Military history

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

A FEW DETERMINED MEN

PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN departs today for Washington, and the WINDOWS AND BALCONIES OF THE MUSEUM afford a fine view of him as HE LEAVES THE ASTOR HOUSE AND PASSES DOWN BROADWAY, directly in front of the Museum, so that he will be seen plainly and distinctly. Who will not embrace the opportunity to look upon the NATION’S HEAD, the NATION’S DELIVERER, the PEOPLE’S FAVORITE and FRIEND?

Remember, this is the last chance in New York.

—advertisement for Barnum’s American Museum, February 21, 1861

EARLY ON THE MORNING of February 21, even as David Bookstaver made his report to Charles Stone in Washington, Abraham Lincoln boarded a steam ferry at New York’s Cortlandt Street terminal for a brief, choppy crossing of the Hudson River to New Jersey, the first leg of that day’s travel to Philadelphia. It was soon apparent, as Lincoln came ashore to a familiar scene of chaos at the landing in Jersey City, that he had passed out of Superintendent John Kennedy’s efficient jurisdiction. “The Jersey police were overwhelmed,” reported the New York Times. “Vainly did they brandish their clubs and push the crowd back.” As Lincoln moved toward the train that would carry him south, an enthusiastic “Son of Erin” barreled out of the crowd in a giddy effort to shake his hand. The police detail quickly surrounded the eager Irishman and duly “punched him off the platform” with their clubs, much to the amusement of the crowd. As the multitudes surged again, however, the police line gave way. “It was like being in a hydraulic press,” wrote Joseph Howard. “Verily, our reporter’s bowels ache when he mentally recalls that excruciating collapse.” As Howard and the other “compressed unfortunates” howled with pain, their cries were taken to be cheers for Lincoln.

Lincoln, shielded by his escorts, would have been pleased to hear any sound that could be mistaken for cheering that morning. For the first time, he had entered a state that he had not carried in the election. New Jersey had gone to Stephen Douglas by a narrow margin, and signs of ambivalence, if not outright hostility, were plainly visible along the route. In Newark, where Lincoln paused to give a pair of speeches later that morning, his carriage passed a black-bearded effigy swinging by the neck from a lamppost, together with a placard reading THE TRAITOR’S DOOM.

By noon, Lincoln had reached Trenton, where a heaving crowd at the train depot “beat down the line of feeble constables” with a mighty rush, swarming forward as Lincoln entered his carriage. Howard reported himself sorry to see Lincoln and his suite struggling in the crush, but he admitted to a certain satisfaction in the distress of the local worthies: “It did me good to see them pummeled, pushed and squeezed,” he wrote.

In the first of two speeches at the New Jersey State House, Lincoln departed from his prepared remarks to offer a fond recollection of childhood. He spoke of the pleasure he had found in his early reading of Weem’s Life of Washington,with its epic description of the general crossing the Delaware River in advance of the Battle of Trenton. After recalling the manner in which the “struggle here at Trenton” had fixed itself in his imagination, Lincoln deftly linked Washington’s triumph to the crisis ahead. “I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, this Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated,” he declared, “in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made.”

Lincoln made the point even more forcefully in his second speech, this time before the state senate. “The man does not live who is more devoted to peace than I am,” he declared, drawing a round of cheers from the legislators. “None would do more to preserve it. But it may be necessary to put the foot down firmly.” At this, John Hay reported, Lincoln “lifted his foot lightly, and pressed it with a quick, but not violent, gesture upon the floor.” Wild applause and cheers greeted this display, and several moments passed before he could resume. “And if I do my duty, and do right, you will sustain me, will you not?” As a second wave of cheers passed through the chamber, Lincoln reminded his audience of the enormity of the task ahead. Recalling his comments in New York the previous day, he asked for assistance in “piloting the ship of State through this voyage, surrounded by perils as it is.” If the ship should suffer attack now, he warned, “there will be no pilot ever needed for another voyage.”

