Military history



Allan Pinkerton and Abraham Lincoln, with General John A. McClernand, at Antietam, Maryland, October 3, 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress



Uncle Abe had gone to bed,

The night was dark and rainy

A laurelled night-cap on his head

Way down in Pennsylvany

They went and got a special train

At midnight’s solemn hour,

And in a cloak and Scottish plaid shawl,

He dodged from the Slave-Power

Lanky Lincoln came to town

In night and wind, and rain, sir

Wrapped in a military cloak

Upon a special train, sir

—revised lyrics for “Yankee Doodle,” which appeared in several Democratic newspapers, February 1861

AT WILLARD’S HOTEL IN WASHINGTON the following morning—Saturday, February 23—the ongoing Peace Convention was scheduled to reconvene at 10:00 A.M. Lucius Chittenden, the Vermont delegate whose midnight run to Baltimore one week earlier had left him convinced of a looming threat, noted an atmosphere of mounting excitement among his colleagues. “There were a few Republicans whose faces shone as they greeted each other,” he reported, because they shared a momentous secret.

“Members were not particular about the position of their seats,” Chittenden recalled, and that morning he happened to find himself squeezed between two outspoken Southerners: James A. Seddon, a former congressman from Virginia, and Missouri senator Waldo P. Johnson. Though Chittenden could not have known it at the time, both men would soon be serving the Confederacy—Johnson as an infantry colonel, and Seddon as secretary of war. That morning, however, both men had ostensibly gathered “to agree upon terms of compromise and peace.” Moments after the morning session was gaveled to order, a note was handed to Seddon. “Mr. Seddon glanced at it,” Chittenden wrote, “and passed it before me to Mr. Johnson, so near to my face that, without closing my eyes, I could not avoid reading it.” The note confirmed what Chittenden and other Republicans already knew. “The words written upon it were: Lincoln is in this hotel!”

As Chittenden recalled the scene, Johnson “was startled as if by a shock of electricity” as he read the note. In the excitement, Johnson “must have forgotten himself completely,” Chittenden continued. The Southern senator looked across at Seddon and blurted out, “How the devil did he get through Baltimore?”

With a look of “utter contempt” for the indiscretion, Seddon silenced his impulsive colleague with a sharp reply. “What,” he growled, “would prevent his passing through Baltimore?”

“There was no reply,” Chittenden noted, “but the occurrence left the impression on one mind that the preparations to receive Mr. Lincoln in Baltimore were known to some who were neither Italian assassins nor Baltimore Plug-Uglies.” For the moment, Chittenden did not have time to ponder the implications of what he had overheard. As the news of Lincoln’s unexpected arrival spread through the hall, the rising din of excited voices drowned out the repeated hammering of the speaker’s gavel. It would be some time before the conference could resume.

*   *   *

IN BALTIMORE AT NEARLY THE SAME MOMENT, Otis K. Hillard fastened a palmetto cockade to his vest, a mark of the role he expected to play at the moment of Lincoln’s arrival. Hillard had heard a rumor that Lincoln had already slipped through the city unannounced, but he did not believe it. He declared that he would carry through with his orders to be present at the Calvert Street Station at 12:30, when Lincoln’s train was scheduled to arrive from Harrisburg. He asked his new friend Harry Davies to join him as he took up his assigned position.

As the two men made their way to Calvert Street, Davies noted that the streets were heaving with “some ten or fifteen thousand people,” all of them pushing and jostling their way toward the depot. Hillard pointed out several members of the National Volunteers along the way, and stopped to speak with several of them. The excitement of the hour made Hillard far more talkative than he had been at any point since Davies’s arrival in Baltimore. He swept his hand in the direction of a row of men standing in close formation. They were National Volunteers, too, he said, converging on the route that Lincoln was likely to take along Calvert Street. At Monument Square, site of a towering marble column commemorating the War of 1812’s Battle of Baltimore, an especially large contingent had gathered. Hillard explained that “if by any mishap Lincoln should reach that point alive,” having somehow emerged safely from the depot, he would get no farther than Monument Square, where the Volunteers would “rush en-mass” and strike him down. In the confusion, Hillard insisted, “it would be impossible for any outsider to tell who did the deed,” and he boasted, “that from his position he would have the first shot.”

