Military history



During the spring of 1860, the counties of Illinois held their conventions. The State Convention met at Decatur a few days previous to the assembling of the National Convention in Chicago. While the delegates were in session Mr. Lincoln came in as a spectator, and was invited to a seat on the platform. Soon afterward a couple of weather-worn fence-rails were borne into the hall, decorated with flags, and bearing the inscription, “Abraham Lincoln, the Rail Candidate for President in 1860.” A storm of applause greeted the appearance of the fence rails thus decorated and inscribed. Lincoln was called upon and said, “I suppose I am expected to reply to that. I cannot say whether I made those rails or not, but I am quite sure I have made a great many just as good.” … From that day forward, Lincoln was hailed as “the Rail-Splitter of Illinois.”

—JOSIAH SEYMOUR CURREY, Chicago: Its History and Its Builders (1912)

DOZENS OF SPECIALLY CHARTERED TRAINS, many of them decorated with flags and patriotic bunting, converged on Chicago from all points of the compass in May 1860. Some forty thousand people had “said good-bye to their wondering families,” wrote Joseph Howard, Jr., in the New York Times, “and set off with the world’s people on a patriotic mission” to the Republican National Convention. While en route, many of the delegates found themselves in a festive mood. “Time and space would fail me to describe the smoking car, the boxes of cigars, the gin cocktail jugs, the brandy flask and the whisky slings which were freely circulated through the cars,” wrote Howard. “I will only allude to the fact that they were there.”

Residents along Michigan Avenue illuminated their homes to greet the arriving trains, with rockets fired at regular intervals to create what the Chicago Press called a “brilliant tableau of welcome.” Much had changed since Allan Pinkerton rode into town as deputy sheriff twelve years earlier. The Sauganash Hotel, where Pinkerton arrested the counterfeiter John Craig, had burned down in 1851, to be replaced in 1860 by a two-story meeting hall known as the Wigwam—so called because the “chiefs” of the Republican party were to gather there to nominate their standard-bearer for the November presidential race. Many saw this event as Chicago’s debut on the national stage. No longer simply “a town of meat and mud,” as one early visitor had complained, Chicago had transformed itself into a robust and thriving metropolis. “She glistens,” observed the New York Herald, “and bids fair to outstrip her more complacent eastern cousins.”

Abraham Lincoln also had hopes of outstripping his more complacent eastern cousins, though his fortunes were by no means assured. “We are facing a crisis, there are troublous times ahead,” the Republican powerbroker Thurlow Weed told the conventioneers. Such times called for exceptional statesmanship, Weed insisted, and his choice was the man widely considered to have the nomination locked up: New York’s longtime governor, and current senator, William H. Seward. Before the balloting began, however, Lincoln’s supporters cunningly positioned their candidate as a more electable alternative to Seward, whose views on slavery were considered too extreme to win the White House. At the same time, the Lincoln men packed the hall with partisans—even printing extra tickets to hand out to Lincoln backers—who greeted his nomination with a “perfectly deafening” show of support. The strategy worked: Seward failed to gain the needed majority on the first and second rounds of balloting, and on the third, Lincoln pulled ahead. By the end of the proceedings, the “gallant son of the West” had secured the nomination, the improbability of which may be gauged by the reaction in Washington, where the House of Representatives adjourned in a “state of confusion.” Howard, of the New York Times, perhaps overly fortified with gin cocktails and whiskey slings, struggled to find the handle on the story: “Great inquiry has been made this afternoon into the history of Mr. Lincoln,” he wrote. “The only evidence that he has a history as yet discovered, is that he had a stump canvass with Mr. Douglas, in which he was beaten.” In the absence of other information, the reporter fell back on a hasty reading of Lincoln’s campaign biography. “The youngster who, with ragged trousers, used barefoot to drive his father’s oxen and spend his days splitting rails, has risen to high eminence,” he told his readers, but the nominee’s name was rendered as “Abram Lincoln.”

“The lines of battle were now drawn,” Pinkerton declared. “Never before in the history of the parties was a canvass conducted with more bitterness or with a greater amount of vituperation. The whole country was engrossed with the gigantic struggle.” For all of that, Pinkerton declined to say if he was in Lincoln’s corner. Quite possibly, his friendship with McClellan pulled his support away from Lincoln, as it would in future elections. In any event, Pinkerton, the failed Abolitionist party candidate, would have followed the goings-on at the Republican National Convention with close interest, as the Wigwam was within a short walk of both his home and his office.