*   *   *

ALLAN PINKERTON HAD ALREADY put in a long day in Philadelphia by this time, rushing from place to place—head bent forward, one arm tucked behind his back—as he tried to put the finishing touches on a “plan of operation” he had devised in Baltimore. Much had changed since Pinkerton’s previous visit to the Quaker City, some three weeks earlier, when he had first learned of Samuel Felton’s concerns for the safety of his railroad. In light of what he had now uncovered in Baltimore, Pinkerton believed that Lincoln could no longer be tethered to William Wood’s moment-by-moment timetable, as this ready catalog of his movements played directly into the hands of the conspirators. It had become an “absolute necessity” to abandon the well-publicized itinerary and proceed directly to Washington that very night, under the detective’s personal protection. If Pinkerton could spirit Lincoln through the city ahead of schedule, the assassins would be caught off guard. By the time they took their places for the scheduled arrival in Baltimore, Lincoln would already be safe in Washington.

Pinkerton knew that what he was proposing would be risky and perhaps even foolhardy. Even if Lincoln departed ahead of schedule, the route to the capital would pass through Baltimore in any case. If any hint of a change of plan leaked out, Lincoln’s position would become far more precarious. Instead of traveling openly with his full complement of friends and protectors, he would be relatively alone and exposed, with only one or two men at his side. That being the case, Pinkerton knew that secrecy was even more critical than ever. He suspected that Lincoln was being watched at every moment by “rebel spirits,” who sent regular reports of the president-elect’s movements to “sympathetic parties” in the South. Any suggestion of a break from the published timetable would sound alarms that would be heard in Baltimore.

The dark weight of Pinkerton’s mission contrasted sharply with the cheery scenes all around him. “The streets were alive with the eager populace, all anxious to do honor to the new President,” he reported. Philadelphia had been a late addition to Lincoln’s itinerary, and the city’s politicians and “committee men” had scrambled to get ready in time. “Great preparations had been made,” Pinkerton wrote, “and the military, of which Philadelphia was justly proud, were to escort the President-elect from the depot to the Continental Hotel, where quarters had been engaged for him, and where he would receive the congratulations of the people.” The Continental, a six-story showplace completed one year earlier, had been fully booked in anticipation of Lincoln’s arrival, so Pinkerton took a room at the nearby St. Louis, a quieter and more understated hotel and one that better suited his purpose. He also reserved a room for Kate Warne, who would be joining him in Philadelphia. If Pinkerton’s plan came together as he hoped it would, Mrs. Warne would be playing her most challenging role yet.

Shortly after 9:00 A.M., Pinkerton met up with Samuel Felton in front of a hotel on Broad Street, and walked along with him toward the depot of the PW&B Railroad. The two men had much to discuss. Pinkerton was deeply conscious of the fact that everything he had learned over the course of the previous weeks had come at Felton’s instigation, and that the railroad president had financed the operation at great expense to his company. Pinkerton had always operated on the principle that any information he gathered in the field belonged to the man who had hired him. Though the discovery of the assassination plot had sent Pinkerton’s efforts along a different track, the detective felt a clear responsibility to his employer even at this crucial moment. “I deemed it my duty,” Pinkerton said, “to communicate the [facts] to Mr. Felton. I said to him that I knew this information was theirs but I knew of no reason why it should not be imparted to Mr. Lincoln or his friends with a view to avoiding the peril.”