The police, Hillard claimed, would present no obstacle. He told Davies that it was “so arranged, or was so understood by him, that the police were not to interfere.” Instead, the officers would do just enough to give the appearance of doing their duty. Even if they did intervene, Hillard said, what could they do against a force of thousands? Besides, he noted with obvious satisfaction, their leader, Marshal Kane, was nowhere to be seen. “He knows his business,” Hillard said.

By noon, as the rumors of Lincoln’s safe arrival in Washington gathered force, cracks began to appear in Hillard’s bravado. “Could it be true?” he asked Davies. If so, “how in hell had it leaked out that Lincoln was to be mobbed in Baltimore?” Lincoln must somehow have been warned, he told Davies, “or he would not have gone through as he did.”

At 12:30, the scheduled arrival time of the Lincoln Special, Hillard began to panic. Had he and his colleagues been found out? Was he about to be arrested? Davies could not resist a gibe. “I told him he belonged to a damned nice set [if] seven thousand men could not keep track of one man.” Hillard admitted that he could not explain how Lincoln could have given them the slip. He claimed that “they had men on the look out all the time,” watching for any change of plan. Even now, Hillard clung to a hope that the rumors were false. The train was simply running late, he said. Lincoln would appear at any moment. But, he insisted, if “Lincoln got away” somehow, there would be a reckoning. It would be a signal that “the ball had commenced now for certain,” and a direct attack on Washington would follow.

By 1:00 P.M., however, Hillard had spiraled into a state of despair. Special editions of the newspapers were now flowing into the streets. The rumors could no longer be denied: Lincoln was safe in Washington. William Louis Schley, one of the few Baltimore Republicans in the crowd that day, wrote to Lincoln to describe the scene: “[Y]ou may judge the disappointment at the announcement of your ‘passage’ through unseen, unnoticed and unknown—it fell like a thunder clap upon the Community.” Schley went on to compliment Lincoln on a wise decision: “By your course you have saved bloodshed and a mob.

Hillard still hoped the day was not lost. Leaving Davies at the depot, he went off in search of his fellow conspirators. By the time Davies caught up with him at his hotel later that afternoon, Hillard was much the worse for drink and “unusually noisy” as a result. “I told him to sit down, or lay down, and keep quiet,” Davies said, but Hillard could not keep still. He paced back and forth, waving his hands in the air as he cautioned Davies to “be careful and not breathe a word.” It was terrifying, Hillard admitted, to think that there might well be a spy in their midst. The Pinkerton man said nothing.

In spite of these fears, Hillard grew “quite merry” as the effects of the day’s excitement and heavy drinking took hold. He insisted that a new plan was already being laid. Five thousand dollars had already been raised to buy arms, he told Davies, and soon there would be fifty men actively seeking a chance to kill Lincoln. “From what I could gather from him,” Davies reported, “Washington City appeared now to be the principal point for action by those in the plot to take Lincoln’s life.”

Whatever happened next, Hillard claimed, at least one thing had been accomplished that day: Lincoln had disgraced himself in the eyes of both North and South. “It is a good thing that Lincoln passed through here as he did, because it will change the feeling of the Union men,” Hillard declared. “They will think him a coward, and it will help our cause.”

*   *   *

ON THIS LAST POINT, at least, Hillard appeared to have hit the mark. Though the details of Lincoln’s “flanking movement” were not yet known—and would not be detailed at any length for some time—the obvious fact of his early arrival in Baltimore created an immediate sensation. In the absence of any official statement from Lincoln, rumors and half-truths churned through the newspapers. The previous day, an infuriated Colonel Sumner had blasted the Baltimore plan as “a damned piece of cowardice.” Now, it appeared, much of the country agreed with him. “The telegraph brings astonishing news,” ran a breathless dispatch in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Lincoln reached Washington this morning, twelve hours in advance of the appointed time. He runs through Maryland, traveling in a night train, and in cognito at that. He gives Baltimore the go by altogether.” Having reported these few facts, the editors lost no time in passing judgment: “We fear he is wanting in pluck. If this flight cannot be reasonably accounted for, Maryland will take umbrage at this imputation upon her honor, and the public mind will be fired up and her secession will be inevitable.”

Joseph Howard, breaking the story in the New York Times, attempted to characterize the action as a cunning piece of statesmanship. “Abraham Lincoln, the President Elect of the United States, is safe in the capital of the nation,” he wrote, drawing on the advance warning he had almost certainly received in Harrisburg. “By the admirable arrangement of General Scott, the country has been spared the lasting disgrace, which would have been fastened indelibly upon it had Mr. Lincoln been murdered upon his journey thither, as he would have been had he followed the programme as announced.”

