Military history

CHAPTER NINETEEN

AN ASSAULT OF SOME KIND

Only begirt with a mighty army or disguised like a fugitive felon or spy, could the elected Chief Magistrate of Thirty Millions of Freemen pass through eight or ten of the States which he has been chosen to lead.

—HORACE GREELEY in the New York Independent, February 21, 1861

ALLAN PINKERTON, A VETERAN of the Newport Rising in his native Britain, had never seen a mob like the one that surrounded the Continental Hotel that evening. “A dense crowd of people filled Chestnut Street,” he wrote, “every square inch of ground was occupied.” For a few moments, he and Judd attempted to force their way through the jam at the front doors. When this proved fruitless, Pinkerton took Judd around the corner to the servant’s entrance on Sansom Street. Even then, it was only with “the utmost difficulty that we were able to get into the building.”

Pinkerton hoped to complete the final details of his plan before meeting with Lincoln. Leaving Judd at the hotel, Pinkerton pushed his way back out onto the street to make additional arrangements, a task made inordinately difficult by the “denseness of the crowd.” Returning a few minutes later, he dived into the throng once more and caught sight of Lincoln in the midst of one of his handshaking levees on the second floor, which had produced a tidal surge of people moving through the hotel. “The interior of the house was as densely crowded as was the outside,” Pinkerton wrote, “and I found that all were ‘getting up stairs.’ When I reached the last of the stairs I found that Mr. Lincoln was in a balcony at the head of the first landing, bowing to the people as they passed up the stairs. There was no way for me to get up but to go into the jam and go up with the human tide, so I went in—but such a jam.”

Carried along with the flow, Pinkerton came within sight of Lincoln as the receiving line churned through the hallway and down a second set of stairs. “The people were kept moving in a steady stream around through a double file of police to the stairway on Tenth Street, and thus out,” Pinkerton noted. For a few moments, it looked as if Pinkerton himself would be swept back out onto the street, but after a brief struggle, the detective managed to break free of the current. “I managed to get outside of the file of police and soon found Mr. Judd’s room, where I found him waiting for me,” the detective said. Judd promised that he would send Lincoln a note, asking him to join them as soon as he had finished with the receiving line.

While waiting, Pinkerton continued to lay his plans. He sent messengers to place officers of the telegraph companies on alert. He also arranged for the Adams Express Company to bulk up the security on its runs in and out of Baltimore. Should an attack on Lincoln occur, Pinkerton reasoned, professional thieves might seize on the resulting scenes of confusion “with a view to plunder.” As he made these arrangements, however, Pinkerton had to be cautious of giving out too much information. He asked his contacts at Adams Express to give no explanation of the extra measures to Samuel Shoemaker, their representative in Baltimore. It was not that he doubted Shoemaker’s honesty or loyalty, Pinkerton explained, “but that I feared his discretion.” Even as he took these precautions, Pinkerton kept an anxious eye on the clock. As the hour of ten passed, his hopes of getting Lincoln on a train that night were fading. He considered asking Samuel Felton to provide a special train, but feared that this would make the change of plan far too conspicuous, even if it could be managed in time.

Finally, at 10:15, Pinkerton got word that Lincoln had retired for the evening. Judd dashed off a note, asking the president-elect to come to his room “so soon as convenient on private business of importance.” Pinkerton himself carried the message to Lincoln’s room, but he was prevented from delivering it by Colonel Ellsworth, who stood guard at the door. After what one imagines to have been a heated discussion, Pinkerton dragged the young colonel to see Judd, who “at once ordered Ellsworth to deliver the note.” Ten minutes later, Ellsworth took up his post outside Judd’s room as Lincoln himself ducked through the doorway.

At the sight of Lincoln, Judd hurried forward to make the necessary introductions. According to Pinkerton, however, Lincoln waved the formalities aside. He “at once recollected me” from the days when both men had given service to the Illinois Central Railroad, Pinkerton said, and—“as usual”—had a kind word of greeting for his old acquaintance. “Lincoln liked Pinkerton,” Judd observed, and “had the utmost confidence in him as a gentleman—and a man of sagacity.” For his part, Pinkerton noted that Lincoln appeared “rather exhausted from the fatigues of travel and receptions.”

After showing the president-elect to a chair, Judd began to speak, briefly outlining the circumstances that had sent Pinkerton to Baltimore. “Whilst Mr. Judd was talking,” Pinkerton noted, “Mr. Lincoln listened very attentively, but did not say a word, nor did his countenance, which I watched very closely, show any emotion. He appeared thoughtful and serious, but decidedly firm.”

