Military history



“If I alone must do it, I shall—Lincoln shall die in this city.”



In the day’s mail for Lincoln came letters cursing him for an ape and a baboon who had brought the country evil. He was buffoon and monster; an abortion, an idiot; they prayed he would be flogged, burned, hanged, tortured. Pen sketches of gallows and daggers arrived from “oath-bound brotherhoods.” Mrs. Lincoln saw unwrapped a painting on canvas, her husband with a rope around his neck, his feet chained, his body tarred and feathered.

—CARL SANDBURG, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years

ON CHRISTMAS DAY OF 1860, a forty-nine-year-old sculptor named Thomas D. Jones stepped off a train at the Western Railroad Depot in Springfield. He wore a jaunty wide-brimmed hat and a flowing shawl tossed carelessly across his shoulders. In one hand he carried a cloth artist’s bag filled with knives, cutters, and trim tools, and in the other was a leather travel grip. Folded up in a pocket of his velvet frock coat was a commission to create a portrait bust of President-elect Lincoln, who at that moment was spending a final holiday at home with his family before heading to Washington. Jones had no guarantee that Lincoln would agree to pose, but as he took his bearings outside the small brick depot, he felt “a warming sense of optimism.”

The sculptor was just one of thousands of visitors trying to catch Lincoln’s ear during the hectic final days in Springfield. Ever since the election, Lincoln had been so besieged by people seeking political appointments and other favors—“groveling time-wasters, fawners, sycophants and parasites,” as one journalist described them—that he found it difficult to walk the streets. “Individuals, deputations, and delegations from all quarters pressed in upon him in a manner that might have killed a man of less robust constitution,” declared his friend Ward Hill Lamon. “The hotels of Springfield were filled with gentlemen who came with light baggage and heavy schemes. The party had never been in office: a clean sweep of the ‘ins’ was expected; and all the ‘outs’ were patriotically anxious to take the vacant places. It was a party that had never fed, and it was vigorously hungry.”

Jones, the sculptor, who had traveled through a heavy snowstorm to reach Springfield, was pleased with his first view of the town, recalling the “magical effect” of the falling snow as it mingled with steam from the arriving train. Others were less impressed. “None of the streets were paved, and in wet weather, of which a good deal prevailed during that winter, they were simply impassable,” noted Henry Villard in the New York Herald. “There was but one decent hotel.” Villard was being unkind; there were several well-regarded hotels and rooming houses within walking distance of the State House, along with a number of restaurants and saloons, and no fewer than three billiard halls. Still, as Villard remarked, the town was not accustomed to such crowds: “The influx of politicians is so great that a large number are nightly obliged to seek shelter in sleeping cars.”

Jones was fortunate to find a room available on the top floor of a serviceable hotel called the St. Nicholas, where he established a makeshift studio. The following day, rising at a “timely hour,” he strolled over to the State House in hopes of getting a moment with the president-elect, pausing briefly to take in the building’s impressive limestone facade and copper dome. Two years earlier, Lincoln had delivered his now-famous “House Divided” speech from this building. Now, at the invitation of the governor, Lincoln had moved his headquarters from the cramped law office he shared with William Herndon to a spacious reception room on the second floor. As Jones entered, he found the room buzzing with politicians and office seekers. To the artist’s surprise, Lincoln himself came forward with a word of greeting and invited him to take a seat. Jones was struck by the “hard and rugged lines” that creased Lincoln’s face, the stamp of his early life on the prairie, but noted that the president-elect’s features softened as he began to speak. “As he was a prompt man, he lost no time in proceeding to business,” the artist recalled, “and inquired how I made my busts.” A few months earlier, Lincoln explained, he had posed for a plaster cast of his face, an experience he had found “anything but agreeable.” Jones assured the president-elect that his method was different; he intended to execute various pencil sketches during a series of sittings, then craft a likeness from clay. “I like your mode,” Lincoln replied, and agreed to make himself available for an hour each morning at the St. Nicholas.