The competing newspapers were unconvinced. “We don’t believe it,” exclaimed the New York World. “But even if it were true, how unfortunately was Mr. Lincoln advised. Had he known that there were murderers lying in wait for his life in Maryland, he should have refused the shelter of car or of carriage, and mounting a horse, like a man, have called his friends around him, and he would have ridden into Washington with an escort of thousands, and the conqueror of millions of loyal hearts.” The Herald, unconsciously echoing a comment attributed to Lincoln himself, accused the president-elect of creeping into the city “like a thief in the night.” The New-York Tribune appeared more conciliatory, stating that it seemed “probable” the decision had been wise, but there was scorn in a remark attributed to editor Horace Greeley: “Mr. Lincoln ought to have come through by daylight, if one-hundred guns had been pointed at him.”

Even the members of Lincoln’s own suite left behind in Harrisburg were reported to be dispirited. “The Republicans seem to feel the most chagrined at the sudden movement,” wrote one observer. “Still, Mr. Lincoln is not blamed, but only his advisors. Others make a defense by saying that Mr. Lincoln can do as he pleases, that it is better to be prudent than rash, and that the matter was one of life and death.”

Others were less forgiving. “I do not believe one word of the cock-and-bull story of the Italian assassins,” declared the anonymous Washington insider known as “the Public Man.” “When we have reached a point at which an elected President of the United States consents to be smuggled through by night to the capital of the country, lest he should be murdered in one of the chief cities of the Union, who can blame the rest of the world for believing that we are a failure?”

Perhaps the most striking perspective came from Frederick Douglass, whose memoir of life as a slave had sparked Allan Pinkerton’s commitment to the abolitionist cause years earlier.

The manner in which Mr. L entered the Capital was in keeping with the menacing and troubled state of the times. He reached the Capital as the poor, hunted fugitive slave reaches the North, in disguise, seeking concealment, evading pursuers, by the underground railroad, between two days, not during the sunlight, but crawling and dodging under the sable wing of night. He changed his programme, took another route, started at another hour, travelled in other company, and arrived at another time in Washington. We have no censure for the President at this point. He only did what braver men have done.

Douglass and many other writers drew particular attention to the fact that Lincoln was said to have made his journey in disguise. The matter of Lincoln’s attire during the episode had by this time become a matter of furious debate, as well as a magnet for ridicule. Intentionally or not, Joseph Howard had touched off the controversy in his otherwise-sympathetic dispatch from Harrisburg, in which he gave a strangely elaborate description of Lincoln’s traveling clothes. The president-elect, he noted, had set off for Washington in “a Scotch plaid cap and a very long military cloak, so that he was entirely unrecognizable.” The words would haunt Lincoln for years to come. Though other witnesses reported him to be wearing perfectly ordinary clothing—“a soft, low-crowned hat,” wrote one, “a muffler around his neck, and a short bob-tailed coat”—writers and illustrators across the country seized on Howard’s description, transforming the plaid cap and long cloak into emblems of Lincoln’s supposed cowardice. Vanity Fair published a giddy cartoon of Lincoln in a full Scottish kilt, complete with a coward’s white feather protruding from a tartan cap, dancing a “Mac Lincoln Highland Fling” at the Harrisburg train station. Harper’s Weekly chose to illustrate Howard’s report with a sequence of drawings entitled “The Flight of Abraham,” portraying Lincoln as a cringing milksop, ignoring the advice of his tearful advisers. Howard’s description of the cap and cloak, quoted word for word, appeared beneath an image of a terrified Lincoln running at full speed toward the Capitol, with his coattails and the ribbons of his cap flying behind him. Another sketch, largely unknown until after the war, showed a wide-eyed Lincoln—again in a tartan cap—peering fretfully through the door of a freight car, alarmed at the hissing of a nearby cat.

One can only guess at Howard’s motivation for describing Lincoln in these particular terms. Possibly he felt annoyance at his treatment in Harrisburg, or perhaps he intended a private dig at the Scottish-born Pinkerton, whose name he had been forbidden to include in his account. In any case, Howard’s report had not been entirely without foundation, as Lincoln himself made reference to a “soft wool hat,” and Lamon took note of a shawl that the president-elect used to disguise his features. Whatever Howard’s intention, however, the resulting avalanche of scorn may well have come as a surprise even to him.

