If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.
IT HAD BEEN AN ANXIOUS NIGHT for Elihu B. Washburne, of Capitol Hill’s “independent committee of safety.” The Illinois congressman was an old ally of Lincoln, bound to him by “the strongest ties of personal and political friendship.” Earlier, Washburne had written to Lincoln, advising a course of “masterly inactivity”; now his concerns were fixed on a safe arrival in Washington. The previous week, Lucius Chittenden, on returning from his nocturnal meeting with the mysterious “Mr. H.” in Baltimore, had roused Washburne from his bed in the middle of the night. After reporting the many threats and theories he had heard that night, the Vermont delegate was assured by Washburne that all was well, as Lincoln “had determined to follow the advice of his friends, and would reach Washington without risk.”
As the date drew nearer, however, Washburne felt less assured of Lincoln’s safety. The previous day, when it was thought that the president-elect would pass the night in Harrisburg, Washburne had shared his concerns with William Seward. The senator, who had already dispatched his son Frederick to warn Lincoln in Philadelphia, could offer little reassurance. Though he’d received a telegram to the effect that steps were being taken, he had been given no details. “Mr. Seward … told me he had no information from his son nor any one else in respect of Mr. Lincoln’s movements,” Washburne said, “and that he could have none, as the wires were all cut.” Even so, Seward thought it probable that Lincoln would arrive in Washington on an earlier train, as he had urged, perhaps on Friday evening’s service from Philadelphia. Seeing the degree of Washburne’s concern, Seward suggested that the two of them go to the station to meet the Philadelphia train. “We were promptly on hand; the train arrived in time, and with strained eyes we watched the descent of the passengers,” Washburne reported. “But there was no Mr. Lincoln among them.”
Both Seward and Washburne were “much disappointed,” but they arranged to meet again the following morning to await the next likely train. “I was on hand in season,” Washburne insisted, “but to my great disappointment Governor Seward did not appear.” In fact, Seward had overslept, leaving Washburne to carry on alone. “I planted myself behind one of the great pillars in the old Washington and Baltimore depot, where I could see and not be observed,” he reported. “Presently the train came rumbling in on time. It was a moment of great anxiety to me.” Washburne looked on “with fear and trembling” as the train emptied and a steady line of passengers made its way past him. Lincoln was nowhere to be seen. In despair, Washburne started to turn away, when he saw three stragglers step down from the sleeping car at the rear of the train. Washburne at once recognized the “long, lank form” of his old friend, although he wore an unfamiliar “soft low-crowned hat” and a thick shawl, and looked more like “a well-to-do farmer” than the president-elect of the United States.
As Washburne recalled the scene, he stepped forward to offer a quick greeting—“How are you, Lincoln?”—while reaching out to grasp his old friend by the hand. Pinkerton, his nerves on edge after the long ordeal, reported the matter differently. “A gentleman looked very sharp at Mr. Lincoln who was on my right,” the detective said, “and as we passed him he caught hold of Mr. Lincoln saying ‘Abe, you can’t play that on me.’” Pinkerton’s instincts took over. “I hit the gentleman a punch with my elbow as he was close to me, staggering him back,” he recalled. “I was beginning to think that we were discovered, and that we might have to fight, and drew back clenching my fist.” Before Pinkerton could land another blow, Lincoln took hold of his arm. “Don’t strike him, Allan!” Lincoln cried. “It is Washburne! Don’t you know him?”
* * *
THIS WAS A PORTENT OF THINGS to come. At the very moment when Pinkerton should have basked in the satisfaction of a job well done, and received the thanks of a grateful Lincoln, he instead hauled off and sucker punched a sitting congressman. Lincoln had not yet emerged from the train station, and already Pinkerton’s ham-fisted tactics had caused embarrassment. He watched as Lincoln helped Washburne to his feet and brushed him off, sensing that the operation was slipping out of his grasp. Here in Washington, Pinkerton would have a great deal of trouble telling his friends from his enemies.
It was in Lincoln’s best interests, now that he was safe in Washington, to put the Baltimore plot behind him quickly and decisively. He had nine days remaining until the inauguration, and he would use the time to repair the damage done by his midnight flight, meeting the charges of cowardice with a forceful display of statesmanship. While the rest of the country picked over the events in Baltimore, as John Hay would write, Lincoln would go about his business in Washington, “leaving the town agog.”