Lincoln had any number of reasons to consent to sit for Jones, but perhaps the most compelling was the chance to display his new beard, which he had begun growing only a few weeks earlier. The change of appearance was intended to mold a new image as he entered the White House, putting the seal on his transformation from prairie rail-splitter to judicious statesman. A popular piece of lore tells of a letter Lincoln received from eleven-year-old Grace Bedell, a girl in upstate New York, who advised him during the campaign that growing out his whiskers would likely tip her family’s support in his direction: “[Y]ou would look a great deal better for your face is so thin,” Miss Bedell reasoned. “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” The letter drew a prompt reply from Lincoln, who expressed regret that he had no daughters of his own to advise him on such matters. “As to the whiskers,” he said, “having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affect[ta]tion if I were to begin now?” In fact, Lincoln had been pondering the change for months. “It is allowed to be ugly in this world,” he remarked, “but not as ugly as I am.” The beard, he believed, would serve to “hide my horrible lantern jaws.”

Through the early weeks of January, the newly bearded president-elect dutifully trudged through muddy streets to the St. Nicholas, where he climbed four flights of stairs to the sculptor’s room for daily sittings. While Jones sketched, Lincoln reviewed his mail and composed replies. Every so often, Lincoln would hand Jones a pencil and ask him to sharpen it with one of his sculpting knives. The artist soon came to realize that their daily routine provided Lincoln with his “only retreat from the pursuit of the numerous applicants for office, where he could compose his addresses in peace.”

The peace would be short-lived. One day, an expressman clambered up the stairs with a small box addressed to Lincoln, wrapped in brown paper and loosely tied with string. “It was neither large nor formidable in appearance,” Jones recalled, “but it looked suspicious.” Jones at once offered to open the package himself, fearing that it might contain “an infernal machine or torpedo.” After some debate, Jones fastened on the plan of “placing it at the back of the clay model on which I was at work, using it as an earthwork, so in case it exploded, it would not harm either of us.”

One can only admire the sculptor’s bravery, but it is not entirely clear how much protection was to be afforded by a half-completed bust of Lincoln’s head. Nevertheless, Jones placed the parcel accordingly, then gingerly cut the strings with one of his sculpting knives. To the surprise of both men, “out tumbled a pig-tail whistle.”

Lincoln burst out laughing. A proverb of the day held that “One cannot make a whistle out of a pig’s tail,” but here was tangible evidence to the contrary. Given what lay ahead in Washington, the gift was a uniquely fitting token of luck, as Lincoln, too, faced a task widely held to be impossible. “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed the joke hugely,” recalled the reporter Henry Villard, who came upon the president-elect while he was trying earnestly to produce a few notes on this “masterpiece of ingenuity.”

Lincoln later acknowledged the “valuable present” with a note of thanks. “When I get to Washington,” he promised, “I will use it to call my cabinet together.”

*   *   *

JONES WOULD LATER characterize the episode as an amusing distraction—“Neither did we soak it in a tub of water,” he said of the suspicious package, “or say many prayers over it”—but his initial concern was understandable. Even before the election returns were in, Lincoln’s postbag in Springfield contained at least a dozen pieces of hate mail each day. According to the Washington Constitution, Lincoln’s desk was piled high with threats of “flaying alive, assassination, mayhem, fire and brimstone, and getting his nose pulled.” Much of this unpleasant correspondence was the direct result of an ever-rising level of vitriol in the Southern press. Though Lincoln gave no sign that the attacks intimidated him, his friend Henry Clay Whitney felt revulsion. “There were threats of hanging him, burning him, decapitating him, flogging him, etc.,” Whitney recalled. “Nor had the limner’s art been neglected: in addition to several rude sketches of assassination, by various modes, a copy of Harper’s Weekly was among the collection, with a full length portrait of the president-elect; but some cheerful pro-slavery wag had added a gallows, a noose and a black-cap.”

One morning, after reviewing some particularly unpleasant letters in his third-floor law office, Lincoln scooped up an armful of offensive material and carried it down the steps to a cabinetmaker’s shop on the ground floor. Pausing in the doorway, Lincoln asked if he might borrow the proprietor’s stove to dispose of his burden. The cabinetmaker, who had taken a keen interest in his fellow tenant’s rise to the highest office in the land, asked if he might be allowed to keep the letters instead. Lincoln agreed.