As the two men walked through the streets, Pinkerton outlined everything he had learned in Baltimore. He told Felton that his investigation left no room for doubt: “[T]here would be an attempt made to assassinate Mr. Lincoln.” Even if some of the intelligence he had gathered was untrustworthy, he said, there had been such an accumulation of evidence that Pinkerton had no question of the overarching threat. Pinkerton enumerated all of the disparate elements—his distrust of Marshal Kane, Harry Davies’s report on Ferrandini’s secret meeting, Timothy Webster’s dispatches from Perrymansville—but he was careful not to exaggerate the scope of the plot. While some rumors placed the number of active conspirators in the thousands, Pinkerton insisted that he did not believe there was “any large organization or body of men who would be willing to go so far.” Instead, based solely on the information he could verify, he concluded that there were no more than twenty men “who would be reckless enough to attempt anything of the kind.” This was far from comforting, however, since the detective had no doubt that “a few determined men” working in concert could easily succeed. He reminded Felton that all mobs, “especially a Baltimore mob,” were dangerously volatile: “[T]he first shot fired, the first blow struck, and the whole became a living mass of mad, ungovernable people.” Moreover, Pinkerton concluded, returning to the original purpose of his investigation, if the plot were successful, Felton’s railroad would be destroyed to prevent retaliation by Northern troops.

To Pinkerton’s relief, Felton gave his full support to the detective’s plans. “Mr. Felton approved of what I had said and of the view I had taken of the case,” Pinkerton reported. The railroad president also agreed “that there would be bloodshed in Mr. Lincoln’s attempting to pass through Baltimore openly by the route proposed.” Felton hoped it would be possible for Lincoln to depart for Washington that evening, perhaps taking a sleeping car through Baltimore in the dead of night. Felton assured Pinkerton that all of the resources of the PW&B would be placed at Lincoln’s disposal.

Until that morning, Pinkerton had likely not realized the extent to which Felton’s fears for Lincoln’s safety had already been inflamed. In addition to Pinkerton’s own reports, Felton had heard dire warnings from other sources, including the mysterious “gentleman from Baltimore” who had walked for miles to pass information to one of Felton’s bridge keepers. Felton had become so concerned by these disparate threads of evidence that he had already mentioned the possibility of danger to a Philadelphia newspaper editor, Morton McMichael of the North American. Not surprisingly, McMichael had taken “a deep interest” in the matter. In fact, as Felton now told Pinkerton, the editor had left Philadelphia that morning to intercept the Lincoln Special, so that he might deliver a timely warning of the situation.

With effort, Pinkerton kept his temper in check. He had repeatedly told Felton that no one could be informed of the doings in Baltimore without placing his operatives at risk. Now, at this vital moment, Felton had placed the entire effort at the mercy of a newspaperman. Seeing Pinkerton’s distress, Felton assured him that he had told McMichael not to mention the subject to anyone but Norman Judd—“not even to Mr. Lincoln himself”—but Pinkerton knew that it could only be a matter of hours before whispers began to appear in the press. This, in turn, would put the Baltimore plotters on alert.

Pinkerton was now more determined than ever to take control of Lincoln’s itinerary and spirit him off to Washington that evening. Leaving Felton at his office, the detective hurried back to the St. Louis and told Kate Warne to stand by for further instructions. Next, Pinkerton went in search of George H. Burns, the “young attaché” whom Edward Sanford had sent to assist. If Pinkerton’s plan had any chance of success, he would need to meet with Norman Judd as soon as the Lincoln Special pulled into Philadelphia. Burns, who had acted as a courier between Sanford and Mrs. Warne in New York, was now given the job of carrying messages from Pinkerton to Judd. “I requested Mr. Burns to go to the Kensington Railroad Depot, and await the arrival of the Presidential Party [to] arrange for a meeting with myself and Mr. Felton at the earliest possible moment,” Pinkerton noted in his field report. Knowing that there would be a vast crush of people waiting to see Lincoln at the Continental, Pinkerton decided that his room at the St. Louis would be the “best and safest” place to meet with Judd.

After dispatching Burns, Pinkerton rejoined Samuel Felton, whose concerns had now been further inflamed by a “curious telegram” from Hannibal Hamlin. The vice president–elect had wired to request a special car on the noon train from Philadelphia to Baltimore the following day, which would send him through the city a day ahead of Lincoln’s scheduled passage on Saturday. For Pinkerton, this raised yet another dilemma. Hamlin’s request suggested that security concerns had surfaced within Lincoln’s inner circle. Pinkerton could only guess at the source, but, as Kate Warne had reported, Norman Judd had wanted to warn Hamlin the previous day. Although Judd had promised at the time to honor Pinkerton’s request for discretion, Hamlin’s telegram suggested that alarms had been sounded in any case.