As far as Pinkerton was concerned, however, the operation in Baltimore was still running and his field operatives remained at risk. At the same time, he sincerely believed that Lincoln’s evasive maneuver might spark a reprisal of some kind in Washington. Justified or not, these concerns put Pinkerton at odds with Lincoln, who simply wanted to close this chapter. Now, as Lincoln and Washburne walked arm in arm toward a waiting carriage, the detective could only trail behind, insisting that the congressman must not “do or say aught” to jeopardize matters. So far as Lincoln was concerned, the time for such warnings had passed.
At Willard’s Hotel, the detective managed one last piece of subterfuge. As the carriage rolled along Fourteenth Street, Pinkerton climbed down with Lincoln and Washburne. He sent Lamon around the corner to the front entrance of the hotel to summon Henry Willard, the proprietor. On Pinkerton’s instructions, Willard let the party in at the side door—the ladies’ entrance—and ushered them into a small receiving room.
Willard, like everyone else in Washington, had not expected Lincoln to arrive until late afternoon, and the change of plan left him scrambling. A suite of five elegant rooms overlooking the White House had been set aside for Lincoln’s use, but another guest occupied them at the moment, and it would be some time before the rooms could be cleared. Lincoln seemed untroubled by the delay, and he asked only to borrow a pair of slippers.
“We had not been in the hotel more than two minutes before Governor Seward hurriedly entered, much out of breath, and somewhat chagrined to think he had not been in season to be at the depot on the arrival of the train,” recalled Washburne. Lincoln gave a brief summary of the night’s events, whereupon he received Seward’s assurance that both he and General Scott had approved of the step, though it would doubtless create an uproar. Seward insisted that he possessed “conclusive evidence showing that there was a large organization in Baltimore” intent on preventing Lincoln’s safe passage through the city. He was in no doubt that the president-elect “could not have come through in any other manner without blood-shed.” In fact, Seward maintained, General Scott was so thoroughly convinced of the danger that if Lincoln had not changed his route as advised, Scott would “in all probability” have sent troops to Baltimore to escort Lincoln through the city. Pinkerton was incredulous at the very suggestion of troops entering Baltimore. As he knew full well from the reports of Timothy Webster and others, a military provocation of this type would likely have triggered a disastrous response in Maryland, and perhaps open rebellion. For the moment, Pinkerton contented himself with questioning the accuracy of Seward’s sources. “I informed Governor Seward of the nature of the information I had,” he said, insisting frankly that he knew of no “large organization” posing a credible threat. Seward, swept up in the drama of Lincoln’s arrival, would not be dissuaded. He firmly reiterated that he had conclusive evidence of a large-scale plot.
Pinkerton’s insistence on this point must be counted as one of the most extraordinary features of the entire episode. Soon enough, his efforts as chief of Union intelligence under George B. McClellan would expose him to lasting criticism for his supposed inflations of the size and scope of enemy forces. That day at Willard’s Hotel, however, Pinkerton insisted on calling Seward to account for exaggerating the number of “rebel spirits” in Baltimore. In political terms, Pinkerton would have done better simply to nod and be content with the successful outcome, but he brooked no argument where his detective operations were concerned, not even from the designated secretary of state.
In spite of the disagreement, Seward was eager to hear more about the events of the previous evening. While Lincoln withdrew for a brief rest, having “expressed himself rather tired,” Seward invited Pinkerton and Lamon for a private chat at his residence on F Street, where they once again “talked over this danger of Mr. Lincoln’s coming through Baltimore according to the published programe.” Once Seward’s curiosity had been satisfied, Pinkerton returned to the Willard and registered as “E. J. Allen of New York.” Exhausted, but anxious to return to “the seat of danger” in Baltimore, the detective allowed himself a brief pause to bathe and have breakfast.