These letters, and others like them, provide a chilling index of the passions stirred throughout the country:

Old Abe Lincoln

God damn your god damned old Hellfired god damned soul to hell god damn you and goddam your god damned family’s god damned hellfired god damned soul to hell and god damnation god damn them and god damn your god damn friends to hell god damn their god damn families to eternal god damnation god damn souls to hell god damn them and God Alighty God damn Old Hamlin to[o] to hell God damn his god damned soul all over everywhere double damn his God damned soul to hell

Now you God damned old Abolition son of a bitch God damn you I want you to send me God damn you about one dozen good offices Good God Almighty God damn your God damned soul and three or four pretty Gals God damn you

And by doing God damn you you

Will Oblige

Pete Muggins

A second, more succinct letter made a grim prediction for the date of the inauguration in Washington:

Abraham Lincoln Esq


You will be shot on the 4th of March 1861 by a Louisiana Creole we are decided and our aim is sure.

A young creole.


Other messages, like the one that arrived sometime later from a Mr. A. G. Frick, offered Lincoln a chance at survival if he would agree to resign the presidency:

Mr. Abe Lincoln

If you don’t Resign we are going to put a spider in your dumpling and play the Devil with you you god or mighty god dam sundde of a bith go to hell and buss my Ass suck my prick and call my Bolics your uncle Dick god dam a fool and goddam Abe Lincoln who would like you goddamn you excuse me for using such hard words with you but you need it …

Many of Lincoln’s supporters also urged him to resign, rather than face likely death at the hands of his enemies. Several people warned of potential poisoning, with one correspondent advising the president-elect to “drink hot milk in Large Quantities—in order to frustrate the diabolicol [sic] plot.” Another cautioned that there might be poison in the ink Lincoln was using to write his letters. An Iowa chemistry professor offered to outfit the president-elect with a special chain-mail shirt, covered with silk and “plated with gold, so that perspiration shall not affect it.” He added his assurance that “Napoleon III is constantly protected in this way.”

To all outward appearances, the president-elect remained untroubled, if perhaps a little beleaguered by the sheer volume of his correspondence. On one occasion, he was spotted at the post office filling “a good sized market basket” with his latest batch of letters, and then struggling to keep his footing as he navigated the icy streets. Soon, he took on a pair of extra hands to assist with the burden. John Nicolay—a pale, bookish young Bavarian immigrant with thinning hair and a dark goatee—had applied to write Lincoln’s official campaign biography, only to find that the job had already been assigned. “Never mind,” he was told. “You are to be private secretary.”

As he took up his duties, Nicolay was troubled by the growing number of threats that crossed Lincoln’s desk. “His mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, and warnings of all sorts came to him from zealous or nervous friends,” Nicolay wrote. “But he had himself so sane a mind, and a heart so kindly, even to his enemies, that it was hard for him to believe in political hatred so deadly as to lead to murder.” From the earliest days, however, it was clear that not all of the warnings could be brushed aside. Even before election returns were in, an unsettling letter had arrived from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas:

Dear Sir:

On a recent visit to the east, I met a lady of high character, who had been spending part of the summer among her friends and relatives in Virginia. She informed me that a number of young men in Virginia had bound themselves, by oaths most solemn, to cause your assassination, should you be elected. Now Sir, you may laugh at this story, and really it does appear too absurd to repeat, but I beg you to recollect, that on “the institution” these good people are most certainly demented, and being crazy, they should be taken care of, to prevent their doing harm to themselves or others—Judicious, prompt and energetic action on the part of your Secretary of War, will no doubt secure your own safety, and the peace of the country,

I have the honor to be,

Very Sincerely,

Your mo. ob.

David Hunter

The warning from Hunter, a U.S. Army major, stood apart from the garbled threats of the anonymous “young Creole” and the gloriously profane Pete Muggins. Hunter was clearly no zealot: He was a West Point graduate, whose grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln sent a prompt reply, indicating that he had heard rumblings of this type from another source within the army. “While I think there are many chances to one that this is a hum-bug, it occurs to me that any real movement of this sort in the army would leak out and become known to you,” Lincoln wrote. “In such case, if it would not be unprofessional, or dishonorable (of which you are to be judge) I shall be much obliged if you will apprise me of it.”

