would have recognized many of his own characteristics in Kane, who was a secretive man, supremely confident in his own judgment and abilities, and very much accustomed to being in charge. If Kane had not been so outspoken in his support of secession, Pinkerton might have found him to be a useful ally. As matters stood, Pinkerton’s early doubts now hardened into an implacable suspicion, one that never left him. In later years, he would miss no opportunity to describe Kane as a “rabid Rebel” who commanded a police force composed almost entirely of men with “disunion proclivities.” An account published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine toward the end of the decade—based on Pinkerton’s own writings but highly embellished—would carry these suspicions to a new extreme. In this retelling of the events, one of Ferrandini’s men was said to have drawn Pinkerton aside at the height of the drama to deliver a fateful bulletin: “It is determined that that God damned Lincoln shall never pass through here alive!” the detective was told. “The damned abolitionist shall never set foot on Southern soil but to find a grave.” To underscore this declaration, Pinkerton’s informant was said to have added a chilling coda, suggesting that the plot had been sanctioned at the highest levels: “I have seen Colonel Kane, Chief of Police, and he is all right, and in one week from today the North shall want a new President, for Lincoln will be dead.”

In Baltimore, however, Pinkerton offered a far more measured assessment. “He is a man with some fine feelings,” the detective allowed, “but thoroughly Southern, and in that respect unscrupulous.” That being the case, Pinkerton could not be certain which way the marshal would jump at the critical moment. If Lincoln’s life was to be spared, Pinkerton believed he would have to do it himself.

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