Downstairs in the lobby of Willard’s Hotel, Seward soon reappeared to collect Lincoln, who was now refreshed after a short nap. Together, they began making the rounds of official Washington in the hope, as one congressman would remark, that the new president might “break through the prejudices created by the manner of his entry into the capital.” Lincoln’s first stop was an unannounced call at the White House, where outgoing President James Buchanan interrupted a cabinet meeting to greet his successor in “a very cordial manner.” Buchanan led a brief tour of the premises, and he seemed especially pleased to hear that Lincoln had received “a satisfactory reception at Harrisburg,” near Buchanan’s Wheatland estate. Though friendly in tone, the surprise visit sent a strong message that Lincoln was ready to serve—“a coup d’état,” declared the New York Herald.
Lincoln at Mathew Brady’s studio in Washington on February 24, 1861, the day after his passage through Baltimore. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
From the White House, Lincoln attempted to pay his respects at the headquarters of Winfield Scott, who had shared so fully in the concern for his safety. The general was not there to receive him, but he soon returned the call at Willard’s Hotel, resplendent in his full dress uniform, including plumed hat and ceremonial sword. In spite of his advanced age and recent illness, General Scott made a point of greeting his new commander in chief with a deep, formal bow. “It would do the drawing room dudes of today good,” wrote one observer, “to have witnessed the profound grace of the old hero’s acknowledgment of the presence of the President-elect, as he swept his instep with the golden plumes of his chapeau.” Like Seward, the general appeared keen to cast the best-possible light on Lincoln’s decision to bypass Baltimore. “General Scott expressed his great gratification at Mr. Lincoln’s safe arrival,” reported the Herald, “and especially complimented him for choosing to travel from Harrisburg unattended by any display, but in a plain democratic way.”
The notion that Lincoln had traveled as he did to avoid ostentation was easily the most peculiar of the many explanations advanced that day. Be that as it may, General Scott’s public show of support was crucial, and it gave credence to newspaper reports that he, America’s most revered military hero, had personally insisted that Lincoln avoid Baltimore. “Mr. Lincoln is in no way responsible for the change of route in coming to this city,” ran one account. “He acted under official communication from General Scott.” In addition, the press reported, the old soldier would remain vigilant throughout the inauguration, so that “no slip up, no stiletto, no revolver, no desperado can prevent the peaceful and actual installing of the man whom the people honor, in the place which Providence has ordained him to fill.”
* * *
THOUGH WILLIAM SEWARD would be at Lincoln’s elbow for most of the day, the future secretary of state detached himself for a few moments that afternoon to return to the train station and collect Mrs. Lincoln and her sons. The safety of his family had weighed heavily on Lincoln’s mind throughout the night, and he had sent a telegram to Harrisburg that morning to reassure Mary of his own safe arrival. Even so, it would not escape the notice of the Southern press that Lincoln had consigned his family “to follow him in the very train in which he himself was to be blown up.” The Baltimore Sun was especially outspoken on the subject, praising Mrs. Lincoln’s sturdy resolve at the expense of her husband’s timidity. The future first lady had “warmly opposed” the change of plan, the Sun reported, and determined “to disprove the whole story” by carrying out her husband’s itinerary in his absence. “So there is to be some pluck in the White House,” the account concluded, “if it is under a bodice.”
In fact, the reports of how Mrs. Lincoln and her sons passed through Baltimore are garbled and contradictory. By some accounts, Lincoln was advised that the simple fact of his absence from the train would protect his family from harm, with no further precautions needed. Others have suggested that he would not have left Harrisburg unless a plan had been set in motion for his family’s safety. What is clear is that Mrs. Lincoln, her sons, and the remaining members of the suite departed from Harrisburg as scheduled at nine o’clock that morning, amid a climate of deep apprehension. Norman Judd would later tell Pinkerton that there had been “some very tall swearing” among the travelers who were not in on the secret. “All the party are on the train, though but few think we shall reach Washington without accidents,” wrote one correspondent. “Colonel Ellsworth expects the train will be mobbed at Baltimore.” Many on board were outraged by Lincoln’s early departure, it was reported: “They call it cowardly, and draw a parallel between the conduct of Mr. Lincoln and the actions of the South Carolinians, very much to the disadvantage of the former.” Robert Lincoln, at least, stood fast behind his father. A little before noon, as the train crossed into Maryland, he led his fellow passengers in a spirited rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Upon arrival in Baltimore, Pinkerton would relate, the travelers “met with anything but a cordial reception.” Joseph Howard, apparently recovered from his brief incarceration the previous evening, gave a chilling account in the Times. “It was well that Mr. Lincoln went as he did—there is no doubt about it,” he declared. “The scene that occurred when the car containing Mrs. Lincoln and her family reached the Baltimore depot showed plainly what undoubtedly would have happened had Mr. Lincoln been of the party. A vast crowd—a multitude, in fact—had gathered in and about the premises. It was evident that they considered the announcement of Mr. Lincoln’s presence in Washington a mere ruse, for thrusting their heads in at the windows, they shouted ‘Trot him out,’ ‘Let’s have him, ‘Come out, old Abe,’ ‘We’ll give you hell’—and other equally polite but more profane ejaculations.” A number of these “rude fellows” succeeded in forcing their way into Mrs. Lincoln’s carriage, Howard continued, but John Hay managed to push them out and lock the door behind them. Meanwhile, the unseemly display on the platform continued: “Oaths, obscenity, disgusting epithets and unpleasant gesticulations were the order of the day.”