Major Hunter took the president-elect at his word, and he wrote again in December to warn that “careful study of the signs of the times” had inclined him to believe that there was trouble ahead. In particular, Hunter had heard talk of a plot to capture Washington and retain James Buchanan, “the Old Publick Functionary,” as president. It would be a wise precaution, Hunter suggested, to enlist 100,000 Wide Awakes—the uniformed citizens brigade that formed during the election to support the Republican cause—and have them “wend their way quietly to Washington” in advance of the inaugural. “The reins once in your hands, I cannot doubt a triumphant result,” Hunter wrote, “and that you will preserve every star on our flag.”

Hunter’s suggestion could hardly be counted as practical at a time when Lincoln was trying to avoid provocation, nor was it at all clear how a force of 100,000 men might wend its way “quietly” into the capital. Nevertheless, Lincoln took the major’s concerns seriously, and he invited Hunter to join his entourage for the forthcoming trip to Washington. Hunter readily accepted. It was one of the few times before leaving Springfield that Lincoln gave any sign of concern for his safety. He was keenly aware, as he would later admit, of the many warnings of “people who were intending to do me a mischief,” but he chose not to acknowledge these threats. “I never attached much importance to them,” he would say, “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.”

Even as the hate mail piled up, Lincoln continued to maintain an open-door policy at the State House. Soon enough, disgruntled Southerners began to appear. December saw the arrival of a “genuine secessionist” named D. E. Ray, who had traveled all the way from Yazoo, Mississippi, to air his views. Fortified with “divers doses of whiskey,” Ray made his way into the governor’s reception room, where Lincoln was receiving visitors, as usual. “He walked in with a sullen air,” reported journalist Henry Villard, “and plunged into a corner of the sofa, where he reposed for at least a quarter of an hour, without uttering a word.” Ray occupied the time by making repeated adjustments to the angle of his hat, so that Lincoln would get an eyeful of his blue cockade—a knot of hanging ribbons that had been adopted throughout the South as the symbol of disunion.

Presently, some of the others in the room engaged the “scowling Southron” in conversation, which soon turned to the subject of secession. Pressed for his views, Ray allowed that the people of his state were not afraid of Lincoln himself, but of the Republicans who had elected him. At this, Lincoln himself entered the debate. “You will find that the only difference between you and me is that I think slavery wrong and you think it right,” he declared, “that I am opposed to its extension, while you advocate it.” Even so, Lincoln insisted, he would decline to interfere with slavery “where it existed,” so that slaveholding states would remain “as secure from encroachments” as they had been under Buchanan.

Lincoln had said much the same thing many times before, but hearing the words from the incoming president’s own lips appeared to mollify the secessionist, who “softened down under the influence of these peaceful declarations.” As Ray made his way to the exit, Lincoln stopped him and handed over a collection of transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, recently published in book form. Smiling, Lincoln expressed a hope that having such a book in his possession wouldn’t cause trouble for Ray when he got back to Mississippi.

Not all secessionists could be turned aside so amicably. The following day—December 20, 1860—South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, with the Charleston Mercury issuing a broadside that declared “The Union Is Dissolved.” Attention soon focused on South Carolina’s claims upon the three federal garrisons strategically located at Charleston Harbor—Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, and Castle Pinckney. It now became clear, as John Nicolay reported, that the South Carolinians “intended somehow to get possession of these fortifications, as it was the only means by which they could make any serious resistance to the federal government.”

Fort Moultrie, a poorly engineered structure originally built of palmetto logs, was almost impossible to defend, and a rumor reached Lincoln’s ears that President Buchanan had instructed its commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, to surrender if attacked. Lincoln wished to maintain his public silence, but he was outraged by Buchanan’s posture of submission. “If that is true,” he told Nicolay, “they ought to hang him.” The president-elect sent a message to Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, the “Grand Old Man of the Army,” urging him to be prepared, by the time of the inauguration, “to either hold, or retake, the forts, as the case may require.”

On the night of December 26, Major Anderson, acting on his own initiative, moved his small garrison from Fort Moultrie across the harbor to the more defensible Fort Sumter. The following day, South Carolina took possession of the abandoned Fort Moultrie, as well as Castle Pinckney. The action threw the capital into turmoil as President Buchanan deliberated over a possible response, and fresh rumors surfaced of an armed insurrection against Washington.