Lincoln remained at home in Springfield during the convention and through the long months of the presidential campaign, in accordance with the traditions of the day, while his supporters made speeches, held marches, and distributed pamphlets and lithographs. Though he considered making an appearance in Chicago after the nomination was announced, even this gesture was discouraged. “Don’t come here for God’s sake,” warned David Davis, his campaign manager. “Write no letters and make no promises till you see me.” It was the custom of the time for the candidate to hold himself apart from active campaigning, but in Lincoln’s case there were more pressing reasons to keep his own counsel. Any further elaboration of his views, it was believed, would be seized upon and distorted by his opponents, adding fuel to the Southern uproar over his nomination.

Once again, Lincoln’s Democratic opponent would be Stephen Douglas, the two men replaying their earlier Senate race on the national stage. Many felt confident that the “steam engine in breeches,” as the energetic Douglas was known, would again defeat his rival, with one Democratic-leaning newspaper rejoicing that the Republicans could find no one better than a “third rate Western lawyer.” Even among Republicans, there were rumblings that Lincoln wasn’t up to the job. “You fellows knew at Chicago what this country is facing,” wrote one disillusioned party member. “You knew that above everything else, these times demanded a statesman and you have gone and given us a rail splitter.”

As the election neared, however, the splintering effect of pro-slavery candidates such as John C. Breckenridge and John Bell made itself felt. “The Southern ‘Fire-eaters,’ as they were called, fully realized their inability to elect the candidates they had named,” Pinkerton noted, “but strove with all their power to prevent the success of the regular Democratic nominees.” Soon enough, the Democratic party would split into Northern and Southern factions, all but ensuring the defeat of Douglas.

“When at last the day of election came, and the votes were counted,” Pinkerton recorded, “it was found that Abraham Lincoln had been elected.” In the South, the result gave fresh ammunition to the Fire-Eaters. “The anti-slavery proclivities of the successful party was instantly made a plausible pretext for secession,” Pinkerton noted, “and the withdrawal of the slave-holding States from the Union was boldly advocated.” Among those attempting to defuse the crisis was the recently defeated candidate, Stephen Douglas, who selflessly carried a message of unity to hostile audiences in the South, attempting to calm the secessionist fervor and broker a compromise.

In spite of these efforts, many Southern newspapers claimed that all hope of conciliation had been extinguished. “The election was not the Cause,” declared Senator Jefferson Davis, “it was but the last feather which you know breaks the Camel’s back.” The Charleston Mercury drew a comparison to Colonial times: “The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.” In New York, Horace Greeley captured the nation’s mood in a pointed, anxious question: “What next?”

It would be some time before the question could be answered. With Lincoln’s election, the nation entered a period of tense apprehension—the “Great Secession Winter of 1860–1861,” in Henry Adams’s phrase. Until March 4 of the following year—the date designated by the Founding Fathers as Inauguration Day—Lincoln would be caught between two worlds. Though he did not yet have any authority over events, he found himself constantly pressed for hints of the course he would pursue as president. He watched helplessly as several Southern states edged toward secession under President Buchanan’s waning stewardship, but he feared to aggravate the situation by speaking out from Springfield. “Much has been said about the propriety of your saying or writing something now that you are President Elect, to satisfy and appease the South,” a Pennsylvania congressman wrote to him. “In my judgment anything you could or would say with a view to accomplish any good would be perverted, misconstrued and prove worse than useless. They have hardened their hearts against you.” Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne concurred, echoing a phrase coined by Sir James Mackintosh: “What we want most is a ‘masterly inactivity.’”

For Lincoln, the wait was agonizing. Writing to a friend, he stated that he would “willingly take out of my life a period in years” equal to the number of months remaining until the inauguration. Pinkerton, watching events unfold from Chicago, felt similar apprehensions. “The political horizon was dark and obscured,” he wrote. “The low mutterings of the storm that was soon to sweep over our country, and to deluge our fair land with fratricidal blood, were distinctly heard.”