For all its colorful detail, Howard’s account may well have been a complete fabrication, part of the reporter’s effort to demonstrate the wisdom of Lincoln’s decision. Howard’s story is directly contradicted by several sources that claimed Mrs. Lincoln was not on board the special when it arrived at the Calvert Street Station that day. The Philadelphia Inquirer was one of several newspapers to report that “the family of Mr. Lincoln left the train” at a track crossing at Charles Street, about a mile short of the station, to be spared any unpleasantness at the hands of the crowd. The story was given out that Mrs. Lincoln had accepted an invitation to lunch at the home of Col. John S. Gittings, the president of the Northern Central Railroad, to demonstrate that “no ill-feeling or suspicion towards him” had inspired her husband’s change of plan. It was said that the family alighted at the city limits, along with Judge Davis and Colonel Sumner, and “took carriages that had been in readiness” to the Gittings mansion, located in the fashionable Mount Vernon district north of town. The remaining travelers, meanwhile, continued on to Calvert Street, then proceeded from there to a reception at the Eutaw House hotel, as previously announced in the press. In this version of events, Mrs. Lincoln was said to have rejoined the travelers later in the day to continue the journey from Camden Street.
If the details are murky, the role of Baltimore’s marshal of police, George P. Kane, is nearly opaque. In the coming days, Kane would be accused of complicity in both extremes of the Baltimore plot: some would accuse him of active collusion with the conspirators, while others would claim that he engineered the change of plan for both the president-elect and his wife. Kane’s own testimony did little to illuminate the matter. The day after Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, he would issue a forceful statement, denying that any serious threat had been discovered. “It was thought possible that an offensive Republican display, said to have been contemplated by some of our citizens at the railroad station, might have provoked disorder,” he admitted, but “ample measures were accordingly taken to prevent any disturbance of the peace.” Elsewhere, Kane would deny any role in Lincoln’s decision to alter his itinerary: “I did not recommend that the President-elect should avoid passing openly through Baltimore, nor did I, for one moment, contemplate such a contingency.”
Later, when a Harper’s Weekly article suggested that he had conspired against Lincoln, Kane wrote an angry response, elaborating on his role in the events. Kane now claimed not only that he had arranged for Mrs. Lincoln’s reception at the home of Colonel Gittings but that he had intended for Lincoln himself to follow the same course, departing the train at the city limits. Kane had grown concerned, he said, that Lincoln would be annoyed by the “noise and confusion” at the depot, along with “candidates for office, and fanatics on the negro question.” That being the case, he suggested to Colonel Gittings that “it would be a fit and graceful thing for him to meet Mr. Lincoln at the Maryland line, and invite him and his family to become his guests during their stay in Baltimore.” In this telling of the events, Kane made it clear that he himself planned to escort Lincoln and his family to Mount Vernon Place. Even now, however, he maintained that the “intended debarkation” had nothing whatever to do with “apprehension or suspicion of intended violence or insult to Mr. Lincoln.” To the contrary, he simply wished to show the city to its best advantage, and believed that the change of route afforded a view of “the most beautiful part of Baltimore.”