When Judd finished, he asked Pinkerton to take up the thread and lay out the details of what he had learned, much as he had for Felton and himself earlier in the day. “I did so,” Pinkerton said, carefully reviewing “the circumstances connected with Ferrandini, Hillard and others,” who were “ready and willing to die to rid their country of a tyrant, as they considered Lincoln to be.” Again, Pinkerton stressed that the danger rested with a small group of men who were “thoroughly devoted to Southern rights, and who looked upon the north as being aggressors.” In the eyes of these men, Pinkerton explained, Lincoln stood as “the embodiment of all those evils, in whose death the South would be largely the gainers.”

It is probably fair to say that Lincoln did not need a civics briefing from Pinkerton. Understandably, the detective wished to stress the powder-keg conditions in Baltimore, but Lincoln would have been more interested in hearing the specifics of the threat, rather than a catalog of Southern grievances. Pinkerton quickly returned to the main point, telling Lincoln in blunt terms that if he kept to the published itinerary, “an assault of some kind would be made upon his person with a view to taking his life.”

The outlines of what Pinkerton told Lincoln that night are best reflected in a report by Joseph Howard that appeared in the New York Times a few days later. Although Howard was not in the room that night, he would soon learn that “a celebrated Western detective” had brought warnings of three possible assassination plans, “by one of which the conspirators expected to prevent the safe conveyance of Mr. Lincoln to Washington.”

The first of these plans involved a fatal train derailment. “The argument in favor of this plan was its obviously easy execution,” Howard reported. “The objection to it was that the destruction of so many innocent lives was an unnecessary murder.” The second plan involved “an infernal machine,” which would “blow up the car in which Mr. Lincoln was to ride.” This method, it was suggested, might possibly spare innocent lives, but it was also thought to be unreliable. The third plan, in Howard’s view, was the only feasible one. In this scenario, “a large and organized crowd of roughs” would surround Lincoln’s open carriage as he rode through the streets. As Lincoln bowed or “extended his dexter hand for a friendly shake,” an assassin concealed within the crowd would strike: “[T]he keen stiletto would be buried in the heart of the President-elect, and aided by his fellows, the assassin, slipping into the surrounding mass of brother conspirators, would avoid recognition or detection, while the end would be accomplished and the fate of the country sealed.”

Though Howard did not report it, Pinkerton would have added a possible variation to this third design. Even before Lincoln reached his carriage, there would be a clear opportunity to strike as he passed through the narrow vestibule leading from the Calvert Street Station to the street. “A row or fight was to be got up by some outsiders,” Pinkerton explained, and the “few policemen at the Depot would rush out” to quell the disturbance, “thus leaving Mr. Lincoln entirely unprotected and at the mercy of a mob of secessionists who were to surround him at that time.” Once the fatal deed was done, the assassins would slip away: “A small steamer had been charted and was lying in one of the bays or little streams running into the Chesapeake, to which the murderers were to flee and it was immediately to put off for Virginia.”

In Judd’s room that evening, Pinkerton outlined not only the particulars of these separate designs but also the methods by which he had uncovered them. “During the entire interview, he had not evinced the slightest evidence of agitation or fear,” Pinkerton said of Lincoln. “Calm and self-possessed, his only sentiments appeared to be those of profound regret, that the Southern sympathizers could be so far led away by the excitement of the hour, as to consider his death a necessity for the furtherance of their cause.”

Pinkerton would recall only one brief interruption during the meeting, when Ward Lamon ducked into the room to hand a note to Lincoln. In his field report, Pinkerton expressed irritation that Lamon addressed him by name, as he had been at pains to preserve his anonymity as “J. H. Hutchinson.” It would not be the last time Pinkerton had cause for annoyance with Lincoln’s self-described “protector.”

For the moment, desperate to secure Lincoln’s consent to leave that night, Pinkerton brushed the interruption aside. “After Mr. Lincoln had been made fully acquainted with the startling disclosures,” the detective said, “Mr. Judd submitted to him the plan proposed by me, that he should leave Philadelphia for Washington that evening.” Judd emphasized that the action would have to be carried out in total secrecy, “as it will involve the lives of several devoted men now on Mr. Pinkerton’s force.”