Pinkerton knew that any change of plan for Hamlin would complicate the arrangements he hoped to make for Lincoln, especially if news of the change found its way to the press. Hoping to contain the information, Pinkerton arranged to use Edward Sanford’s influence to prevent the item from being released over the wires of the American Telegraph Company. This would buy a bit of time, but if Hamlin was determined to press ahead with his change of plan, Pinkerton knew that “it would be advisable for us to meet Mr. Judd as early as possible and lay the whole matter before him.”

As it happened, the chance to do so was now at hand. “Just at this time I heard the sound of music,” Pinkerton reported, which meant that the city’s marching bands had swung into action. Lincoln had at last reached Philadelphia.

*   *   *

AT THE KENSINGTON DEPOT, noted a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a “wild mass of human beings” jostled for a glimpse of the president-elect, “swaying to and fro in a manner which was equally destructive to the integrity of one’s temper and one’s integuments.” Even as he struggled to preserve his poise and outer coverings, the newsman had praise for the manner in which Lincoln’s honor guard of Hunter, Pope, and Hazard kept their heads in “frantic” circumstances, and he singled out the dashing young Colonel Ellsworth for his gallant efforts to protect Lincoln from “the importunities of curious crowds.” As it happened, the military men also prevented George H. Burns, Pinkerton’s young messenger, from delivering the detective’s note to Norman Judd. Thrown back by the crowd and the security detail, Burns hurried outside, looking for a chance to intercept Judd as Lincoln’s line of carriages made its four-mile procession toward the Continental Hotel.

The “pummeling, pushing and squeezing” continued along the parade route. “There were old men and young men, wives and maidens, matrons and children,” noted the Inquirer, “all anxious for a sight of the hero of the hour.” Mixing in with the throng were Pinkerton and Felton, drawn by the sounds of the approaching pageant. “All was excitement,” Pinkerton observed, taking careful note of the security measures. “On each side of the carriage in which Mr. Lincoln was seated, accompanied by Mr. Judd, was a file of policemen whose duty it was to prevent the mass of people from pressing too closely to the vehicle.” The unbroken line of policemen stood with linked arms along the entire length of the parade route, holding back the surging crowd while a squad of cavalry surrounded the carriage.

Impressive as these precautions were, George H. Burns remained determined to get Pinkerton’s note into the hands of Norman Judd. As Lincoln’s carriage rolled slowly through the streets, pulled by four plumed horses, Burns threaded his way through the crowd alongside, leaping up and down as he attempted to attract Judd’s attention. Pinkerton looked on as Burns made a frantic effort to reach the carriage, heedless of the fact that he appeared for all the world to be a crazed assailant launching an attack on Lincoln himself.

“As the procession reached the corner of Broad and Chestnut streets,” Pinkerton reported, Burns summoned all his strength and powered his way past the cordon of policemen. “I saw Mr. Burns break through the ranks of the officers, and coming to the side of the carriage, he handed to Mr. Judd a slip of paper on which was written: ‘St. Louis Hotel, ask for J. H. Hutchinson.’” Shrugging off the approaches of nearby officers, Burns trotted alongside the carriage as Judd read the message and gave a verbal response. Then, gathering himself to reverse course, Burns plunged back through the police ranks and lost himself in the dense crowd, eventually finding Pinkerton outside the nearby La Pierre Hotel. Breathlessly, Burns told the detective that he had managed to fix a time for the meeting at 7:30 that evening. Pinkerton’s face fell. If there was to be any hope of getting Lincoln on a train that same night, a 7:30 meeting would be too late. “I requested Mr. Burns to endeavor once more to see Mr. Judd,” Pinkerton recalled, “and say to him that some circumstances had transpired which rendered it advisable to meet earlier.” Hearing this, the young messenger turned and looked again at the line of policemen with linked arms and the squad of mounted soldiers. It must have seemed to Burns that he had been asked to take a second lap across the Hellespont.