Kane’s statements must be treated with caution, as they encompass a fair number of evasions and inconsistencies. If the marshal had truly intended to give Lincoln a fitting reception, it seems curious that he did not inform Baltimore’s mayor, George Brown, who was left waiting at Calvert Street that day, intending “to receive with due respect the incoming President.” By some accounts, Kane himself was also at the station when the Lincoln Special arrived, directing the actions of a robust police presence. In spite of all the contradictions, there is strong evidence to suggest that Mrs. Lincoln did, in fact, accept Colonel Gittings’s hospitality as a means of avoiding the scene at Calvert Street. Lincoln himself is said to have extended his thanks to Mrs. Gittings at a later meeting: “Madam, I owe you a debt. You took my family into your home in the midst of a hostile mob. You gave them succor, and helped them on their way.”
If the story is true, and if Marshal Kane had a hand in the maneuver, it would perhaps place a different construction on Kane’s actions in the days prior to the arrival. Pinkerton would dismiss Kane as a “rabid rebel,” and was convinced that he would “detail but a small police force” as the conspirators did their sinister work at Calvert Street. The detective had been especially alarmed at the remark he overheard at Barnum’s hotel, as Kane apparently told companions that he saw no need to provide a police escort during Lincoln’s visit to the city. Pinkerton construed the remark as a sign of Kane’s indifference to Lincoln’s safety, or perhaps even his active participation in the plot. If, however, Kane had already hatched a design for removing Lincoln from the train, his attitude may be read as the confidence of a man who had already taken preventative measures. The wisdom of such a course would have been debatable at best, as violence would likely have erupted in any case, but there is reason to think that Kane would not have been greatly troubled if a brawl broke out at the station in these circumstances. He had already branded the probable victims—Lincoln’s Republican supporters—as the “very scum of the city.”
* * *
BACK IN WASHINGTON, Pinkerton reported Lincoln’s safe arrival to Samuel Felton and others in a series of laconic telegrams. One of these, to Edward Sanford of the American Telegraph Company, declared:
“Plums arrived here with Nuts this morning—all right.”
Ward Lamon would later grouse that Lincoln had been “reduced to the undignified title of ‘Nuts’” in these messages, but as several of the recipients did not have the cipher key, most of Pinkerton’s dispatches were sent in the clear. The telegram to Norman Judd, for instance, read simply “Arrived here all right.”
Pinkerton remained convinced that the plotters in Baltimore still posed a threat, and he now made preparations to return to the city on the three o’clock train to resume his work as “John H. Hutchinson.” So far as the detective was concerned, he was still on the job, and still operating under cover. Lincoln’s safe passage, in Pinkerton’s view, had been only one battle of a larger campaign. He knew full well that details of Lincoln’s arrival were already appearing in newspapers across the country, but he still believed that his role in the matter must remain secret, especially while he and his agents remained at risk in Baltimore.
Lincoln himself had promised to treat the matter as confidential, but as Pinkerton now discovered, Ward Lamon had other ideas. “After sending the dispatches I met Mr. Lamon,” Pinkerton recorded in his field report. “He was very much excited about the passage of Mr. Lincoln.” In fact, Lamon was preparing to telegraph a reporter in Chicago with the full details. Now that Lincoln was safe in Washington, Lamon “was determined to make a ‘splurge’ and have his name figure largely in it.”
Pinkerton was aghast. He had been annoyed ever since their paths crossed at the Continental Hotel two days earlier, when Lamon seemed to make a point of disregarding the detective’s alias. His irritation deepened during the carriage ride between stations in Philadelphia, with Lamon’s unseemly offer of weapons to Lincoln. Now, with this latest indiscretion, Lamon had gone too far. According to his field report, written later that day or the next, Pinkerton did his best to control his temper. “I endeavored to impress upon him that the arrival of Mr. Lincoln was yet considered secret,” the detective wrote, “and that nothing should be done by anyone to make it public until it had been considered by Mr. Lincoln and his advisers what shape his sudden arrival should assume.… I also reminded Mr. Lamon that whatever light this movement might be placed in, he must remember that I held Mr. Lincoln’s pledge that I should forever remain unknown as having anything whatever to do with it.”
Lamon would not be dissuaded. In his view, the fact that General Scott and Senator Seward had endorsed the measures taken in Baltimore removed the matter from Pinkerton’s sphere of influence. At this, Pinkerton’s anger boiled over. “All I could say appeared to be futile,” he recalled. “He talked so foolishly that I lost patience with him and set him down in my own mind as a brainless egotistical fool—and I still think so.”
