Military history



I was advised on Thursday morning of a plot in Baltimore to assassinate the President-elect on his expected arrival there.… I sent Fred to apprise him of it.

—WILLIAM H. SEWARD, in a letter to his family, February 23, 1861

AS THE SUN ROSE on the clear and chilly morning of Wednesday, February 20, New York’s City Hall and the Astor House hotel appeared to be staring each other down across the wide expanse of Broadway. The imposing bulk of City Hall put its best face forward with a brilliant facade of Massachusetts marble, but at the rear the building gave way to more economical Newark brownstone, reflecting a shortage of funds during construction. By contrast, the stolid granite exterior of the Astor House—with its Doric columns and entablature—masked a gleaming modern interior of black walnut, with a tree-shaded central courtyard under a high rotunda of cast-iron and glass. In between the two landmarks, white slabs of a shiny pavement known as Russ created a slick surface, treacherous in wet weather, where even the horses were known to lose their footing.

At eleven o’clock that morning, Lincoln emerged from the Astor House and was driven the short distance across Broadway in an open carriage, “amid the most enthusiastic cheering” of the crowds gathered outside, to attend a reception at City Hall. On this occasion, Lincoln’s host would be Fernando Wood, the charismatic and crafty mayor of New York City, whom a colleague would recall as “the handsomest man I ever saw, and the most corrupt man that ever sat in the Mayor’s chair.”

Mayor Wood, who had pointedly declined to welcome Lincoln to the city the previous day, now received him in the lavish Governor’s Room on the second floor, availing himself of the many symbolic features of the room: “Mr. Lincoln entered, hat in hand, and advanced to where Mayor Wood was posted,” reported the New York Times, “behind Washington’s writing desk, and immediately in front of Governor Seward’s portrait.” Backed by the stern full-length image of Seward, New York’s most outspoken proponent of compromise, Wood took the occasion to deliver a lecture on the “political divisions” that had “sorely afflicted” his city, and expressed concern that “the present supremacy of New York may perish” if the Union should be dissolved. “To you,” he told the president-elect, “we look for a restoration of fraternal relations between the States, only to be accomplished by peaceful and conciliatory means—aided by the wisdom of God.”

A murmur of disapproval ran through the room at this high-handed moralizing, but Lincoln, according to the Times, managed to preserve his “characteristically thoughtful look” until Wood concluded his remarks. Now, as he made to reply, he “brightened his face with a pleasant smile,” and expressed gratitude for the kind reception he had received in a city whose residents “do not, by a large majority, agree with me in political sentiment.” Nevertheless, he continued, he believed that New Yorkers stood with him in support of the “great principles” underpinning the government. “In regard to the difficulties that confront us at this time,” he declared, “I can only say that I agree with the sentiments expressed by the Mayor. In my devotion to the Union, I hope I am behind no man in the nation … There is nothing that could ever bring me to consent—willingly to consent—to the destruction of this Union, in which not only the great City of New York, but the whole country has acquired its greatness, unless it would be that thing for which the Union itself was made.” He then expanded on this last remark with a graceful play on the familiar metaphor of a “ship of state”: “I understand that the ship is made for the carrying and preservation of the cargo, and so long as the ship is safe with the cargo it shall not be abandoned. This Union shall never be abandoned unless the possibility of its existence shall cease to exist, without the necessity of throwing passengers and cargo overboard.”

For many New Yorkers, these aptly chosen words marked a turning point. The previous day, the Reverend Irenaeus Prime, an editor of the New York Observer, had expressed “overwhelming” disappointment at the sight of Lincoln, “looking weary, sad, feeble and faint” as he passed along Fifth Avenue. “He did not look to me to be the man for the hour.” Today, however, the Reverend Prime found himself duly converted. “Mr. Lincoln’s reply was so modest, firm, patriotic, and pertinent, that my fears of the day before began to subside, and I saw in this new man a promise of great things to come.”

That sense of promise was much in evidence at the reception that followed Lincoln’s remarks, during which some five thousand New Yorkers were hurried through the Governor’s Room as if “discharged by a piece of ordnance.” It was amusing, said the Times, to see “the bewildered look of the injected visitors” as they were hustled through the receiving line by police and soldiers. Lincoln shook hands and exchanged pleasantries for the better part of two hours, then followed this effort with a speech from the second-floor balcony of City Hall. Once again, the careful preparations of Superintendent John Kennedy were much in evidence. At the conclusion of the speech, a line of officers “suddenly faced outwards,” rapidly clearing a path for Lincoln’s exit.

