Military history



Allan Pinkerton in 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress



Lincoln’s inaugural ceremonies, March 4, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

SECURITY THAT DAY was the tightest Washington had ever seen. Sharpshooters crouched on the rooftops along Pennsylvania Avenue and in the windows of the Capitol. Armed soldiers—many of them “in citizen’s dress”—fanned out through the crowd, looking for agitators. Companies of uniformed volunteers swelled the ranks of the parade marchers, and a corps of West Point cadets readied themselves to form a sort of flying wedge around the presidential carriage. A cavalry officer riding nearby used his spurs to keep his mount—and those nearby—in an “uneasy state,” making it difficult for a marksman to get off a shot “between the dancing horses.” Inauguration Day—March 4, 1861—found the city tensed for a blow.

Just past noon, an elegant horse-drawn carriage rolled to a stop at the side entrance of Willard’s Hotel on Fourteenth Street, two blocks east of the White House. Looking gray and doddery, President James Buchanan eased himself down from the open coach. The Old Public Functionary, as he was known, had just departed the Executive Mansion for the last time as president. In keeping with the solemnity of the occasion, he wore a formal but out-of-date swallowtail coat and an immense white cravat that spread over his chest “like a poultice.” He appeared thoroughly worn-out, one observer noted, and had few political allies left to mourn his exit. “The sun, thank God, has risen upon the last day of the administration of James Buchanan,” declared the New York World.

Willard’s Hotel, the city’s largest, was packed to capacity for the inaugural festivities, with proprietor Henry A. Willard booking an average of three people to a room. In the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the stately six-story building could be “much more justly called the centre of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department.” This had been especially true since the arrival ten days earlier of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, whose presence in the hotel had sparked a “quadrennial revel” of visitors. “Everybody may be seen there,” Hawthorne would write. “You exchange nods with governors of sovereign States; you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals.”

The arrival of President Buchanan would mark the end to the political scrum. Pausing for a moment outside the hotel, Buchanan removed his low-crowned silk hat and passed through the side entrance. Moments later, he reemerged, walking arm in arm with Abraham Lincoln. The president-elect wore a new black cashmere suit, which had been made for him in Chicago, and carried a gold-tipped ebony cane. As the two men stepped into the waiting carriage, a group of soldiers standing near the hotel entrance snapped to attention, and a Marine band struck up “Hail to the Chief.” Lincoln smiled and tipped his stovepipe hat, but his face appeared drawn and even more heavily lined than usual. He had been up most of the night, laboring over a final draft of his inaugural address. Moments earlier, while waiting for Buchanan to arrive, he had sat jotting notes as his son Robert read the speech aloud, giving him a better sense of how the words would strike the ears of his listeners. Distracted by this last-minute tinkering, Lincoln left Willard’s Hotel without paying his tab. Several weeks later, when the lapse was brought to his attention, he sent the money over from the White House with a note of apology.

Lincoln and Buchanan sat side by side as their driver swung the carriage onto Pennsylvania Avenue, signaling the start of a “glad and sumptuous” parade that would carry them to the Capitol. The hour-long procession featured floats, marching bands, columns of veterans of the War of 1812, and a richly appointed “tableau car” carrying thirty-four “beauteous little girls,” each representing a state of the Union. A throng of some 25,000 people crowded along both sides of the broad avenue. Many in the crowd had come from out of town to witness the proceedings, and a few had been obliged to spend the night sleeping on the pavement after being turned away at the city’s overbooked hotels. Those who could not get a clear view scrambled for higher ground. “The trees upon the corners,” reported a Philadelphia paper, were “as full of small boys as an apple tree in fruit-bearing season.”

“The Inaugural Procession at Washington,” from Harper’s Weekly, March 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The temperature that afternoon had turned cool and bracing, and it is likely that the atmosphere in the presidential carriage was chillier still. During his campaign, Lincoln had criticized Buchanan sharply, though neither man escaped censure in the press as Inauguration Day approached, especially in the South: “An imbecile official is succeeded by a stupid Rail Splitter,” declared an Atlanta newspaper. As the carriage neared the Capitol, however, Buchanan is said to have struck a conciliatory note. Anticipating his return to his estate in Pennsylvania, the outgoing president turned to his successor. “My dear sir,” he said, “if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.”

Lincoln, by all accounts, gave a delicate reply: “Mr. President, I cannot say that I shall enter it with much pleasure, but I assure you that I shall do what I can to maintain the high standards set by my illustrious predecessors who have occupied it.”

Barely two and a half years had elapsed since Lincoln had launched his campaign for the United States Senate—and the historic series of debates against Stephen A. Douglas—with his famous warning of the dangers of disunion over the issue of slavery: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Now, as Lincoln prepared to take the oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” as president of the United States, many of the diplomats and politicians gathered at the Capitol believed that a civil war was inevitable and that Lincoln would take office only to preside over the disintegration of the Union. Almost at that very moment, some seven hundred miles away in Montgomery, Alabama, the “Stars and Bars” flag of the Confederacy was being raised at the state capitol, with seven stars to represent the seven states that had already seceded.

