Getting Lincoln Inaugurated: A Tale of Travel, Intrigue, and Danger Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Getting Lincoln Inaugurated: A Tale of Travel, Intrigue, and Danger

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Every four years since that revolutionary year of 1789, there has been a presidential inauguration in the United States. Every four years since 1801, the inaugural celebrations have taken place in Washington, D.C. George Washington was inaugurated in New York City on 30 April, 1789. After that, inaugurations were held on 4 March, until 1933, when the 20th Amendment to the US Constitution reset the date to 20 January. The reason? There's a lot of mischief that can happen between an election and an inauguration. It's better not to let the opposition get a jump on you. Giving them two more months to plan pickets and roadblocks would just be asking for it.

Take the case of Abraham Lincoln. Voters were so angry when he was elected that between election day and the 4 March inauguration, seven states had seceded from the Union. Tempers were high. Lincoln might not even have made it to his inauguration alive without the help of the Glaswegian detective Allan Pinkerton, who was working for the railroads. Pinkerton had a package to deliver: one president-elect, intact. How he managed it, and how the event went off, is pretty interesting.

Lincoln on a Whistle Stop

For 12 days in February 1861, Abraham Lincoln was travelling by rail between his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. It did not usually take 12 days to cover that distance, even in 1861. What Lincoln was doing was what many presidents-elect have done since: going on a goodwill tour to thank his supporters. Understandably, Lincoln's tour took him across the northern part of the US. The South hadn't voted for him   – and, as we shall see, they were actually about to stage their own alt-inauguration down in Montgomery, Alabama. The seceding states had organised themselves into the Confederate States of America, and were busy getting ready to swear in their own president. But let's leave them to it, and follow Lincoln's itinerary.

The special inaugural train consisted of a baggage car, a passenger car, and a smoking car. There was a 'refreshment saloon' and a 'private saloon' for the president-elect1.

DateLocationNotable Event
11 February, morningSpringfield, IllinoisLincoln says 'So long, and thanks for all the votes', embarking on his journey toward a date with destiny in Washington.
11 February, 5pm Indianapolis, IndianaLincoln is greeted with a 34-gun salute (not aimed at him). The 34 guns are for the 34 states allegedly in the Union since Kansas has just joined. The number of actual states in the Union is currently under dispute, however. (see below)
For the first (but not last) time on this trip, Lincoln's inaugural address is misplaced.
12 FebruaryCincinnati, OhioLincoln speaks to German American supporters (Cincinnati's a German city), and spends the night there.
13 FebruaryColumbus, OhioLincoln travels to Columbus, the capital of Ohio. He addresses a crowd of 60,000, but is still cagey about what he intends to do about the secession crisis. He spends the night in Columbus.
14 FebruaryAllegheny City, PennsylvaniaLincoln arrives at 8pm and takes a carriage across the Allegheny River to his real destination, Pittsburgh. Lincoln has a lot of support in Pittsburgh, and the crowds are glad to see him. He spends the night in the elegant 300-room Monongahela House, a safe and Lincoln-friendly environment which is also a station on the Underground Railroad2.
15 FebruaryCleveland, OhioLincoln addresses a large crowd, seeking to reassure them that secession isn't going to be a big deal. The inaugural address is misplaced again, but found.
16 FebruaryBuffalo, New YorkLincoln makes stops on the way in Astabula, Ohio and Westfield, New York. In Westfield, he officially thanks 12-year-old Grace Bedell for suggesting he grow a beard in order to look less unsightly. The crowd is pleased. Lincoln arrives in Buffalo, is greeted by former president Millard Fillmore, and spends the night at the American House hotel.
17 FebruaryStill in BuffaloBuffalo is not that charming. Lincoln stays there an extra day because it's Sunday, and some people think it's not religiously correct to travel on that day. He goes to church instead, to the Unitarian service with Millard Fillmore.
18 February Albany, New York Lincoln, Mrs Lincoln, and famous newspaper publisher Horace Greeley arrive in the capital of New York. They decide they never want to see Albany again. The politicians bicker too much. On this day, Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as president of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama. Davis makes a speech in which he calls the Confederacy 'a movement sanctified by its justice.'
19 FebruaryNew York City250,000 people cheer Lincoln as he goes by carriage to the Astor House hotel.
20 FebruaryStill in New York CityThe Lincolns do some sightseeing in New York. Mrs Lincoln and the kids go to the PT Barnum museum – it's the next best thing to Disney World in 1861 – and Lincoln goes to the opera. Verdi. He also meets a 94-year-old Revolutionary War veteran who has voted in every election since Washington's. (We assume he voted for Lincoln, or was too polite to say otherwise.)
21 FebruaryPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania100,000 people line the streets on the way to the Continental Hotel (corner of Chestnut and Ninth Street). There's another 34-gun salute.
Privately, there's trouble: Pinkerton has got wind of a credible threat on the president-elect's life. Lincoln forges ahead, because he has obligations.
22 FebruaryPhiladelphia, stillLincoln visits Independence Hall, where the Declaration was signed. He personally raises the new 34-star flag there.
Lincoln then travels to Harrisburg, where he speaks to the Pennsylvania legislature. He leaves the rest of his party behind, boards a special train, and arrives back in Philadelphia in time for his 11pm connection to Washington. He is now in the capable(?) hands of Allan Pinkerton.
22-23 FebruaryUndisclosed Location(s)Pinkerton sneaks Lincoln through dangerous Baltimore in the dead of night aboard the Philadelphia to Washington train, which switches to the Baltimore & Ohio tracks at 4am. See below for more exciting details.
23 FebruaryWashington at LastLincoln has breakfast with Senator Seward, soon to become Secretary of State Seward and purchaser of Alaska. He has his photo taken by Matthew Brady. He telegraphs Mrs Lincoln, who had stayed behind in Harrisburg, that he's alive and well.

