After four o'clock, telegrams bearing scattered early returns began trickling in, uniformly predicting Republican successes across the North. When one cantankerous dispatch expressed the hope that the Republican would triumph so his state, South Carolina, "would soon be free," Lincoln scoffed, recalling that he had received several such letters in recent weeks, some signed, others anonymous. Then his expression darkened and he handed the telegram to Ozias Hatch with the remark that its author, a former congressman, "would bear watching." Indirect as it was, this was the candidate's first expression that he expected soon to be president-elect, with responsibilities that included isolating potential troublemakers. Shortly thereafter, around 5 p.m. Lincoln walked home, presumably to take dinner. There he remained with his family for more than two hours.
When Lincoln returned to the state house around 7 to resume reading dispatches, he still displayed "a most marvelous equanimity." Down the corridor, inside the cavernous, gas-lit Representative Hall, nearly 500 Republican faithful massed for a "lively time." The chamber "was filled nearly all night," Nicolay recalled, by a crowd "shouting, yelling, singing, dancing, and indulging in all sorts [of] demonstrations of happiness as the news came in."
Weed distinctly remembered the candidate's silent but evocative reaction when the first real returns finally arrived. "Mr. Lincoln was calm and collected as ever in his life, but there was a nervous twitch on his countenance when the messenger from the telegraph office entered, that indicated an anxiety within that no coolness from without could repress." It turned out to be a wire from Decatur "announcing a handsome Republican gain" over the presidential vote four years earlier. The room erupted with shouts at the news, and supporters bore the telegram into the hallway "as a trophy of victory to be read to the crowd."
Further numbers proved agonizingly slow in coming.
The day before, the town's principal telegraph operator had invited Lincoln to await the returns at the nearby Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company headquarters, in whose second-floor office, the man had promised, "you can receive the good news without delay," and without "a noisy crowd inside." By nine o'clock, Lincoln could resist no longer. Accompanied by Hatch, Nicolay and Jesse K. Dubois, Lincoln strode across the square, ascended the stairs of the telegraph building and installed himself on a sofa "comfortably near the instruments."
For a time, the growing knot of onlookers notwithstanding, the small room remained eerily quiet, the only sounds coming from "the rapid clicking of the rival instruments, and the restless movements of the few most anxious among the party of men who hovered" around the wood-and-brass contraptions whose worn ivory keys pulsated magically.
At first the "throbbing messages from near and far" arrived in "fragmentary driblets," Nicolay remembered, then in a "rising and swelling stream of cheering news." Each time a telegraph operator transcribed the latest coded messages onto a mustard-colored paper form, the three-by-five-inch sheet was quickly "lifted from the table...clutched by some of the most ardent news-seekers, and sometimes, in the hurry and scramble, would be read by almost every person present before it reached him for whom it was intended."
For a while, the telegraph company's resident superintendent, John J. S. Wilson, grandly announced every result aloud. But eventually the telegraph operators began handing Lincoln each successive message, which, with slow-motion care, "he laid on his knee while he adjusted his spectacles, and then read and reread several times with deliberation." Despite the uproar provoked by each, the candidate received every piece of news "with an almost immovable tranquility." It was not that he attempted to conceal "the keen interest he felt in every new development," an onlooker believed, only that his "intelligence moved him to less energetic display of gratification" than his supporters. "It would have been impossible," another witness agreed, "for a bystander to tell that that tall, lean, wiry, good-natured, easy-going gentleman, so anxiously inquiring about the success of the local candidates, was the choice of the people to fill the most important office in the nation."
Lincoln had won Chicago by 2,500 votes, and all of Cook County by 4,000. Handing over the crucial dispatch, Lincoln said, "Send it to the boys," and supporters whisked it across the square to the State House. Moments later, cheering could be heard all the way to the telegraph office. The ovation lasted a full 30 seconds. Indiana reported a majority of "over twenty thousand for honest old Abe," followed by similarly good news from Wisconsin and Iowa. Pittsburgh declared: "Returns already recd indicate a maj for Lincoln in the city by Ten Thousand[.]" From the City of Brotherly Love came news that "Philadelphia will give you maj about 5 & plurality of 15" thousand. Connecticut reported a "10,000 Rep. Maj."
Even negative news from Southern states like Virginia, Delaware and Maryland left the nominee "very much pleased" because the numbers from these solidly Democratic strongholds might have been far worse. Notwithstanding this growing arsenal of good news, the group remained nervously impatient for returns from the swing state of New York, whose mother lode of 35 electoral votes might determine whether the election would be decided this very night or later in the uncertain House of Representatives. Then came a momentous report from the Empire State and its impulsive Republican chairman, Simeon Draper: "The city of New York will more than meet your expectations." Between the lines, the wire signaled that the overwhelmingly Democratic metropolis had failed to produce the majorities Douglas needed to offset the Republican tide upstate.