In addition, Judd said, there would be serious political ramifications. “If you follow the course suggested,” he warned, “you will necessarily be subjected to the scoffs and sneers of your enemies, and the disapproval of your friends who cannot be made to believe in the existence of so desperate a plot.” Even worse, Judd continued, it would not be possible to offer any defense. Pinkerton’s evidence, convincing as it was, “could not be laid before the public.” To do so would endanger the very agents “who were at that moment playing their wise game among the Secessionists.” It was one thing for well-meaning advisers to urge the change of plan, Judd said, but Lincoln would be the one to “bear the burthen of the thing.” There was no doubt, he said, but that “the world will laugh at you.”

Lincoln did not appear troubled by thoughts of ridicule, and he gave his assurance that he “could stand anything that was necessary.” Having said that much, Pinkerton was distressed to find that Lincoln didn’t seem inclined to say anything more. Instead, Pinkerton recalled, “Mr. Lincoln remained quiet for a few minutes, apparently thinking.” After a time, Judd broke the silence to ask Lincoln if there was anything further that he or Pinkerton could say that would convince him to pick up and make an immediate departure for Washington.

Lincoln rose from his chair. “I cannot go tonight,” he said firmly. “I have promised to raise the flag over Independence Hall tomorrow morning, and to visit the legislature at Harrisburg in the afternoon—beyond that I have no engagements. Any plan that may be adopted that will enable me to fulfill these promises I will accede to, and you can inform me what is concluded upon tomorrow.” With these words, he turned and left the room, promising to decide the matter in the morning.

“The firmness of tone in which Mr. Lincoln spoke shewed that there was no further use in arguing the proposition,” a dejected Pinkerton wrote in his field report, “and Mr. Judd inquired of me what I thought best to do in the emergency.” The detective saw no alternative but to yield to Lincoln’s wishes, and he immediately set to work on a new plan, hoping that it would win Lincoln’s approval. Struggling to anticipate “all the contingencies that could be imagined,” Pinkerton would work through the entire night.

*   *   *

THOUGH IT WAS NOW PAST 11:00 P.M., the upstairs corridors of the Continental Hotel were still packed with people. Emerging from Judd’s room, Lincoln slowly threaded his way through the jam, pausing here and there for the necessary handshakes and greetings. When at last he reached his own suite, Lincoln found that his long and wearing day had not yet finished. Frederick Seward, freshly arrived with his urgent messages from Washington, sat waiting by the fire, having been ushered directly to Lincoln’s room by Ward Lamon to catch a few moments with Lincoln before he retired for the night.

Exhausted as he was after a day that had begun early that morning in New York City, Lincoln managed “a few words of friendly greeting” for his unexpected visitor. After brief inquiries about Seward’s father and affairs in Washington, Lincoln took the bundle of letters Seward carried and sat down by a gas lamp to read. “Although its contents were of a somewhat startling nature he made no exclamation,” Seward observed, “and I saw no sign of surprise on his face.” Indeed, the substance of the communication would have been all too familiar by this time. In addition to a brief note from General Scott attesting to the bona fides of the information, Lincoln found an anxious message from the elder Seward:

My son goes express to you—He will show you a report made by our detective to General Scott—and by him communicated to me this morning—I deem it so important as to dispatch my son to meet you wherever he may find you.

I concur with General Scott in thinking it best for you to reconsider your arrangement. No one here but Genl. Scott, myself & the bearer is aware of this communication.

Also included was Colonel Stone’s report, based on what he had learned from David Bookstaver, Superintendent John Kennedy’s “music agent” operative in Baltimore:

A New York detective officer who has been on duty in Baltimore for three weeks past reports this morning that there is serious danger of violence to and the assassination of Mr. Lincoln in his passage through that city should the time of that passage be known—He states that there are banded rowdies holding secret meetings, and that he has heard threats of mobbing and violence, and has himself heard men declare that if Mr. Lincoln was to be assassinated they would like to be the men—He states further that it is only within the past few days that he has considered there was any danger, but now he deems it imminent—He deems the danger one which the authorities & people in Baltimore cannot guard against. All risk might be easily avoided by a change in the traveling arrangements which would bring Mr. Lincoln & a portion of his party through Baltimore by a night train without previous notice.

Unwelcome as these alarms may have been, it now appeared that Pinkerton’s discoveries—as well as his suggested plan of action—had been affirmed by two of the most powerful men in Washington. To Lincoln’s mind, however, the warnings had curious parallels that demanded further scrutiny. After reading the messages through a second time, he turned back to his visitor. “Did you hear anything about the way this information was obtained?” Lincoln asked. “Do you know anything about how they got it? Did you hear any names mentioned? Did you, for instance, ever hear anything said about such a name as Pinkerton?”