“A more enviable, but at the same time more delicate and more hazardous lot than that accorded to Abraham Lincoln never fell to any member of this nation,” wrote journalist Henry Villard in the New York Herald. “The path he is about to walk on may lead to success, glory, immortality, but also to failure, humiliation and curses upon his memory. He may steer clear of the rock of disunion and the shoal of dissension among those that elevated him to the office he is about to assume, and safely conduct the Ship of State from amidst the turbulence of fanaticism and lawlessness to the port of peace and reunion. But he may, on the other hand, take his place at the helm of the craft only to sink with it.”

In keeping with the gravity of the moment, Lincoln had spent weeks laboring over his inaugural address, which he saw as an opportunity to pull the divided nation back from crisis. The president-elect sought a great deal of advice about the speech, but even his closest advisers were at odds over whether he should extend an olive branch to the South or fire a warning shot. Lincoln himself initially favored a strong, even confrontational message, stating that the Union would be preserved at all costs, that secession was illegal, and that he, as commander in chief, intended to enforce the law of the land. Toward that end, he planned to close the address with a ringing, provocative challenge: “In yourhands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war … With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of ‘Shall it be peace, or a sword?’”

As Inauguration Day approached, however, Lincoln moderated the warlike tone, acting on the counsel of advisers such as William H. Seward, his designated secretary of state, to display “the magnanimity of a victor.” If the speech were delivered as originally drafted, Seward believed, both Virginia and Maryland would immediately secede, effectively cutting off Washington from the Northern states. “Every thought that we think ought to be conciliatory, forbearing and patient,” he insisted.

Even as Lincoln revised and polished his address, however, there were many who felt that the moment for healing had passed. “Mr. Lincoln entered Washington the victim of a grave delusion,” said Horace Greeley, the famed publisher of the New-York Tribune. “His faith in reason as a moral force was so implicit that he did not cherish a doubt that his Inaugural Address, whereon he had bestowed much thought and labor, would, when read throughout the South, dissolve the Confederacy as frost is dissipated by the vernal sun.”

In order for Lincoln to deliver the address, however, he had to make it safely through the brief, final leg of his procession to the Capitol, a journey that had begun three weeks earlier in Springfield, Illinois. Many of Lincoln’s most trusted advisers believed that his life had been in danger at every moment, especially during the thirteen days he had spent aboard the Lincoln Special, the private train that carried him on his winding, disjointed path to Washington. Even now, on the very doorstep of the presidency, many feared that there were sinister forces at work that would prevent Lincoln from taking the oath of office. The papers were filled with “persistent rumors” of an armed uprising, with a force of men numbering in the thousands poised to descend on Washington. Others spoke of groups of assassins hidden within the throngs at the Capitol grounds. “There is some apprehension felt concerning the possible action of a large gang of ‘Plug-Uglies’ who are here from Baltimore,” reported the previous day’s New York Times. “Strange to say, heavy bets are pending on the question of his safety through tomorrow’s exercises, and great anxiety is felt at Head-quarters concerning certain unpublished designs.” Lincoln himself had received anonymous threats of violent opposition to the inauguration. “Beware the Ides of March,” warned one correspondent, “the Suthron people will not Stand your administration.” Another spoke of a “sworn band of 10, who have resolved to shoot you in the inaugural procession.” Lincoln waved such threats aside, the Times reported, and remained utterly unfazed: “He says, ‘I am here to take what is my right, and I shall take it. I anticipate no trouble, but should it come I am prepared to meet it.”

Though steps were taken to keep the security measures as inconspicuous as possible, some observers were appalled by the seemingly belligerent display of military force. “Nothing could have been more ill-advised or more ostentatious,” declared an anonymous diarist of the day. “I never expected to experience such a sense of mortification and shame in my own country as I felt today, in entering the Capitol through hedges of Marines armed to the teeth.” Not surprisingly, the Southern press seized on the unprecedented show of force to heap scorn on the incoming president. “I have seen today such a sight as I could never have believed possible at the capital of my country,” wrote a journalist in theCharleston Mercury, “an inauguration of a President surrounded by armed soldiery, with loaded pieces and fixed bayonets.” Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, the seventy-four-year-old commanding general of the United States, offered no apologies. Convinced of the existence of a plot against Lincoln, the old soldier spent inauguration day commanding a battery of light artillery on Capitol Hill. “I shall plant cannon at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue,” he declared, “and if any of the Maryland or Virginia gentlemen who have become so threatening and troublesome of late show their heads, or even venture to raise a finger, I shall blow them to Hell!”