Turning his back on Lamon, Pinkerton set off for a walk along Pennsylvania Avenue, letting off steam before he departed for Baltimore. When he returned to Willard’s Hotel about an hour later, however, he spotted Lamon deep in conversation with Simon Hanscom, a correspondent for the New York Herald. “I could plainly see that Lamon had been drinking,” Pinkerton said. Worse yet, it seemed as if the two men were talking about him. “I observed Hanscom look very hard at me,” the detective said, “and he kept his eye on me while I was around.” Soon, Hanscom pulled Lamon into the hotel bar. Pinkerton watched with mounting agitation as the reporter ordered drinks, “repeating the dose” several times as he began jotting notes. The conclusion was obvious: “Hanscom was ‘pumping’ Lamon.”
Finally, after watching for some moments, Pinkerton’s temper flared again. He caught Lamon’s eye and motioned him over. As Lamon approached, Pinkerton angrily tore into him for exposing his identity to the reporter. Lamon hedged, first telling Pinkerton that Hanscom already knew all there was to know, but finally acknowledging his indiscretion. “I got quite angry and swore some,” Pinkerton admitted. He reproached Lamon for being so careless under the influence of alcohol, and threatened to take the matter directly to Lincoln. The president-elect had given him a “pledge of secrecy,” the detective said, and would surely insist on “making Lamon hold his tongue.” The threat had an immediate effect: “Mr. Lamon was very much excited, and begged that I should not do this.” As a gesture of good faith, Lamon promised to speak with Hanscom at once to be certain that the detective’s name would be held in confidence. Seemingly chastened, Lamon turned away and hurried back to his seat at the bar.
Pinkerton did, in fact, go directly to Lincoln after this heated encounter, but there is no evidence that Lamon’s name was mentioned. “I sent a card signed ‘E. J. Allen’ to Mr. Lincoln, saying that I was about to leave for Baltimore and requesting to see him for a moment,” Pinkerton recalled. “I received an immediate reply asking me to come to his room.” Lincoln’s suite was filled with callers, including Seward and a delegation of congressmen, but the president-elect led Pinkerton to a quiet room, where he offered “warm expressions of thankfulness for the part I had performed in securing his safety.” Pinkerton told Lincoln that he would continue to monitor the situation in Baltimore, and that he expected to remain there until the inauguration. Lincoln asked to be kept informed of any fresh developments, and he promised once again that the detective’s “connection with the affair should be kept secret.” The two men shook hands as Pinkerton took his leave, setting off alone for Baltimore. So far as the president-elect was concerned, Pinkerton noted, “my object had been fully accomplished.”
* * *
IN PINKERTON’S MIND, however, the job was far from over. He had not slept for more than a few hours for days on end, and no one would have begrudged him if he had waited until morning to leave Washington. But Pinkerton felt certain that the plotters would rise again, and that they might succeed this time unless he and his operatives resumed their efforts immediately.
The detective’s first act on arriving in Baltimore was to seek out James Luckett, his neighbor at the office building on South Street, who informed him that Ferrandini and his conspirators “would yet make the attempt to assassinate Lincoln.” There were no details as yet, Luckett continued, and there appeared to be a great deal of hard feeling among the plotters that they had been “cheated” by traitors in their midst. “[He] swore very hard against the damned spies who had betrayed them,” Pinkerton said, “remarking that they would yet find them out, and when found they should meet the fate which Lincoln had for the present escaped.”