Under Kennedy’s watchful eye, Lincoln enjoyed one of the smoothest days of his journey as he made his rounds in New York. At the Astor House that morning, he had greeted a ninety-four-year-old supporter who had voted in every presidential election to date, going all the way back to George Washington. That afternoon, he accepted a pair of new hats from rival manufacturers, and diplomatically avoided expressing a preference between the two: “They mutually surpassed each other,” he managed to say. Mrs. Lincoln and the boys, meanwhile, accepted an invitation from P. T. Barnum to visit his celebrated “American Museum” on Broadway at Ann Street, where the exhibitions at that time included Major Little Finger—a “less intelligent” relation of Tom Thumb—as well as “The Great Grizzly Mammoth Bear Samson,” said to weigh two thousand pounds. Seven-year-old Tad declined to join the visit at the last moment, claiming that he had seen more than enough bears back home in Springfield.

That evening, Lincoln dined in unaccustomed luxury at the Astor House with vice president–elect Hannibal Hamlin, whose own inaugural journey from Maine had brought him to New York that afternoon. Hamlin would recall that Lincoln appeared bemused when confronted with a plate of oysters on the half shell. “Well,” he remarked, “I don’t know that I can manage these things, but I guess I can learn.” Afterward, both men attended a performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ballat the Academy of Music, slipping into their box after the curtain rose on the first act. Curious patrons subjected the pair to a “double-barreled opera glass attack,” which was followed, as word of their presence spread, by a rousing chorus of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Lincoln, exhausted by the day’s labors, ducked out before the end of the performance, and gave Hamlin the job of addressing a crowd of supporters gathered outside the hotel.

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KATE WARNE, also exhausted from her exertions in New York, had made her way back to Baltimore to report to Pinkerton by that time. “I went to bed tired,” she said of her efforts the previous evening, after talking long into the night with Norman Judd at the Astor House. Judd’s concerns about Lincoln’s safety had been reignited by Pinkerton’s “ten for one” telegram, reporting the odds given in Baltimore’s betting shops that Lincoln could not pass through the city alive. Though Pinkerton had intended simply to impress Judd with the gravity of the situation, so as to ensure the politician’s full cooperation, the message brought Judd to the edge of panic. Though he stopped short of carrying the message straight to Lincoln, he told Mrs. Warne that he wanted her to meet with Hannibal Hamlin as soon as he reached New York. “I said that it would never do,” Mrs. Warne reported, adding firmly “that I could not say anything more to Hamlin than I had said to him.” Seeing that she would not budge, Judd’s anxiety eventually exhausted itself. It was agreed that Mrs. Warne would leave for Baltimore on a morning train, as planned, and make arrangements for Pinkerton to rendezvous with Judd in Philadelphia, Lincoln’s next stop. The time and place of the meeting would have to be arranged on arrival, but Judd knew that he would not be hard to find: “I informed her,” he later recalled, “that I should be in the carriage with Mr. Lincoln” as he greeted the citizens of Philadelphia.

Mrs. Warne would not have been the only detective working late that night. New York’s police superintendent, John Kennedy, was also said to be laboring “deep into the weary hours” to ensure that Lincoln’s remaining time in the city passed without incident. According to the Times, Lincoln had “frequently expressed his admiration of the excellent police arrangements” throughout his stay, and he even had Kennedy brought to the Astor House so that he “might be complimented as he deserved.” Kennedy accepted the thanks gladly, but assured Lincoln that he and his men had simply been carrying out their duty. “Well,” Lincoln is reported to have said, “a man ought to be thanked when he does his duty right well.”

In fact, Kennedy was doing far more than his duty. The previous month, he had been summoned to Washington to accept a politically sensitive commission. Capt. George W. Walling, later a chief of police, joined him on the express train to the capital. “During the journey the Superintendent told me of the condition of affairs,” Walling recalled. “I learned that the Washington authorities were uneasy. They had requested that some of the most trustworthy officers of the New York police should be detailed for service in Baltimore to ascertain what grounds there were for such suspicions.” The reason for the concern, Walling continued, was “the state of public feeling in Maryland, especially in Baltimore, through which Mr. Lincoln was to pass on his way to Washington to assume office. Riots were feared, and there were sinister rumors of threatened attempts to assassinate the President-elect.”

On reaching Washington, the two men received a briefing from an official they later declined to name. “With secret instructions from this gentleman we went to Baltimore,” Walling reported. “Mr. Kennedy’s duty was a very delicate one. We were soon satisfied that Baltimore was bitterly irritated, but whether the feeling against Mr. Lincoln was personal enough to make his passage through the city dangerous was hard to determine. The situation demanded closer investigation.” Digging deeper, Kennedy sought out his counterpart in the local police force, Marshal George P. Kane, a man whose loyalties he had already come to doubt. “I ascertained from Marshal Kane himself the plan by which Maryland was to be precipitated out of the Union, against the efforts of Governor Hicks to keep it there,” Kennedy would write. “He told me Maryland would wait for the action of Virginia, and that action would take place within a month; and ‘that when Virginia seceded through a convention, Maryland would secede by gravitation.’”