At a few minutes past 1:00 P.M., the inaugural procession arrived at the Capitol, with its new, half-finished steel dome obscured by scaffolding. Uniformed volunteers arrayed themselves in a double row along the length of the building, forming a human barrier between the crowd and a square-roofed wooden canopy that had been erected at the east portico. Lincoln and Buchanan, meanwhile, were escorted into the Senate Chamber along a makeshift covered walkway, which had been layered with planks to guard against the possibility of sniper fire. Once inside, Lincoln appeared “grave and impassive as an Indian martyr” during the swearing-in of his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin. The outgoing president, meanwhile, looked pale and distracted. “Mr. Buchanan sighed audibly, and frequently,” noted a correspondent from the New York Times, “but whether from reflection upon the failure of his Administration, I can’t say.”

At about 1:30 P.M., a long line of politicians and dignitaries, including the justices of the Supreme Court, filed beneath the unfinished dome of the Capitol rotunda and passed through the doors leading outside to the east portico. As Lincoln emerged at the top of the Capitol steps, he received a “most glorious shout of welcome” from the crowd below.

At the bottom of the stairs, beneath the wooden canopy, stood a “miserable little rickety table” holding a pitcher of water and a glass. After introductory remarks by his friend Edward D. Baker, Lincoln—looking “pale, and wan, and anxious”—stepped forward to speak. For a moment, he hesitated, searching for a place to set down his hat. Stephen Douglas, the Illinois Democrat who had so vigorously contested Lincoln’s bid for both the Senate and the White House, happened to be seated close by. Seeing Lincoln’s predicament, he stepped forward to assist his former rival. “If I cannot be President,” Douglas is supposed to have said, “I can at least be his hat-bearer.” The Times correspondent, eager for one last dig at the outgoing president, noted that Buchanan, “who was probably sleepy and tired, sat looking as straight as he could at the toe of his right foot.”

For some moments, the president-elect stood quietly and gathered himself, weighing down the loose pages of his speech with his ebony cane as he adjusted his eyeglasses. “The ten thousand threats that he should be assassinated before he should take the oath did not impel him to make a gesture implying fear or haste,” observed the New-York Tribune, “and he stood forth a conspicuous mark for the villains who had threatened to shoot him as he read.” When at last Lincoln began to speak, one listener recalled, his voice “rang out over the acres of people before him with surprising distinctness.”

No incoming president had ever faced such a balancing act in trying to appease so bitterly divided a country, a dilemma that cartoonist Thomas Nast neatly captured in a double portrait called The President’s Inaugural. In one panel, Lincoln appeared as an angel of peace, waving palm garlands over a caption that read: “This is the way the North receives it.” But the facing panel showed Lincoln as a Roman centurion with his foot pressing down on a vanquished foe, brandishing a sword over the words “This is the way the South receives it.”

Both sides found ample evidence in Lincoln’s words to support their differing views. The speech contained many warnings to the South about the consequences of hostile action. “Physically speaking, we cannot separate,” Lincoln declared, adding that the laws of the Union would be “faithfully executed in all the states.” At the same time, however, he insisted that there was no need for “bloodshed or violence,” a point he underscored as the address concluded with a ringing expression of hope for reconciliation:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The address completed, Lincoln stepped back and bowed his head. Then, in one of the day’s many ironies, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stepped forward to administer the oath of office. Taney, an eighty-three-year-old Maryland slaveholder, had performed this service six times previously, stretching back to the inauguration of Martin Van Buren, in 1837. More recently, Taney had delivered the majority opinion in the notorious Dred Scott v. Sanford case, declaring among other things that slaves were entitled to no protections under the Constitution, and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The decision had had a galvanizing effect on the abolitionist movement and had helped to propel Abraham Lincoln into the national spotlight. Now, as the slavery issue pushed the country to the brink of war, Taney was obliged to swear in one of his most outspoken critics as the sixteenth president of the United States.

For all the challenges that lay ahead, which Lincoln himself described as greater than those faced by George Washington, he had already met the first test of his presidency: He had survived his journey to the inaugural ceremony. “No mean courage was required to face the probabilities of the hour,” wrote Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist. The new president had “stood up before the pistol or dagger of the sworn assassin, to meet death from an unknown hand, while upon the very threshold of the office to which the suffrages of the nation had elected him.” Horace Greeley concurred, recalling his own sense of foreboding as Lincoln delivered the inaugural address. “I sat just behind him as he read it,” Greeley wrote, “expecting to hear its delivery arrested by the crack of a rifle aimed at his heart.”

For Greeley, at least, Lincoln’s survival appeared to be a sign of providence. “It pleased God to postpone the deed,” he concluded, “though there was forty times the reason for shooting him in 1860 than there was in ’65, and at least forty times as many intent on killing or having him killed. No shot was then fired, however; for his hour had not yet come.”

Not even Greeley, who had followed Lincoln’s fortunes closely for more than a dozen years, knew what a near thing it had been, and the one person who could have told him was nowhere to be seen. Allan Pinkerton, the man who had done more than any other to ensure the peaceful transfer of power that day, had long since returned to Baltimore to chase down rumors of a fresh plot against the new administration.

“The Eye,” as he was known, still had work to do.

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