Lincoln Sneaks into Washington

President-elect Abraham Lincoln left Philadelphia at 11 p.m. on the 22nd in secret, accompanied by detective Allan Pinkerton, his operatives, and a small group of other bodyguards and companions. They took a train with Lincoln concealed in a sleeper car, bound for Baltimore. Rumors of a secessionist plot to kill the president-elect in Baltimore had caused Pinkerton to employ this secrecy.

The night train reached Baltimore’s Calvert Street station around 3:30 a.m. on the 23rd. Because the Camden Street station on the other side of town provided the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line to Washington, the train car had to be pulled by horses through the city streets to that depot. The train proceeded unmolested, with only a lone drunk singing “Dixie” in the distance. It was coupled to the locomotive and left the station around 4 a.m., and arrived safely at Washington about two hours later.

The group disembarked at the Washington depot, where Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne recognized Lincoln despite his overcoat and slouch hat. Washburne walked up to welcome him to the capital, but was confronted by the detectives. Lincoln said: “Don’t strike him! It is Washburne. Don’t you know him?” Washburne led the group to a waiting carriage, which conveyed the president-elect to Willard’s Hotel. Strangely, Pinkerton felt it necessary to send a secret message to operatives back at Philadelphia – “Plums (Pinkerton’s code name) arrived here with Nuts (Lincoln’s code name) this morning—all right” –even though there was no further need for secrecy now that “Nuts” was safely in the capital.

Lincoln’s opponents widely ridiculed him for having “crept into Washington like a thief in the night.” A Washington correspondent noted that because of this, Lincoln had “but few defenders here.” The D.C. reporter for the Charleston Mercury wrote: “Everybody here is disgusted at his cowardly and undignified entry,” and hints of assassination plots could hardly “relieve the tall person… of the imputation of the most wretched cowardice.” A Louisville newspaper even opined that Lincoln had sneaked into Washington wearing his wife’s dress. Cartoonists savaged Lincoln with renderings of him sneaking through Baltimore in the dead of night.

Critics noted with especial viciousness that the train Lincoln was supposed to have taken through Baltimore—the train that supposedly was to be attacked and possibly bombed—went through as scheduled with Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln and their three sons aboard. The Mercury exclaimed that Lincoln had left “his family to follow him in the very train in which he himself was to be blown up, or blown over!” The New York Times reported that “oaths, obscenity, disgusting epithets and unpleasant gesticulations were the order of the day” as the train passed through Baltimore, but the Lincoln family made it through unharmed, arriving at Washington around 11:30 a.m.

The move even embarrassed 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.” The friendly New York Tribune hoped that “this is to be the last sacrifice of the kind required of him.”

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass justified the move by writing that Lincoln “reached the Capital as the poor, hunted fugitive slave reaches the North, in disguise, seeking concealment, evading pursuers by the underground railroad…” Nevertheless, this marked an inauspicious start to Lincoln’s presidency, as northerners expected firm leadership to deal with the crisis at hand. Lincoln confided to Alexander K. McClure that the decision to sneak into Washington was “one of the grave mistakes in his public career.” It was never proven if there had been a real plot to assassinate Lincoln in Baltimore.

The president-elect used the side entrance to go into Willard’s Hotel, where the Peace Conference was taking place. Delegate William Dodge of New York gave Lincoln his “magnificent suite of apartments attached to” Parlor Six on the second floor, and Lincoln thanked him for it. Dodge said: “Mr. Lincoln, the prayers of many hearts were with you before you started upon this journey, they accompanied you all the way here, and they will follow you as you enter upon your administration.”

Lincoln registered and was met by William H. Seward, soon to be secretary of state. The men had breakfast and, after giving Lincoln some time to rest, Seward brought him to the White House to meet President James Buchanan. The outgoing president was not expecting this visit, but he interrupted a cabinet meeting to meet with the incoming president on the first floor for 15 minutes. Buchanan then escorted Lincoln upstairs and allowed him to visit the presidential office and meet the cabinet members.

Next Seward brought Lincoln to the headquarters of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. Scott was unavailable, but he visited Lincoln later that day at Willard’s. Scott had been one of the men who had warned Lincoln of an assassination plot in Baltimore, and he commended the president-elect for coming to Washington “unattended by any display, but in a plain, democratic way.” Lincoln’s next order of business was to meet with influential statesman Francis P. Blair, Sr. and his son Montgomery to discuss possible cabinet appointments.

By this time, Mrs. Lincoln and sons had arrived at the capital, and Harriet Lane, President Buchanan’s niece and official hostess (Buchanan had no wife) gave the future first lady a tour of the White House. Harriet observed that Mary was “awfully western, loud & unrefined.” But Harriet was polite nonetheless, “unrelenting in her attentions” toward Mary.

Meanwhile, Lincoln hosted the congressional delegation of his home state of Illinois. This included Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime Democratic rival. Reporters called the meeting “particularly pleasant.” Lincoln had a private dinner at 7 p.m. with Seward and Vice-President-elect Hannibal Hamlin at Seward’s home on F Street. When he returned to Willard’s, Lincoln was met by a throng of people welcoming him to the capital. He was told that delegates from the Peace Conference wanted to meet with him, so the president-elect received about 100 of them around 9 p.m.

The meeting started tense, but Lincoln’s kind greetings and informal manner eased it a bit. Many were calling for Lincoln to agree to a last-minute compromise to preserve the Union, which would likely mean extending slavery beyond where it already existed. This Lincoln would not do. He told one delegate: “Perhaps your reasons for compromising the alleged difficulties are correct, and that now is the favorable time to do it; still, if I remember correctly, that is not what I was elected for!”

When William C. Rives of Virginia told Lincoln that preserving the Union “now depends on you,” Lincoln responded: “I cannot agree to that. 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?”

James A. Seddon of Virginia said: “It is not of your professions we complain. It is of your sins of omission—of your failure to enforce the laws—to suppress your John Browns and your (William Lloyd) Garrisons, who preach insurrection and make war upon our property!” Lincoln replied: “I believe John Brown was hung and Mr. Garrison imprisoned. You cannot justly charge the North with disobedience to statutes or with failing to enforce them. You have made some which were very offensive, but they have been enforced, notwithstanding.” Seddon argued that Republicans have refused to return fugitive slaves, to which Lincoln said: “You are wrong in your facts again… Your slaves have been returned, yes, from the shadow of Faneuil Hall in the heart of Boston.”

William Dodge then declared: “It is for you, sir, to say whether the whole nation shall be plunged into bankruptcy; whether the grass shall grow in the streets of our commercial cities.” He asked if Lincoln would “yield to the just demands of the South.” Lincoln said that he would defend the Constitution, and: “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.”

The president-elect ended the meeting by reiterating that he would not agree to any compromise that would extend slavery. Slavery, he said, “must be content with what it has. The voice of the civilized world is against it.” Republican delegates were “encouraged and strengthened” by the meeting; southerners were “discouraged and depressed.”

Following this conference, the marathon day continued when Lincoln held a reception and met with various members of Congress and President Buchanan’s cabinet, as well as Buchanan himself. Ohio Congressman Albert G. Riddle recalled that the president-elect looked “radiant, his wit and humor at flood tide.” That would be tested in the days to come.


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