In years to come, the men who had been with Lincoln that night would attempt to blunt the edge of the derision. “The story of the Scotch cap I may as well at this time pronounce a falsehood made up out of the whole cloth,” Pinkerton would write. “He wore an overcoat thrown loosely over his shoulders without his arms being in the sleeves, and a black Kossuth hat, which he told me somebody had presented to him.” Ward Lamon, too, offered a pointed rebuttal. “As Mr. Lincoln’s dress on this occasion has been much discussed,” he would write, “it may be as well to state that he wore a soft, light felt hat, drawn down over his face when it seemed necessary or convenient, and a shawl thrown over his shoulders, and pulled up to assist in disguising his features when passing to and from the carriage. This was all there was of the ‘Scotch cap and cloak’ so widely celebrated in the political literature of the day.” Lucius Chittenden, though not directly involved that night, would offer an alternate explanation, insisting that Lincoln, like other nocturnal travelers of the period, was provided with a “knitted woolen cap” to wear during the trip. “This he wore on his night-trip to Washington,” Chittenden explained rather tepidly. “There was no necessity for disguise.”

By this time, however, the damage had been done. Writing in the immediate aftermath, John Hay attempted to dispel the “picturesque illusion” of the unseemly disguise, but he conceded that it had now become “too dramatic to be squelched.” The details would be greatly embellished as the story passed below the Mason-Dixon line. One Kentucky newspaper went so far as to suggest that Lincoln had exchanged clothes with his wife in Harrisburg and made his way through Baltimore in a dress. The story was typical of the reaction in the Southern press. “Everybody here is disgusted at this cowardly and undignified entry,” reported the Charleston Mercury.

Not surprisingly, the most bitter words on the subject were to be found in the Baltimore Sun, where the news had been received as a wholesale slander:

Had we any respect for Mr. Lincoln, official or personal, as a man, or as President elect of the United States, his career and speeches on his way to the seat of government would have cruelly impaired it; but the final escapade by which he reached the capital would have utterly demolished it, and overwhelmed us with mortification. As it is, no sentiment of respect of whatever sort with respect to the man suffers violence on our part, at anything he may do. He might have entered Willard’s hotel with a “head-spring” and a “summersault,” and the clown’s merry greeting to General Scott, “Here we are!” and we should care nothing about it, personally. We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors than it has been by him, even before his inauguration; and so, for aught we care, he may go to the full extent of his wretched comicalities. We have only too much cause to fear that such a man, and such advisers as he has, may prove capable of infinitely more mischief than folly when invested with power. A lunatic is only dangerous when armed and turned loose.

The editors went on to express outrage at the offense given to the honor and reputation of Baltimore. Not only were the accusations wholly without foundation, they insisted, but a large crowd had gathered to welcome Lincoln to the city, unaware that he considered them to be “a party of cutthroats, assassins and railway-accident makers.” After several more columns of vitriol, the Sun called for proof of the “monstrous absurdities” that had been reported in the Northern press:

If there were truth—one glimmer of truth in all this—the very first thing that truth itself would demand is the full exposition of the whole plot, and the trial and condemnation, on proof of guilt, of every individual identified with it. And such, indeed, would be the course of procedure. It is, however, in the whole and in all its parts, a lie, a gross and shameless lie, concocted with a view to shield from the ignominy of his disgraceful flight the President elect of the United States, at the expense of the people of Baltimore.

The people of Baltimore were wholly justified in calling for this proof, but it would not be forthcoming. Both Lincoln and Judd had promised Pinkerton that the details of what had happened that night would be withheld so that the detective’s work could continue in Baltimore and elsewhere. Honoring this pledge, however, resulted in a devastating blow to Lincoln’s prestige at the worst-possible moment, adding fuel to the secessionist fervor sweeping through the Southern states. At a stroke, Lincoln appeared to have undone all the hard work of his inaugural journey and its carefully honed message of unity. In the days leading up to his all-important inaugural address, intended to “soothe the public mind,” he would find himself fighting a rear-guard action to regain his political capital. “Public sentiment is everything,” he later declared. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

In the absence of a concrete, official account giving Lincoln’s side of the story, the rumors and condemnations continued to mount. “The number of conjectures which have been hazarded would, if they were dollars, pay the national debt,” wrote John Hay. “The stupid questions which have been expressed, the illogical explanations of the matter which have been offered, the amount, in brief, of vapor which has been conversationally emitted, may fairly be spoken of as the unknown quantity.”

It would be many years before that vapor dispersed and a true account of “The Flight of Abraham” began to emerge.

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