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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Much of Felton’s line was on Maryland soil. In recent days four more states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Georgia—had followed the lead of South Carolina and seceded from the Union. Louisiana and Texas would soon follow. Maryland had been roiling with anti-Northern sentiment in the months leading up to Lincoln’s election, and at the very moment that Felton poured out his fears to Pinkerton, the Maryland legislature was debating whether to join the exodus. If war came, Felton’s PW&B would be a vital conduit of troops and ammunition.

Both Felton and Pinkerton appear to have been blind, at this early stage, to the possibility of violence against Lincoln. They understood that the secessionists sought to prevent the inauguration, but they had not yet grasped, as Felton would later write, that if all else failed, Lincoln’s life was to “fall a sacrifice to the attempt.”

If the plotters intended to disrupt Lincoln’s inauguration—now only six weeks away—it was evident that any attack would come soon, perhaps even within days.

The detective departed immediately for “the seat of danger”—Baltimore. Virtually any route that the president-elect chose between Springfield and Washington would pass through the city. A major port, Baltimore had a population of more than 200,000—nearly twice that of Pinkerton’s Chicago—making it the nation’s fourth-largest city, after New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, at the time a city in its own right.

Pinkerton brought with him a crew of top agents, among them a new recruit, Harry Davies, a fair-haired young man whose unassuming manner belied a razor-sharp mind. He had traveled widely, spoke many languages and had a gift for adapting himself to any situation. Best of all from Pinkerton’s perspective, Davies possessed “a thorough knowledge of the South, its localities, prejudices, customs and leading men, which had been derived from several years residence in New Orleans and other Southern cities.”

Pinkerton arrived in Baltimore during the first week of February, taking rooms at a boarding house near the Camden Street train station. He and his operatives fanned out across the city, mixing with crowds at saloons, hotels and restaurants to gather intelligence. “The opposition to Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration was most violent and bitter,” he wrote, “and a few days’ sojourn in this city convinced me that great danger was to be apprehended.”

Pinkerton decided to set up a cover identity as a newly arrived Southern stockbroker, John H. Hutchinson. It was a canny choice, as it gave him an excuse to make himself known to the city’s businessmen, whose interests in cotton and other Southern commodities often gave a fair index of their political leanings. In order to play the part convincingly, Pinkerton hired a suite of offices in a large building at 44 South Street.

Davies was to assume the character of “an extreme anti-Union man,” also new to the city from New Orleans, and put himself up at one of the best hotels, Barnum’s. And he was to make himself known as a man willing to pledge his loyalty and his pocketbook to the interests of the South.

Meanwhile, from Springfield, the president-elect offered up the first details of his itinerary. Lincoln announced that he would travel to Washington in an “open and public” fashion, with frequent stops along the way to greet the public. His route would cover 2,000 miles. He would arrive at Baltimore’s Calvert Street Station at 12:30 on the afternoon of Saturday, February 23, and depart Camden Street Station at 3. “The distance between the two stations is a little over a mile,” Pinkerton noted with concern.

Instantly, the announcement of Lincoln’s imminent arrival became the talk of Baltimore. Of all the stops on the president-elect’s itinerary, Baltimore was the only slaveholding city apart from Washington itself; there was a distinct possibility that Maryland would vote to secede by the time Lincoln’s train reached its border. “Every night as I mingled among them,” Pinkerton wrote of the circles he infiltrated, “I could hear the most outrageous sentiments enunciated. No man’s life was safe in the hands of those men.”


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