Seward replied that he had heard no names other than those of General Scott and Colonel Stone. Lincoln considered this for a moment. “I may as well tell you why I ask,” he said. “There were stories or rumors some time ago, before I left home, about people who were intending to do me a mischief. I never attached much importance to them—never wanted to believe any such thing. So I never would do anything about them, in the way of taking precautions and the like. Some of my friends, though, thought differently—Judd and others—and without my knowledge, they employed a detective to look into the matter. It seems he has occasionally reported what he found; and only today, since we arrived at this house, he brought this story, or something similar to it, about an attempt on my life in the confusion and hurly-burly of the reception at Baltimore.”

“Surely Mr. Lincoln,” Seward insisted, “that is a strong corroboration of the news I bring you.” Lincoln did not appear convinced. “That is exactly why I was asking you about names,” he told Seward. “If different persons, not knowing of each other’s work, have been pursuing separate clews that led to the same result, why then it shows there may be something in it. But if this is only the same story, filtered through two channels, and reaching me in two ways, then that don’t make it any stronger. Don’t you see?”

This logic was unanswerable, Seward admitted, but he told Lincoln that he believed strongly that the two investigations had been conducted independently. In his view, it would be “prudent to adopt the suggestion, and make the slight change in hour and train which would avoid all risk.” Even now, Lincoln was not prepared to make that decision. Just as he had with Pinkerton and Judd, he rose from his chair to signal the end of the discussion. “Well,” he told Seward, “we haven’t got to decide it tonight, anyway, and I see it’s getting late.”

Seeing the disappointment on Seward’s face, Lincoln hastened to assure him that he would take the warning seriously. “You need not think I will not consider it well,” he said. “I shall think it over carefully, and try to decide it right, and I will let you know in the morning.”

*   *   *

BOTH SEWARD AND PINKERTON had been forcefully impressed by Lincoln’s icy calm in the face of these unexpected revelations. “I never saw him more cool, collected and firm than he was on that evening,” Pinkerton would recall. To the end of his life, Pinkerton would believe that he had been the first to alert Lincoln to the peril. “Up to this time Mr. Lincoln had been kept in entire ignorance of any threatened danger,” the detective would write, “and as he listened to the facts that were now presented to him, a shade of sadness fell upon his face. He seemed loath to credit the statement, and could scarce believe it possible that such a conspiracy could exist. Slowly he went over the points presented, questioning me minutely the while, but at length finding it impossible to discredit the truthfulness of what I stated to him, he yielded a reluctant credence to the facts.”

Lincoln may well have been reluctant, but he was far from ignorant of the threat. His challenge in Philadelphia was not to accept a painful truth, but to judge the degree of the threat. Though he made no mention of it that evening, Lincoln had been hearing concerns about Baltimore for weeks, long before Pinkerton’s investigation had even begun. In fact, the previous month, Capt. George Hazzard had proposed a plan very much like Pinkerton’s, suggesting that Lincoln take a night train through the city, “privately and unannounced with a very few friends.” Clearly, Lincoln had not dismissed these concerns out of hand, as Hazzard had been at his side through much of the journey from Springfield.

Earlier, Lincoln had heard from Boston supporter Thomas Cadwallerder, who, while traveling through Baltimore, had had his head shaved “merely for making the remark that I consider you a gentleman.” Sadder but wiser, Cadwallerder warned Lincoln that “it will be madness for you to attempt to reach Washington at any time” via Baltimore.

Shortly before Lincoln left Springfield, this warning had been followed by an alarming letter from Henry C. Bowen, the editor of an antislavery newspaper in New York. Bowen forwarded a note he had received from an acquaintance named Charles Gould, warning of a plan “to kill Mr. Lincoln on his way to Washington,” and claiming that it would not be possible for the president-elect “to go in safety to the Capital when his progress is known to the public.” These statements, Gould insisted, “can be taken for truth without exaggeration.”

As it happened, Gould’s warning would not have satisfied Lincoln’s desire for independent corroboration, as it had originated with none other than Samuel Felton, the very man who had sent Pinkerton to Baltimore. Even so, it is clear that Lincoln could not have been as unaware of the gathering threat as Pinkerton supposed. That he was content to keep his own counsel suggests a lawyerly effort to weigh the evidence, free of distraction, as he attempted to separate reasonable suspicion from hearsay. “The time comes upon every public man,” he once had occasion to say, “when it is best for him to keep his lips closed.”

In this situation, however, that time would be brief. The following day, Pinkerton would need a verdict.

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