The Baltimore Plot

Cartoon of Abraham Lincoln in a Cattle Car
A cartoon of Lincoln traveling through Baltimore in a cattle car.

Library of Congress

After Abraham Lincoln’s election, southern sympathizers conspired to prevent his inauguration. In January of 1861, nurse Dorothea Dix brought rumors of this conspiracy to the attention of Samuel Morse Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. Dix met with Felton and told him that she had heard that southern forces were preparing to seize Washington, D.C. She also revealed that they planned to cut off the railroad lines in Baltimore and, “Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration was thus to be prevented, or his life to fall a sacrifice.” Upon learning of these reports, Felton called in railroad detective Allan Pinkerton. During the meeting, he told Pinkerton of what Dix revealed and expressed his own concerns about the plot. Pinkerton believed there might be some truth to these rumors and gathered several of his detectives to aid in his investigation. They then traveled to Baltimore to uncover the truth of the conspiracy.

Pinkerton and several of his agents, including Kate Warne, infiltrated meetings of a secret society. This group was the Knights of the Golden Circle who planned the creation of a new nation dominated by slavery. Warne and Pinkerton learned that they planned to kill Lincoln when he arrived at the Baltimore train station on February 23. As they uncovered this plot, General Winfield Scott learned about the threat from his own sources. He then told Lincoln’s future Secretary of State, William Seward of the danger to Lincoln. To warn Lincoln, Seward sent his son Frederick to Philadelphia.

On February 21, 1861, Lincoln’s inaugural train arrived in Philadelphia. Around one hundred thousand people welcomed the president-elect, as his carriage rode through Philadelphia to the Continental Hotel. After arriving at his hotel, Lincoln had a busy schedule that included speeches, a public reception, a concert, and fireworks. Around 10:15 in the evening, Lincoln prepared for bed but received a note to urgently go to the room of his advisor, Norman Judd. Ten minutes later, Lincoln entered the room where Judd introduced him to detective Alan Pinkerton. Lincoln listened as Pinkerton told him that when his train pulled into Baltimore, a mob would be waiting to murder him as he changed trains. Pinkerton urged Lincoln that he should instead leave for Washington, D.C. that night. While Lincoln was concerned, he declined as he wanted to speak at Independence Hall in the morning, but said he would consider the warning. Before Lincoln could go to bed, Frederick Seward, the son of his future Secretary of State, arrived bringing a letter from his father that also told of a threat against Lincoln’s life in Baltimore. This second warning helped convince Lincoln that the threat was real, and he agreed to alter his plan to protect his life.

Allan Pinkerton on horseback
Allan Pinkerton in 1862.

Library of Congress

Around 5:00 in the afternoon on February 22, 1861, Lincoln had decided on a new course of action in entering Washington, D.C. While meeting with Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin in Harrisburg, Lincoln and his advisors discussed their plan to get Lincoln into the capital safely. The plan was for Lincoln to meet Allan Pinkerton in Philadelphia and take a secret train into Baltimore. For protection, they selected Ward Hill Lamon, a burly friend of Lincoln’s from Illinois. Governor Curtin, concerned about Lincoln’s security, asked Lamon if he was armed. Lamon then, “at once uncovered a small arsenal of deadly weapons, showing that he was literally armed to the teeth. In addition to a pair of heavy revolvers, he had a slung-shot and brass knuckles and a huge knife nested under his vest.” Another witness added that Lamon also had a blackjack (or baton) and a hickory cudgel.

Fortunately for Lincoln, Lamon didn’t have to use them or any of the weapons as he escorted the president-elect to the train station. As Abraham Lincoln was leaving Harrisburg, Allan Pinkerton nervously awaited his arrival in Philadelphia. Around ten in the evening of February 22, Lincoln finally arrived at the Philadelphia train station. Instead of Lincoln spending the night and taking his scheduled train the next day, Pinkerton instead immediately transported the president-elect to a different station with an earlier train heading toward Baltimore. At the station, they met with Kate Warne who was gathering information and managing logistics. Lincoln donned a disguise and off they went.

Brass Knuckles
These brass knuckles may have belonged to Ward Hill Lamon and are on display at Ford's Theatre.

NPS Photo

The nearly empty night train made its way to Baltimore and arrived there at around three-thirty in the morning on February 23. For Lincoln, the most dangerous part of the journey still lay ahead. To reach their destination, they had to ride in a carriage from President Street Station to Camden Station over a mile away, to catch yet another train to D.C. One hour later, the train pulled away from Baltimore and headed for Washington where it arrived at six in the morning. As they left the train, a man approached Lincoln, and Pinkerton, fearing the man was a threat, struck the stranger. Lincoln, though, stopped him and revealed the man was his friend and congressman from Illinois, Elihu B. Washburne.

While Lincoln had arrived in D.C. safely, the press criticized his secretive arrival. Many papers mocked Lincoln, with artists drawing caricatures showing a disguised Lincoln sneaking into the capital. A little more than a week later, he was inaugurated as the 16th president of the United States.

Last updated: March 9, 2023

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