Squaring his shoulders, Burns launched himself back into the fray. “How Mr. Burns was to get through the crowd and overtake the carriage I could not see, nor how he would again break the ranks of the police I could not tell,” Pinkerton admitted, “but he left me and with superhuman strength I saw him go through the crowd like nothing, and bursting through the ranks of the police again reach the carriage. In a few minutes he returned and said that Mr. Judd would see me immediately at the St. Louis.” Pinkerton nodded his approval, though the young messenger’s heroics could not have eased his concerns about what lay ahead. If Burns could so readily reach Lincoln’s side with a message, surely an assassin would be able to reach him with a knife.

As Lincoln’s procession continued on to the Continental, Pinkerton returned to his room at the St. Louis and lit a fire. Samuel Felton arrived shortly afterward, but it was already 6:45 by the time Norman Judd managed to pull free and make his way to Pinkerton’s room. Pinkerton, anxious about the hour, hastily introduced Judd to Felton and hurried both men into chairs by the fire. Felton would recall that he and Pinkerton were both so eager to get down to business that they began speaking at once: “We lost no time in making known to him all the facts which had come to our knowledge in reference to the conspiracy.”

Judd listened attentively as Pinkerton elaborated on details that he had only hinted at in his earlier messages. The detective, looking to make his case in the most effective manner possible, took care to emphasize that the plot against Lincoln had come as a surprise to him. He had gone to Baltimore, he said, with no other purpose in mind than the protection of Felton’s railroad. Only in the course of pursuing that investigation had he “discovered the fact that some persons meditated the assassination of the President Elect.” Felton, meanwhile, confirmed that corroborating information had come to him from other sources, and he insisted that he had no doubt that “there would be blood-shed in Baltimore” if Lincoln adhered to his published itinerary. At the same time, Pinkerton was careful not to exaggerate the scope of the threat. Again and again, he stressed that “a few resolute men” scattered through the crowd in Baltimore would be sufficient to precipitate a disaster. He asked Judd to imagine the likely consequences if Lincoln’s party were to be “hemmed in” by the crowd and surrounded by “a small number of men acting in concert.” It had been difficult enough, at the earlier stops on the itinerary, to get Lincoln safely through. In Buffalo, amid a crowd of enthusiastic supporters, the chaos had been so great “as to seriously injure Major Hunter.” If the Baltimore crowd sheltered men who were bound and determined to strike Lincoln down, “even if they had to give a life for a life,” it would be all but impossible to stop them.

Pinkerton spoke at length about such secessionists as Otis K. Hillard, “whose every sympathy was with the South and would deem it an honor to become martyrs in their cause.” Though it was tempting, Pinkerton admitted, to dismiss Hillard and his kind as toothless firebrands, the same might also have been said of the abolitionist John Brown, “who almost single-handed threw himself into a fight against the nation.” The men in Baltimore, Pinkerton insisted, were no less devoted to their cause. Hillard and his kind would do whatever their leaders called upon them to do, “without asking a why or wherefore,” to guarantee “that Lincoln should not pass through Baltimore alive.”

Adding to his fears, Pinkerton explained, was the fact that he did not expect the Baltimore police to provide effective protection, based on the remarks he had overheard Marshall Kane make. Even if Kane’s men were to “make a decent show to preserve order,” Pinkerton reasoned, it would not be enough. A single determined individual might yet thwart their efforts, as George H. Burns had demonstrated that very afternoon. Pinkerton also had blunt words about the inadequacies of Lincoln’s own arrangements. He asked pointedly what was known of William S. Wood, who had seemingly appeared from nowhere to assume complete control of Lincoln’s movements. Judd admitted that he knew nothing at all of Wood’s background or credentials, and that he had raised much the same questions with Lincoln himself.

