Lincoln Sneaks Into Washington

February 22, 1861 – President-elect Abraham Lincoln secretly left for Washington in response to rumors that Confederate sympathizers planned to assassinate him in Baltimore.

Lincoln’s journey through the northern states continued on the morning of the 21st when his train left New York City. The planned route was to go through New Jersey to Philadelphia and Harrisburg. From there, the train would continue to Baltimore where Lincoln would take part in a massive parade, and then travel to its final destination at Washington.

The Lincoln train stopped at nearly every depot between New York City and the capital of New Jersey at Trenton. In a speech before the New Jersey General Assembly, Lincoln said: “I shall do all that may be in my power to promote a peaceful settlement of all our difficulties. The man does not live who is more devoted to peace than I am. None who would do more to preserve it. But it may be necessary to put the foot down firmly. And if I do my duty, and do right, you will sustain me, will you not?” This prompted loud cheering in response.

The train moved on to Philadelphia, where a large reception awaited the Lincoln party as they arrived in late afternoon. Lincoln told the city mayor, “I do not mean to say that this artificial panic has not done harm. That it has done much harm I do not deny,” but he hoped to resolve it peacefully.

Meanwhile Senator William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state-designate, met with his son Frederick in the Senate lobby in Washington. Frederick handed his father a note from Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott warning that Lincoln may be assassinated if he traveled through Baltimore due to the city’s large pro-secession population. The senator directed his son, “I want you to go by the first train. Find Mr. Lincoln, wherever he is. Let no one else know your errand.”

Allan Pinkerton, heading security for the Lincoln party, also warned Lincoln of a plot against him and urged him to pass through Baltimore in the middle of the night, without detection, and move on straight to Washington. Lincoln refused to alter his travel plans.

After 10 p.m., Frederick Seward arrived at the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia where the Lincolns were staying. Frederick corroborated Pinkerton’s evidence with messages from his father, General Scott, and Colonel Charles Stone (heading military forces in the District of Columbia). Stone urged “a change in the traveling arrangements which would bring Mr. Lincoln through Baltimore by a night train without previous notice.” Lincoln responded that he would go ahead with scheduled appearances at Independence Hall and Harrisburg tomorrow, but if the Baltimore delegation did not greet him by then, he would skip that city’s planned festivities as urged.

On the morning of the 22nd, Lincoln agreed to skip Baltimore and head straight to Washington on a night train after his scheduled appearances at Philadelphia and Harrisburg today. To Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln’s dismay, Pinkerton insisted that she and her sons stay behind and ride the previously scheduled train into the capital the next afternoon.

Lincoln took part in a celebration of George Washington’s Birthday in Philadelphia by raising a flag at Independence Hall. He told an enthusiastic crowd:

“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence… It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland; but something in that Declaration (provided) hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all men should have an equal chance.”

He assured his audience there “is no need of bloodshed and war” unless secessionists forced it on them. If the Union could “be saved upon that basis,” he would be among “the happiest men in the world.” But if it “cannot be saved without giving up that principle,” he said he “would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.” A politician noted, “I don’t think it is Lincoln’s person or character that calls out the enthusiasm. It must be the present state of the country.”

The Lincoln train then moved on to the Pennsylvania capital at Harrisburg, where Lincoln delivered the final speech of his trip. He declared that he sought peace if it could be done “consistently with the maintenance of the institutions of the country.” Southern newspapers criticized most of Lincoln’s speeches, especially when he referred to secession as an “artificial crisis” even after the Confederate States of America had been officially formed.

This evening, the Lincolns went to Harrisburg’s Jones House, where plans were made for the president-elect to secretly pass through Baltimore in the middle of the night. Unlike the other states that Lincoln had visited, Maryland did not have a Republican governor to welcome him and help arrange security. Moreover, Baltimore was a pro-secession city whose gangs had been infiltrated by agents of both Pinkerton and the War Department. Consequently, Lincoln’s advisors were convinced of an assassination plot against him, even though no tangible evidence of such a scheme was produced. When no Baltimore delegation came to greet Lincoln before his scheduled visit there, he finally agreed to the secret plan.

