February 23, 1861: Lincoln’s controversial arrival in Washington

150 years ago today, President-elect Abraham Lincoln, at the end of an otherwise triumphant twelve-day train trip from Illinois, slipped into Washington, DC in the pre-dawn hours, trying to evade a supposed plot to assassinate him as he passed through Baltimore. While Lincoln arrived safely at his destination, many saw his entrance into the city undignified and indicative of the coming leadership style of this largely unknown President-elect. Many of the residents of Baltimore were particularly annoyed by his perceived slight against their city and their animosity persisted eight weeks later when the Lowell-based Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment tried to pass through the city, igniting a riot that cost four of the soldiers their lives.

The following is a brief account of Lincoln’s journey to Washington, as told by Ronald C. White Jr in his excellent 2009 biography, A. Lincoln:

Lincoln boarded his train in Springfield, Illinois on February 11, 1861 and began a trip that White describes as “a carnival, a political rally, and a religious revival” with Lincoln, along the way, speaking to and being seen by more Americans than any other president who came before him. Along the way, Lincoln made overnight stops in Indianapolis (February 11); Columbus, Ohio (February 13); Pittsburgh (February 14); Cleveland (February 15); Buffalo; New York City (February 19); Philadelphia (February 21); and Harrisburg (February 22).

It was in Philadelphia that Lincoln was told of a plot to assassinate him:

In his room at the Continental Hotel, Lincoln met Allan Pinkerton, a Chicago detective whose company worked for the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. Pinkerton informed Lincoln that his detectives had uncovered a plot to assassinate him as his train car was pulled by horses through the streets of Baltimore in the middle of the day. Pinkerton insisted that no one in the presidential party be told of the plot and that Lincoln take a train for Washington that night. He refused. He insisted on keeping his date at Independence Hall.

The next night, Lincoln did slip onto a train in Harrisburg accompanied only by Pinkerton and a friend from Illinois. The train reached Baltimore at 3:30 am where it was pulled through town to the Camden Street Station where Lincoln boarded a train bound for Washington which left at 4:15 am. Lincoln arrived in Washington at 6 am, ten hours ahead of schedule with no one waiting for him. Lincoln found his way to his hotel and got on with his pre-inaugural activities, but his early morning passage through Baltimore, as mentioned above, reinforced the negative view of his presidency already held by many in that pro-Southern city.

One thought on “February 23, 1861: Lincoln’s controversial arrival in Washington”

  1. Beginning late last year the New York Times has been reliving the Civil War day-by-day in honor of the 150th anniversary of the war. From its own description DISUNION (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/disunion/) revisits and reconsiders America’s most perilous period — using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded. There is at least one article a day. Over the past week or so it has followed Lincoln as he visited these seven cities. The series has its own RSS feed so each story can be available to your browser at the click of a mouse!

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