William Seward, Lincoln’s former rival for the Republican nomination, sensed a growing mood of panic in the halls of government. Writing from the capital on December 28, he advised Lincoln to make his way east without further delay:

There is a feverish excitement here which awakens all kind of apprehensions of popular disturbance and disorders, connected with your assumption of the government. I do not entertain these apprehensions myself, but is it worth consideration in our peculiar circumstances that accidents elsewhere may aggravate opinion here. Habit has accustomed the public to anticipate the arrival of the President-elect in this city about the middle of February, and evil-minded persons would expect to organize their demonstrations for that time. I beg leave to suggest whether it would not be well for you keeping your own counsel to be prepared to drop into the city a week or ten days earlier. The effect would probably be reassuring and soothing.

The following day, Seward wrote again, this time with even greater urgency, sounding very much like a man reporting from behind enemy lines. “It pains me to learn that things there are even worse than is understood,” he declared, referring to the possibility that President Buchanan might recall Major Anderson and allow Fort Sumter to fall. Worse yet, he insisted, there was now an unmistakable threat of armed resistance to Lincoln’s inauguration, with the support of men in high places. “A plot is forming to seize the Capitol on or before the 4th of March—and this too has its accomplices in the public councils,” Seward declared. “I could tell you more particularly than I dare write. But you must not imagine that I am giving you suspicions and rumors—Believe that I know what I write—in point of fact the responsibilities of your administration must begin before the time arrives—I therefore revive the suggestion of your coming here earlier than you otherwise would—and coming in by surprise—without announcement.” Seward was so concerned that this letter might be intercepted that he sent it without his signature—“which for prudence is omitted,” he explained. In a letter to his son Frederick, Seward was even more blunt about conditions in the capital: “Come when you can,” he urged. “It is revolutionary times here.”

Seward’s messages demanded a delicate response. Lincoln would later claim that he gave no credence to the rumors, but he knew that Seward’s warnings would have to be taken seriously, all the more so because he was trying to persuade the senator to join his cabinet as secretary of state. “Yours without signature was received last night,” Lincoln replied. “I have been considering your suggestions as to my reaching Washington somewhat earlier than is usual.” Lincoln acknowledged the gravity of Seward’s concern, but then he swiftly turned to a matter he considered to be of even greater importance. Technically, the election was not yet official; the Electoral College would not assemble in Washington to ratify the victory until February. Lincoln was keenly aware that he had failed to achieve a majority in the popular vote; his total amounted to not quite 40 percent. In the current climate, there was ample reason to fear that the Electoral College might decline to assemble or—in the event of an uprising—be unable do its duty. He told Seward:

It seems to me the inauguration is not the most dangerous point for us. Our adversaries have us more clearly at disadvantage on the second Wednesday of February, when the votes should be officially counted. If the two Houses refuse to meet at all, or meet without a quorum of each, where shall we be? I do not think that this counting is constitutionally essential to the election; but how are we to proceed in absence of it? In view of this, I think it is best for me not to attempt appearing in Washington till the result of that ceremony is known.

Though Lincoln had redirected Seward’s concern to another channel, William Herndon reported that he was now “annoyed, not to say alarmed” at the threats that he would not reach Washington alive, and the insistence from many quarters that “even if successful in reaching the Capitol, his inauguration should in some way be prevented.” Hoping for reassurance, Lincoln decided to take a sounding from General Scott, who was also on the scene in the capital. Lincoln knew that Scott’s support would be essential in any coming conflict, especially if the situation at Fort Sumter worsened. Though Lincoln did not say so explicitly, he also sought confirmation that Scott, a Virginia native, would serve under the Lincoln administration even if his state followed South Carolina in seceding from the Union.