Kennedy, like Pinkerton, declined to place his confidence in a man who publicly advocated secession. Instead, he instructed Captain Walling to dispatch a pair of detectives to Baltimore to begin working under cover. After giving the situation much “anxious thought,” Walling selected two experienced officers, Thomas Sampson and Ely DeVoe, who began operating under the names of Anderson and Davis. “They were instructed to go to Baltimore, look over the ground and ingratiate themselves with disaffected persons,” Walling wrote. “In other words, to use their own discretion and find out all they could.” The two detectives were to report their findings to Col. Charles P. Stone in Washington. Stone was one of two men serving as a “right hand” to Gen. Winfield Scott. The other, as fate would have it, was Col. Robert E. Lee. (“I do not know what induced me to select Stone in preference to Colonel Lee,” Kennedy would later admit, “but I did so.”)

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BY THEIR OWN ADMISSION, Sampson and DeVoe played their roles with gusto. “As soon as we reached our destination we assumed the role of Southern sympathizers and mixed freely with the secessionists,” Sampson recalled. “We were well supplied with money, very swaggering and loud-mouthed, and soon made friends with a certain class of Southerners whose talk was ‘fight to kill.’ We stayed at the Fountain Inn and for some weeks had a good time. By degrees we worked our way into the confidence of our new friends.”

By the time Allan Pinkerton and his Chicago detectives reached Baltimore in early February, Sampson and DeVoe were already hard at work. For more than two weeks, Kennedy’s men and Pinkerton’s were working on parallel tracks, but the two teams were unaware of each other’s efforts for most of that time. It is likely, given the many points of intersection between the two investigations, that at times Pinkerton’s men were literally tripping over Sampson and DeVoe. Had Pinkerton known of their efforts, he would likely have admired their ingenuity. Though Pinkerton had more men on the ground, the New Yorkers had managed in a very short time to infiltrate Baltimore’s secret societies and military units. The major difference lay in what the two teams were doing with the intelligence they gathered. Pinkerton was communicating directly with Lincoln’s suite as they made their way across the country, while Kennedy funneled his information down to Washington. The fact that Sampson and DeVoe were headquartered at the Fountain Hotel, the name of which had been used to signal Lucius Chittenden on his mysterious dead-of-night errand to Baltimore in mid-February, suggests that Chittenden’s “committee of safety” had direct ties to the Kennedy network.

As matters stood, however, the two teams were likely working at cross purposes on more than one occasion. Both Otis Hillard and Cypriano Ferrandini complained to Pinkerton’s men of being under constant observation by “government spies,” and it is possible that the presence of the New York investigators contributed to this climate of suspicion. On the evening of Pinkerton’s meeting with Ferrandini at Barr’s Saloon—during which the Italian barber had declared that “Lincoln shall die in this city”—the detective’s efforts had been hampered by a “pair of strangers” who appeared to be eavesdropping on the conversation. Their presence had caused Ferrandini to cut his remarks short, and Pinkerton was greatly annoyed at having to remain behind to keep watch over the interlopers. It is entirely possible that the two strangers were none other than Sampson and DeVoe.

In any event, while Sampson and DeVoe worked their way into a company of “Southern Volunteers,” Superintendent Kennedy dispatched a third man to Baltimore, an officer named David S. Bookstaver, who took the identity of a “music agent” with interests at the city’s theaters and concert halls. While Sampson and DeVoe mixed with “rebel roughs,” Kennedy wrote, “Bookstaver gave particular attention to the sayings and doings of the better class of citizens and strangers who frequent music, variety, and book stores.”

For Bookstaver, the situation reached a crisis point on Wednesday, February 20, the same day that Kate Warne returned from New York under orders from Norman Judd. On that day, according to Kennedy, Bookstaver obtained information that “made it necessary for him to take the first train for Washington.” Arriving in the capital early on Thursday morning, Bookstaver sought out the team’s Washington contact, Col. Charles P. Stone. By some accounts, Bookstaver was so eager to make his report that he tracked Stone to his rooming house and pulled him out of bed. In any case, the New York detective soon had Stone’s full attention.

Bookstaver gave Stone a hurried summary of what he had learned during his three weeks in Baltimore. During that time, he had often “heard threats of mobbing and violence,” but he had dismissed much of this talk as empty barroom chatter. Now, he said, he had cause to believe otherwise. Within the past few days, he had learned of a “serious danger of violence” in Baltimore, as well as a concrete plan for “the assassination of Mr. Lincoln” during his passage through the city. Unless something was done, Lincoln would surely die before he reached Washington.