Pinkerton felt relief that he and his agents were not suspected, but two of the New York detectives dispatched by Superintendent John Kennedy had not been so fortunate. As the events in Baltimore came to a boil, Thomas Sampson and Ely DeVoe found suddenly that they were under intense scrutiny. “It was no laughing matter,” Sampson would recall. “The ‘Volunteers’ were loud in their threats against traitors.… There was even a detail whose duty it was to ‘do away’ with suspected persons.” The two detectives took flight from the city in disguise, only managing to avoid discovery through the timely intervention of Timothy Webster. The Pinkerton operative had known Sampson years earlier in New York, and he became aware of his old friend’s peril just as a group of pursuers was closing in. “I swear to you,” Webster warned the New York officers, “there are twenty men after you this very instant.” In the end, Sampson and DeVoe were forced to make a “jump for life” from a moving train to complete their escape. Pinkerton claimed that he and his men “laughed very heartily at the New York detectives being discovered,” but the plight of Sampson and DeVoe underscored the dangers of exposure. In these circumstances, Ward Lamon’s indiscretion continued to prey on Pinkerton’s mind. On his return to Baltimore from Washington, Pinkerton’s train had crossed the path of the Lincoln Special at a watering stop in Annapolis. Pinkerton had crossed the platform and sought out Norman Judd, bending his ear about “the foolish conduct of Mr. Lamon.” Judd promised that he would “attend to the fool on his arrival in Washington.”
Pinkerton hoped that would settle the matter, but there was worse to come. Two days later, an alarming dispatch in the New York World reported on the doings of a mysterious group of detectives who had spent several weeks in Baltimore, “discovering whether any peril menaced Mr. Lincoln in his passage through that city.” This investigation, the World revealed, had been headed by “One Mr. Detective Pinkerton of Chicago—a gentleman of Vidocquean repute in the way of thief-taking—a very Napoleon in the respect of laying his hand upon the right man.” When a copy of this flattering but all too explicit account reached Pinkerton in Baltimore, hand-delivered by George H. Burns of Harnden’s Express, the detective sent the young messenger directly to Judd in Washington. “I directed Mr. Burns to say to Mr. Judd that Lamon and Judge Davis of Illinois were surely playing the Devil,” Pinkerton fumed, “and unless they shut their heads about me, I would be obliged to leave.”
In fact, though Pinkerton could not have known it at the time, the author of the account in the World was almost certainly John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary, who would have heard a great deal of talk about “Mr. Detective Pinkerton” while aboard the Lincoln Special. The misunderstanding served to deepen Pinkerton’s ill feeling, and it would not be the last time he sought to make Ward Lamon shut his head.
* * *
FOR THE MOMENT, as the day of Lincoln’s arrival in Washington drew to a close, Pinkerton had cause for satisfaction. Eighteen hours earlier, as the president-elect’s darkened sleeper car passed unnoticed through the streets of Baltimore, Pinkerton looked out and saw a city in “profound repose.” Now, he reported, there was more excitement than he had ever seen in his life. “Everybody appeared to be swearing mad,” and there was “no end to the imprecations which were poured out on Lincoln and the unknown spies.” Pinkerton spent about an hour mixing with a large gathering at the city’s post office. He would later say that he had never seen so many people in “such a heated, excitable state.” Walking back to his office to file a report, he allowed himself a moment of “quiet gratitude” that Lincoln had survived the day.
At the same moment, back at Willard’s Hotel in Washington, Lincoln was also feeling the press of a heated and excitable crowd. The president-elect had agreed to meet with a large delegation from the continuing Peace Convention, the proceedings of which had been interrupted by his arrival that morning. For many of the delegates, especially those who favored compromise with the secessionists, it was distasteful even to acknowledge Lincoln’s presence, much less extend an official greeting. “No delegate from a slave state had voted for him,” wrote Vermont’s Lucius Chittenden, “[and] many entertained for him sentiments of positive hatred. I heard him discussed as a curiosity by men as they would have spoken of a clown with whose ignorant vulgarity they were to be amused. They took him for an unlettered boor, with no fixed principles, whose nomination was an accident.”
In many ways this gathering would mark the culmination of Lincoln’s long journey from Springfield. He had set out with the intent of giving a nervous public the chance to see him in the flesh and hear something of his ideas. If the delegates were far from typical members of the electorate, being retired politicians and other men of influence, they represented a fair index of the strongly held opinions that had divided the country and brought Lincoln to Washington. As Chittenden noted, the circumstances of the meeting found Lincoln at a decided disadvantage. He was at the end of a long and grueling journey, and “had just escaped a conspiracy against his life.” It would have been natural, as he faced this “contemptuously inimical audience,” if he had seemed ill at ease. “But it was soon discovered,” Chittenden wrote, that the new president “was able to take care of himself.”