Political cartoon lampooning Lincoln's journey to Washington | Image Credit:

Political cartoon lampooning Lincoln’s journey to Washington | Image Credit:

Lincoln left the Jones House dining room at 6 p.m., went upstairs, and put on traveling clothes, an overcoat, and a wool slouch hat. In dark of night, Lincoln and his friend and unofficial bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon took a carriage to the train station, where a single passenger car on the Pennsylvania Railroad and Pinkerton’s detectives awaited them. They cut all telegraph wires out of Harrisburg before leaving for Philadelphia.

Pinkerton joined the party when the train stopped at Philadelphia and transferred to the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. They rode the last car on the night train to Baltimore, taking berths reserved by a female detective for her “invalid brother” and his companion. The train moved toward Baltimore into early next morning.

The party of Lincoln and his detectives and bodyguards reached Baltimore’s President Street Station around 3:30 a.m. Because the Camden Street Station on the other side of town provided the only route to Washington, the train car had to be drawn by horses through the city streets to that depot. The train proceeded unmolested, with only a lone drunk singing “Dixie” in the distance. After waiting an hour for the locomotive to arrive from the west, the group continued to Washington safely.

Critics ridiculed the way the incoming chief executive had “crept into Washington like a thief in the night.” Rumors quickly spread that he had been disguised in Scottish wear, including cap and kilt, enabling cartoonists and opposition newspapers to lampoon him savagely. Some excoriated Lincoln for taking the secret trip while leaving his wife and family to travel the scheduled (and potentially more dangerous) route through Baltimore this afternoon.

The move even embarrassed fellow Republicans and supporters. Lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong wrote, “It’s to be hoped that the conspiracy can be proved beyond cavil. If it cannot be made manifest and indisputable, this surreptitious nocturnal dodging or sneaking of the President-elect into his capital city, under cloud of night, will be used to damage his moral position and throw ridicule on his Administration.” This marked an inauspicious start to Lincoln’s presidency, as many northerners expected firm leadership to handle the crisis at hand.

The train arrived at 6 a.m., where Republican Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Lincoln’s home state greeted him. The group proceeded to Willard’s Hotel, where the Lincoln family took up residence in the hotel’s finest room, Parlor 6. Lincoln breakfasted with Secretary of State-designate Seward. Afterward Lincoln met with President James Buchanan and his cabinet at the White House, called on General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, and rode through the capital with Seward.

Lincoln received numerous visitors at his parlor, which quickly teemed with politicians and office seekers. Among those meeting with Lincoln included Montgomery Blair and his father, distinguished statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. Senator Stephen A. Douglas called on Lincoln with an Illinois delegation; reporters called the meeting between former rivals “peculiarly pleasant.” Lincoln had a private dinner at 7 p.m. with Seward and Vice President-elect Hannibal Hamlin.

After dinner, Lincoln returned to Willard’s at 9 p.m. and welcomed delegates from the Peace Convention, headed by prominent Republicans Salmon P. Chase of Ohio and Lucius E. Chittenden of Vermont. Following these men were various members of Congress, and finally members of Buchanan’s cabinet arrived to pay respects around 10 p.m.

Lincoln spent the remaining days of February attending receptions in both the Senate and House of Representatives, meeting Supreme Court justices, and consulting with various political leaders on executive appointments. Lincoln also conferred with Douglas and border state politicians urging the need for conciliation and compromise with the South.



  • Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 30-32
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5853-64
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 37-38
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 306-12
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 40-42
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 261-62
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 48-49
  • Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 8, 21
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 33
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161

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5 thoughts on “Lincoln Sneaks Into Washington

  1. […] Lincoln secretly left Philadelphia in response to rumors that Confederate sympathizers planned to assassinate him. He passed through […]


  2. […] initial confidants at the outset was Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective who had guarded Lincoln on his trip from Springfield to Washington in February. Pinkerton, alias Major E.J. Allen, reported: “It is beyond a doubt that […]


  3. […] Lincoln disagreed. He had been friends with Pope in Illinois (Pope accompanied Lincoln on the train from Springfield to Washington in February 1861), and he believed that Pope had the aggression needed to take the fight to the […]


  4. […] train stopped in several northern cities as it nearly retraced the route that Lincoln had taken from Springfield to Washington in 1861. Five men who made that initial journey with Lincoln were on this train: David Hunter, David Davis, […]


  5. […] killed in six or seven weeks.” Another slave asserted that Mudd criticized Lincoln for having “stole (into office) at night, dressed in women’s clothes,” and if “he had come in right, they would have killed […]


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