Pinkerton concluded that, “as things stood now,” the prospects for a safe passage through Baltimore were bleak. He earnestly believed that he himself—“nameless and unknown as I was”—would stand a better chance in similar circumstances. “I at least had some of my own men with me,” he said, “who would die in their boots before I should be injured.” Ellsworth, Lamon, and the others—well-intentioned as they might be—were simply not prepared for what awaited them. In Pinkerton’s view, Lincoln would be reasonably safe while still on board the train, but from the moment he landed at the Baltimore depot, and especially while riding in the open carriage through the streets, he would be in mortal peril. “I do not believe,” he told Judd, “it is possible he or his personal friends could pass through Baltimore in that style alive.”

“More than an hour was occupied in going over the proofs,” Pinkerton said. During this time Judd said very little. Occasionally, he broke in to ask a question or seek clarification of a detail, but for the most part he sat and stared into the fireplace, stroking his beard and puffing intently at a cigar. At last, when Pinkerton had finished speaking, Judd turned to him with an expression of utter resolve. He was “fully convinced that the plot was a reality,” he said. The question now was what to do next.

This was the moment for which Pinkerton had been planning all day. “My advice,” he told Judd, “is that Mr. Lincoln shall proceed to Washington this evening by the eleven o’clock train.” Judd made to object, but Pinkerton held up a hand for silence. He went on to explain that if Lincoln altered his schedule in this manner, he would be able to slip through Baltimore unnoticed, before the assassins made their final preparations. “This could be done in safety,” Pinkerton said. In fact, it was the only way.

Judd’s face darkened. “I fear very much that Mr. Lincoln will not accede to this,” he said. He explained that although he himself was “deeply impressed with the danger which surrounded Mr. Lincoln,” he doubted that the president-elect would be willing to change his plans in any way. “Mr. Judd said that Mr. Lincoln’s confidence in the people was unbounded,” Pinkerton recalled, “and that he did not fear any violent outbreak; that he hoped by his management and conciliatory measures to bring the secessionists back to their allegiance.”

Though Judd did not say so, there was an additional reason for sticking to the published schedule. Lincoln had less than two days left on his meticulously planned itinerary, and those final hours were packed with emotional resonance. George Washington’s birthday would be celebrated the following day, and Lincoln planned to mark the occasion with a flag raising at Independence Hall, followed by a hectic dogleg journey to Harrisburg to address the state legislature. He had traveled many miles out of his way to make these two important stops, having missed no opportunity throughout the journey to emphasize the symbols and traditions of the presidency. At that very moment, even as Judd sat talking with Pinkerton and Felton, Lincoln was giving one of his characteristic addresses from the balcony of the Continental Hotel, seizing on the historic totems of Philadelphia as he promised to “listen to those breathings rising within the consecrated walls” where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence had originally been framed. Lincoln would not abandon Philadelphia easily.

In Judd’s view, the best chance of getting Lincoln to change his mind rested with Pinkerton himself. He didn’t think it likely that Lincoln would yield, he said, “but as the President is an old acquaintance and friend of yours, and has had occasion before this to test your reliability and prudence, suppose you accompany me to the Continental Hotel in person and abide by his decision?”

There is nothing in Pinkerton’s reports to suggest that he expected to take his concerns directly to Lincoln, nor is it likely, given his long-established passion for secrecy, that he welcomed the prospect. He had made a career of operating in the shadows, always taking care to disguise his appearance, identity, and methods. Worse yet, he had launched the Baltimore operation with a pointed declaration that he would not “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.” Now, with time running short, he would have to break cover and plead his case to the nation’s leading politician, together with his many advisers. Though Judd insisted that Pinkerton’s involvement would remain a closely guarded secret—“whatever the consequences might be”—the detective knew that this would be a difficult promise to keep. Looking back on that night a few years later, Pinkerton was characteristically terse about the decision: “After a long conversation and discussion, Mr. Judd desired that I should go to the Continental Hotel with him and have an interview with Mr. Lincoln. We did so.”

It was now almost 9:00 P.M. If they were going to get Lincoln on a train that night, they had barely two hours in which to act.

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