Thomas Mather, Illinois’s adjutant general, was dispatched to Washington, bearing a letter from Lincoln. Arriving in the capital, Mather called on Scott at his home, but was told that the seventy-four-year-old general was too ill to receive visitors—a discouraging sign. Mather left Lincoln’s letter and returned later. This time, he was promptly ushered to the general’s bedside. “I found the old warrior, grizzly and wrinkled, propped up in the bed by an embankment of pillows behind his back,” Mather recalled. “His hair and beard were considerably disordered, the flesh seemed to lay in rolls across his warty face and neck, and his breathing was not without great labor. In his hand he still held Lincoln’s letter.” Though the general was pale and visibly trembling from his long illness, it was clear that Lincoln’s message had stirred his passions. “General Mather,” he declared, straightening his back against his pillows, “present my compliments to Mr. Lincoln when you return to Springfield, and tell him I expect him to come on to Washington as soon as he is ready.” Any resistance, the old veteran promised, would be met with all the considerable force at his command.

Greatly reassured, Lincoln announced that he would remain in Springfield until mid-February. He told journalist Henry Villard that plans for his “impending removal to the federal capital” were being laid, though the route and date of departure had not yet been fixed. “I think Mr. Lincoln’s preferences are for a southerly route,” Villard reported, “via Cincinnati, Wheeling and Baltimore, doubtless to demonstrate how little fear he entertains for his personal safety.” Villard allowed that pressure from concerned friends would likely force the president-elect to adopt a more northerly path, but in either case, Lincoln would make “stoppages” along the way to greet his supporters. “He knows that those who elected him are anxious to see how he looks,” Villard explained, “and hence is willing to gratify this, their excusable curiosity.”

In the coming weeks, the task of planning Lincoln’s journey to Washington would prove nearly as complicated as that of assembling his cabinet. Political considerations aside, there was no simple or obvious means of making the trip at the time. Although the nation’s railroads continued to expand at a fantastic rate, there was not yet a single direct railway line running from Illinois to Washington, D.C. Instead, Lincoln would have to travel across a rough patchwork of independent regional lines, a relay instead of a marathon. At various stages of the journey, especially in cases where the gauge of a particular railroad’s track happened to be incompatible with that of the next line, a change of locomotives and cars would be required. Lincoln and his party would have to make frequent transfers from one railway’s terminus to the next, usually riding in open carriages, and sometimes even carrying their own baggage.

Since each of the many regional lines had its own president and officers, Lincoln also had to concern himself with the political loyalties of dozens of powerful railway executives. At least one official—John Work Garrett of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, who had more than five hundred miles of track running below the Mason-Dixon line—was believed at the time to have Southern sympathies that might pose a threat to the president-elect’s safety. “[Y]our life is not safe, and it is your simple duty to be very careful of exposing it,” Horace Greeley warned in a letter to Lincoln. “I doubt whether you ought to go to Washington via Wheeling and the B. & O. Railroad unless you go with a very strong force.” Lincoln, however, let it be known that a “martial cortège” was out of the question, as it would signal exactly the sort of warlike posture he had been at pains to avoid. He told Henry Villard that he utterly disliked “ostentatious display and empty pageantry” and would make his way to Washington without a military escort.

John Nicolay, his new secretary, insisted that Lincoln was unwilling to compromise his duty for the sake of personal safety. “He knew,” Nicolay explained, “that incitements to murder him were not uncommon in the South, but as is the habit of men constitutionally brave, he considered the possibilities of danger remote, and positively refused to torment himself with precautions for his own safety; summing the matter up by saying that both friends and strangers must have daily access to him; that his life was therefore in reach of anyone, sane or mad, who was ready to murder and be hanged for it.” There was no way that Lincoln could guard against all danger, Nicolay concluded, unless he shut himself up in an iron box—“in which condition he could scarcely perform the duties of a President.”

At least one railway executive—Samuel Morse Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad—believed that the president-elect had failed to grasp the seriousness of his position. Felton, a stolid, bespectacled blue blood whose brother was president of Harvard at the time, was not a man given to saber rattling. Nevertheless, in January 1861, even as Lincoln downplayed the possibility of danger, Felton became convinced of what he called a “deep-laid conspiracy to capture Washington, destroy all the avenues leading to it from the North, East, and West, and thus prevent the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln in the Capitol of the country.” For Felton, whose track formed a crucial link between Washington and the North, the threat against Lincoln and his government also constituted a danger to the railroad that had been his life’s great labor. Though he had been concerned about secessionist activity for some time, Felton’s decisive moment came on a wintry Saturday afternoon in his office in Philadelphia, when he looked up from his desk and saw Dorothea Dix, the celebrated social reformer, standing in the doorway. Nearly sixty at the time, Miss Dix was instantly recognizable in her familiar attire: a plain dark-colored dress with a white ruffle at the throat. She wore her chestnut hair gathered in a coil at the back of her head, setting off a “sweet grave face, lighted up by not too frequent smiles.”