Afterward, Bookstaver declined to record the precise details that had convinced him of the sudden urgency of the situation, nor did he give any accounting of how he had acquired the information. Whatever he said that morning, however, left Colonel Stone thoroughly convinced. As soon as Bookstaver finished speaking, Stone rushed the warning directly to General Scott, who now considered the threat in Baltimore to be an established fact. Bookstaver, he said, had provided “the closing piece of information” that confirmed the dark suspicions he and his men had formed in the previous weeks, being “entirely corroborative” of the thick file of warnings and rumors “already in our possession.”

Time was growing short. Lincoln was due to reach Baltimore in two day’s time, at 12:30 on the afternoon of Saturday, February 23. As a military man, Scott realized that the Baltimore plotters had a crucial advantage. Lincoln’s itinerary had been a matter of public record for weeks, making it all too easy for potential assassins to lay their plans. In order to foil these designs, Scott knew, Lincoln would have to break away from the moment-by-moment timetable he had followed since leaving Springfield. As Colonel Stone declared, “All risk might be easily avoided by a change in the travelling arrangements.”

If this seemed plain enough to a military man, General Scott knew that a politician would see the matter differently. He told Stone that Lincoln’s “personal dignity would revolt” at the idea of making any change to his plans, even “on account of danger to his life.” Stone objected strenuously. “Mr. Lincoln’s personal dignity was of small account in comparison with the destruction, or, at least, dangerous disorganization of the United States government,” he insisted, “which would be the inevitable result of his death by violence in Baltimore.” If the planned assassination were to succeed, Stone declared, “we should find ourselves in the worst form of civil war, with the Government utterly unprepared for it.”

General Scott needed no persuading on this point. The difficulty, he believed, lay in making the case to Lincoln, and convincing him to take the necessary steps. Although Scott had already been in touch with Lincoln several times since the election, he saw that this task would have to be entrusted to someone with greater influence than he had. He quickly decided that Senator Seward, who was also known to be concerned for Lincoln’s safety, offered the best chance of success. In the months following the election, Lincoln had been extremely solicitous of his defeated rival, seeking the senator’s advice on cabinet appointments and submitting a draft of his inaugural address for Seward’s approval. General Scott reasoned that if Seward put his weight behind the assassination concerns, Lincoln might be convinced that he was “not coming to Washington to be inaugurated as quietly as any previous President.”

Having decided on this course of action, Scott jotted a note to Seward. He told the senator that Colonel Stone, a “distinguished young officer,” was acting on his behalf: “He has an important communication to make.” Stone took the message to Seward at the Capitol and then gave him a summary of what he had learned from Bookstaver. Seward “listened attentively to what I said,” Stone recalled, and asked a number of questions. Like General Scott, the senator took Bookstaver’s warning as confirmation of his own fears. He asked Scott to write down his information and invited him to add any suggestions he cared to make. Once this was done, Seward took the paper and hurried from the room.

Seward wanted to get the message into Lincoln’s hands as soon as possible, but he also believed that the situation’s “peculiar sensitiveness,” as he phrased it, required him to remain in Washington. Since he could not carry the message to Lincoln himself, and because he felt that the telegraph wires couldn’t be trusted in such circumstances, he needed a messenger in whom he could place his full confidence. As it happened, there was someone close at hand: Seward’s thirty-year-old son, Frederick.

The younger Seward, an editor of the Albany Evening Journal, was seated in the gallery of the Senate Chamber when a page approached and touched him lightly on the arm, whispering that his father wished to see him. “Going down I met him in the lobby,” he recalled. In hushed tones, the elder Seward explained the situation and passed over a brief note he had written to Lincoln, along with the messages from Scott and Stone. “Whether this story is well founded or not, Mr. Lincoln ought to know of it at once,” Senator Seward told his son, “but I know of no reason to doubt it. General Scott is impressed with the belief that the danger is real. Colonel Stone has facilities for knowing, and is not apt to exaggerate.” The senator paused, glancing around to make certain he was not being overheard. “I want you to go by the first train,” he continued. “Find Mr. Lincoln wherever he is, and let no one else know your errand!”

The younger Seward set off at once for the station and boarded a train for Philadelphia, his mind churning with anxiety and regret. “The time had not yet come,” he would later write, “when Americans in general could realize that a crime at once so nefarious and so foolish as the assassination of the Chief Magistrate was possible.”

Seward was fully convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s survival rested on his shoulders, and he had no way of knowing, as he passed through Baltimore on his way north, that Allan Pinkerton was already speeding toward Philadelphia on the same mission.

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