Pinkerton, whose work frequently took him below the Mason-Dixon line, was appalled by what he read in the pages of Southern newspapers. “Especial efforts had been made to render Mr. Lincoln personally odious and contemptible,” he wrote, “and his election formed the pretexts of these reckless conspirators who had long been plotting the overthrow of the Union. No falsehood was too gross, no statement too exaggerated, to be used for that purpose, and so zealously did these misguided men labor in the cause of disunion, and so systematically concerted was their action, that the mass of the people of the slave states were made to believe that this pure, patient, humane, Christian statesman was a monster whose vices and passions made him odious, and whose political beliefs made him an object of just abhorrence.” Pinkerton worried that the hostile Southern press would tip over into actual violence against Lincoln, which might, in turn, serve as the flash point for armed rebellion.

Though Pinkerton did not know it at the time, “low mutterings” of this kind could already be heard in Baltimore. Already, the city’s saloons and drawing rooms buzzed with restless outrage, the first stirrings of a darker purpose to come. For the moment, Pinkerton had no idea that he was fated to play a central role in the coming drama, or that the events of the next few weeks would set his life and career on an entirely new track.

Like Lincoln, Pinkerton found himself caught between two extremes as the war approached. As his work carried him away from home for longer and longer stretches, he became a distant, mercurial figure to his wife and children. At home, he retained the abstemious, early-to-bed habits of his coopering days; in the field, as he assumed the identity of a train worker or traveling businessman, he became a gregarious bon vivant, always ready to share a drink and a smoke, eager to pass an hour or two at the nearest saloon. This radical change of demeanor, more than the altered hairstyles and clothing he adopted, made him effective as an undercover operative, but if Pinkerton had appeared under his own roof while working a case, his wife and children would not have recognized him.

The gulf between his work and home life grew wider over time. One day, Pinkerton’s sons would follow him into the detective business, but for the moment he believed it was necessary to keep his two worlds separate, especially at those times when his work required him to get his hands dirty. “It is, perhaps, a matter not to be exultant about,” Pinkerton explained, “but, during my life as a detective, I have, for various reasons of a politic nature, become intimately acquainted with the men whom I was most anxious to apprehend, mingling with them in their ordinary walks, entirely unsuspected, until the time for action arrived and arrests were necessary.” In order to achieve this, he insisted, a detective was required to assimilate “as far as possible” into the criminal’s world, and, by “appearing to know but little, acquire all the information possible.”

This ability to blend in with “men of evil intent” would make Pinkerton invaluable to Abraham Lincoln as he made his way to Washington in a climate of gathering danger. As a committed abolitionist, Pinkerton understood the challenges facing the incoming president as well as any man of his time. For all of that, when his path crossed with Lincoln’s in the days ahead, politics would be pushed aside. What Lincoln would need most at this defining moment was not a political partisan, but a cunning, hardheaded railroad detective.

Pinkerton might have drawn inspiration for the coming adventure from “Tam o’Shanter,” a favorite poem by the Scottish bard Robert Burns, which tells the tale of a wild journey through a dark night, beset by hostile spirits, ending finally in the safety of a river crossing. The poem was also a great favorite of Lincoln, who ranked the plowman poet alongside Shakespeare, and who was said to “quote Burns by the hour” in his Springfield law office. The previous year, on January 25, 1859, Lincoln had participated in a “Burns Night” celebration at Springfield’s concert hall, where he marked the centenary of the poet’s birth by proposing one of the evening’s toasts. “It is said,” one of Lincoln’s campaign biographies noted, “he now has by heart every line of his favorite poet.”

Pinkerton, too, had joined in the Burns celebrations that night, attending a parade through the streets of Chicago, followed by a hundred-gun salute. The evening finished with a gathering of three thousand people at the city’s Metropolitan Hall, with tributes from Mayor Haines and former governor McComas. According to one account, a highlight of the evening was the appearance of thirty-one-year-old Joan Pinkerton, who took the stage to lead the Highland Guard of Chicago in a heartfelt rendition of “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” with its vision of a future in which all men are equals:

Then let us pray that come it may

(As come it will for a’ that)

That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth

Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that!

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

It’s comin’ yet for a’ that,

That man to man the world o’er

Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Almost twenty years had passed since Pinkerton had first heard Joan Carfrae’s soprano voice in the back parlor of a Glasgow pub. He had come up in the world a great deal since then, but in many ways he was still the barefoot cooper who had marched on Newport for the rights of the workingman. Now, sitting with his sons, William and Robert, on one of his increasingly rare visits home, he listened as his wife’s voice filled the hall, singing of honest poverty and independent minds. After a moment, William and Robert heard an unfamiliar sound. Turning away from the stage, they saw that their father’s head was lowered and tears were streaming from his eyes.

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