Pinkerton's Manoeuvring

Allan Pinkerton was born in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, and he was a tough customer. Here's how Pinkerton got Lincoln safely to Washington:

  • He struck up a relationship with a strange pro-Confederate terrorist, a Corsican   hair stylist named Cypriano Ferrandini, and got the intel on anti-Lincoln plots. (You cannot make these things up.)
  • He found out that the most dangerous place for Lincoln was in Baltimore, where he would have to change trains. Baltimore was very pro-Confederacy: to this day, its state anthem decries 'Northern scum', even though most Marylanders consider themselves to live in 'the North' these days3.
  • He argued with Lincoln, a lot. Lincoln didn't believe this far-fetched conspiracy business. Pinkerton wore him down.
  • He cut the telegraph lines between Philadelphia and Baltimore. (That was like blacking out the Internet, Twitter and Facebook.) Before the wires were cut, Pinkerton's man sent him a signal that 'Nuts' (Lincoln) was on his way.
  • He made Lincoln put on a disguise for the Baltimore manoeuvre. This involved Lincoln in a tam-o-shanter. Enemy cartoonists had a field day with this, as Lincoln's appearance was already eminently lampoonable. Lincoln was crammed into a tiny sleeping compartment, which he was far too long to fit in comfortably. This presumably made it funnier, but poor Abe was unable to sleep.
  • He punched a senator. Senator Elihu Washburne from Illnois recognised Abe Lincoln, who was being hurried through Union Station in Washington, in spite of the funny hat and shawl. Washburne called out to Lincoln, and before the president-elect could stop him, Pinkerton had clocked the unoffending senator.

Lincoln arrived safely in Washington, due to, or possibly in spite of, all this skullduggery. Pinkerton wired his staff, 'Plums [Pinkerton] arrived with Nuts [Lincoln] this morning.'

Lincoln checked into his hotel room and was greeted by extremely nasty hate mail. He sighed.

An Interlude

While folded uncomfortably in a railway sleeper berth that wasn't meant to hold greatness, Abraham Lincoln was serenaded by a drunk. The drunk didn't know this: he was just standing on the railway platform, singing 'Dixie' at the top of his lungs. Lincoln muttered, 'No doubt there will be a great time in Dixie by and by.'

Inauguration Day

On Inauguration Day, 16-year-old Julia Taft was watching the parade. She heard a woman say, 'There goes that Illinois ape, the cursed Abolitionist. But he will never come back alive.'

In front of the Capitol, Lincoln put on his spectacles and read his first inaugural address to an audience of thousands4. It wasn't a rabble-rousing speech. Lincoln made it clear that the new administration would follow the Constitution, which meant the South could keep their slaves until the law said otherwise. Lincoln said, however, 'It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union... ' Ah, there was the rub.

After the speech, Lincoln took the oath of office from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as is customary. The Chief Justice at that time was 83-year-old Roger Taney, the author of the Dred Scott Decision, a precedent that supported slavery and led to the Fugitive Slave Act. Taney knew what Lincoln thought, and Lincoln knew what Taney thought. Three years later, Taney died. Lincoln replaced him with an abolitionist, Salmon P Chase.

Then it was all over except for the ball gowns. Pinkerton, Horace Greeley, and Lincoln's other friends breathed a sigh of relief. Getting a president inaugurated can be fraught.

1See Lincoln's private secretary's scrapbook of the trip, provided by the New York Times.2The Underground Railroad was the unofficial term for an escape network that helped people escape slavery and reach freedom. Underground Railroad 'conductors', both black and white, risked their own freedom and often their lives to guide people to Canada. The safe houses were called 'stations', following the railway motif. 3High schoolers in Maryland are known to react to their official state song with a mixture of incredulity and risibility. We suggest singing along. The tune is 'O Tannenbaum'.4How many thousand? The National Park Service didn't count them, because the National Park Service wasn't invented yet. But there was a photo. Professor Keith Still, a crowd estimator from Manchester Metropolitan University, has studied the photo and estimated the crowd in the photo at 7,350. That's the best we can do. And no, it wasn't as large an audience as for presidents Obama or Trump.

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