At nine o’clock that evening, Lincoln stood alone and unattended at the far end of one of the hotel’s large drawing rooms. As the delegates began to file in, he extended a personal greeting to each man, addressing many of them by name. “The manner in which he adjusted his conversation to representatives of different sections and opinions was striking,” said Chittenden. “He had some apt observation for each person ready the moment he heard his name.” When the son of Kentucky’s Henry Clay was presented to him, Lincoln was effusive: “Your name is all the endorsement I require. From my boyhood the name of Henry Clay has been an inspiration to me.”
Every so often, as the conversation touched upon “the great controversy of the hour,” a flash of icy resolve could be seen. At one stage, Virginia’s William Cabell Rives stepped forward to urge compromise with the secessionists. “I can do little, you can do much,” Rives intoned. “Everything now depends upon you.”
“I cannot agree to that,” Lincoln replied. “My course is as plain as a turnpike road. It is marked out by the Constitution. I am in no doubt which way to go. Suppose now we all stop discussing and try the experiment of obedience to the Constitution and the laws. Don’t you think it would work?”
There would be several more thrusts and parries of this type over the course of the next hour as Lincoln met each challenge with a show of courtesy tempered by resolve. As he spoke, Chittenden observed, the Republican delegates appeared both surprised and gratified, while several of the more ardent Southerners slipped quietly from the room. At last, one of the New York delegates asked pointedly if the North should not offer whatever concessions were necessary to avoid war. Such a conflict, he insisted, would be ruinous, plunging the nation into bankruptcy—so that “grass shall grow in the streets of our commercial cities.” Lincoln’s reply was unequivocal: “I will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he insisted. “It is not the Constitution as I would like to have it, but as it is, that is to be defended. The Constitution will not be preserved and defended until it is enforced and obeyed in every part of every one of the United States. It must be so respected, obeyed, enforced, and defended, let the grass grow where it may.”
These words, as well as the determined manner in which he spoke them, left a forceful impression. “He has been both misjudged and misunderstood by the Southern people,” William Rives remarked as the reception concluded. “His will not be a weak administration.”
* * *
IN THE DAYS TO COME, as Pinkerton and many others observed, the pace of national events quickened to a “high gallop.” Soon enough, the Peace Convention would grind to an inconclusive halt, a compromise Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution having been proposed, an action that Nicolay and Hay would dismiss as “worthless as Dead Sea fruit.” At the Capitol on March 4, in the shadow of General Scott’s gun batteries, Lincoln delivered his carefully honed inaugural address in an earnest spirit of reconciliation. As he himself would later acknowledge, however, the scent of powder was already in the air. “All dreaded it, all sought to avert it,” he would say at his second inaugural, four years later. “While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
* * *
SOON AFTER THE BOMBARDMENT of Fort Sumter, in April, Timothy Webster arrived in Washington carrying several important dispatches—carefully sewn into his clothing by Kate Warne—for hand delivery to President Lincoln. One of these was a letter from Pinkerton:
When I saw you last I said that if the time should ever come that I could be of service to you I was ready—If that time has come I am on hand—
I have in my Force from Sixteen to Eighteen persons on whose courage, skill & devotion to their country I can rely. If they with myself at the head can be of service in the way of obtaining information of the movements of the traitors, or safely conveying your letters or dispatches, or that class of Secret Service which is the most dangerous, I am at your command.
In the present disturbed state of affairs I dare not trust this to the mail—so send by one of my force who was with me at Baltimore—You may safely trust him with any message for me—written or verbal—I fully guarantee his fidelity—He will act as you direct—and return here with your answer.
Secrecy is the great lever I propose to operate with—Hence the necessity of this movement (If you contemplate it) being kept Strictly Private, and that should you desire another interview with the Bearer that you should so arrange it as that he will not be noticed—The Bearer will hand you a copy of a Telegraphic Cipher which you may use if you desire to Telegraph me—
My Force comprises both Sexes—all of good character—and well skilled in their business—
At Lincoln’s request, Webster returned the following morning to collect Lincoln’s reply, which requested that Pinkerton make his way to Washington at once. Taking his leave of the president, Webster rolled the message into a tight cylinder and concealed it in a hollow compartment of his walking stick.
The case files marked “Operations in Baltimore” were now closed and filed away. A new operation had begun.