Felton jumped to his feet and showed his visitor to a seat. For more than twenty years, Felton knew, Dorothea Dix had been a vigorous crusader for the rights of the mentally ill, visiting hundreds of jails, hospitals, and almshouses to report on the treatment of sufferers, and advocating the benefits of “moral treatment,” as opposed to the “heroic” measures of the time, which often featured painful physical restraints and dangerous narcotics. “I had known her for some years,” Felton recalled. “Her occupation had brought her in contact with the prominent men of the South. In visiting hospitals she had become familiar with the structure of Southern society, and also with the working of its political machinery.”

Miss Dix claimed to have no political agenda—“I have no patience and no sympathy either with northern Abolitionists or southern agitators,” she declared—but after Lincoln’s election, she had begun to hear rumors that alarmed her greatly. Fearing that her concerns would not be taken seriously in Washington, she brought her case to Felton instead, knowing that he would give her a fair hearing. Impatient to speak, she brushed Felton’s pleasantries aside and told him she had “an important communication to make.” Seeing the urgency in her expression, Felton closed the door to his office and settled himself behind his desk. Miss Dix promptly launched into a chillingly clear and concise outline of a Southern plot to topple the government of the United States. She spoke for more than an hour, her blue-gray eyes fixed intently on Felton’s face, giving a “tangible and reliable shape” to what Felton had previously heard only in scattered rumors. “The sum of it all,” Felton recalled, “was that there was then an extensive and organized conspiracy throughout the South to seize upon Washington, with its archives and records, and then declare the Southern conspirators de facto the Government of the United States. The whole was to be a coup d’etat. Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration was thus to be prevented.”

As Felton listened with growing alarm, his visitor gave additional details. The agitators, she told him, planned to disrupt all of the railroad lines connecting Washington with the North—not just Felton’s—which would not only sever communication and commerce but also “prevent the transportation of troops to wrest the capital from the hands of the insurgents.” Felton’s railroad, Miss Dix went on to explain, would be easily captured. Several paramilitary drill teams were already conducting exercises at various points along the track, “pretending to be Union men.” In truth, Miss Dix insisted, these so-called committees of safety had pledged their loyalties to the South: “They were sworn to obey the command of their leaders, and the leaders were banded together to capture Washington.”

A heavy snow had begun to fall by the time Miss Dix finished speaking. Stepping to the tall windows, Felton looked down as one of his own trains rolled into the nearby terminus, trailing a column of sparks and vapor. After a moment, he turned and clasped Miss Dix by the hands, thanking her warmly for coming to see him. As he showed her to a waiting carriage, Felton promised immediate action.

Returning to his office, Felton drew up a hasty report to General Scott and sent it on to Washington in the hands of a trusted employee. The general’s response to the railway executive was considerably less reassuring than the one he had sent to Lincoln. Scott indicated that he was well aware of the danger and was taking steps to reinforce Washington, but he allowed that he had not been able to rouse the Buchanan administration to any further action, which left him fearful of “the worst consequences.” As of yet, nothing had been done to secure the routes into the city—not even those that skirted or passed through potentially hostile territory in states such as Maryland, where sentiment was running strongly toward the South. Given the circumstances, Scott admitted to Felton, “he feared nothing would be done … and that Mr. Lincoln would be obliged to be inaugurated into office at Philadelphia,” rather than risk the dangerous journey south to Washington.

Disheartened, Felton resigned himself to the fact that the government would offer no assistance. “I then determined,” he said, “to investigate the matter in my own way.” What was needed, he realized, was an independent operative who had already proven his mettle in the service of the railroads. Snatching up his pen, Felton dashed off an urgent plea to “a celebrated detective, who resided in the west.”

By the end of January, with barely two weeks remaining before Lincoln departed Springfield, Allan Pinkerton was on the case.

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