Special Report

The Unsuccessful Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

On the eve of his first inauguration, President Lincoln snuck into Washington at night, evading the would-be assassins who waited for him in Baltimore

Lincoln sat at the back of the train in disguise to escape his assassins. (Edward Kinsella III)
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At 3:30 in the morning, Felton’s “night line” train steamed into Baltimore’s President Street depot on schedule. Warne took her leave of Lincoln while the train idled at the station, as she was no longer needed to pose as the sister of the “invalid traveler.”

Pinkerton listened intently as rail workers uncoupled the sleeper and hitched it to a team of horses. With a sudden lurch, the car began its slow, creaking progress through the streets of Baltimore toward Camden Street Station, just over a mile away. “The city was in profound repose as we passed through,” Pinkerton remarked. “Dark- ness and silence reigned over all.”

Pinkerton had calculated that Lincoln would spend only 45 minutes in Baltimore. Arriving at Camden Street Station, however, he found that they would have to endure an unexpected delay, owing to a late-arriving train. For Pinkerton, who feared that even the smallest variable could upset his entire plan, the wait was agonizing. At dawn, the busy terminus would spring to life with the “usual bustle and activity.” With every passing moment, discovery became more likely. Lincoln, at least, seemed perfectly sanguine about the situation. “Mr. Lincoln remained quietly in his berth,” Pinkerton said, “joking with rare good humor.”

As the wait dragged on, however, Lincoln’s mood darkened briefly. Now and then, Pinkerton said, “snatches of rebel harmony” would reach their ears, sung by passengers waiting at the depot. At the sound of a drunken voice roaring through a chorus of “Dixie,” Lincoln turned to Pinkerton and offered a somber reflection: “No doubt there will be a great time in Dixie by and by.”

As the skies began to brighten, Pinkerton peered through the blinds for a sign of the late-arriving train that would carry them the rest of the way to Washington. Unless it came soon, all advantage would be swept away by the rising sun. If Lincoln were to be discovered now, pinned to the spot at Camden Street and cut off from any assistance or reinforcements, he would have only Lamon and Pinkerton to defend him. If a mob should assemble, Pinkerton realized, the prospects would be very bleak indeed.

As the detective weighed his limited options, he caught the sound of a familiar commotion outside. A team of rail workers had arrived to couple the sleeper to a Baltimore & Ohio train for the third and final leg of the long journey. “At length the train arrived and we proceeded on our way,” Pinkerton later recorded stoically, perhaps not wishing to suggest that the outcome had ever been in doubt. Lamon was only slightly less reserved: “In due time,” he reported, “the train sped out of the suburbs of Baltimore, and the apprehensions of the President and his friends diminished with each welcome revolution of the wheels.” Washington was now only 38 miles away.

At 6 a.m. on February 23, a train pulled into the Baltimore & Ohio depot in Washington, and three stragglers—one of them tall and lanky, wrapped in a thick traveling shawl and soft, low-crowned hat—emerged from the end of the sleeping car.

Later that morning, in Baltimore, as Davies accompanied Hillard to the appointed assassination site, rumors swept the city that Lincoln had arrived in Washington. “How in hell,” Hillard swore, “had it leaked out that Lincoln was to be mobbed in Baltimore?” The president-elect, he told Davies, must have been warned, “or he would not have gone through as he did.”

Decades later, in 1883, Pinkerton would quietly sum up his exploits. “I had informed Mr. Lincoln in Philadelphia that I would answer with my life for his safe arrival in Washington,” Pinkerton recalled, “and I had redeemed my pledge.”



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