Saturday, January 20, 2024

Lincoln Took a Dangerous Path to an Inauguration in a Time of Treason


Lincoln's First Inaugural on the steps of the Capitol building with its unfinished dome.

Note—This entry appeared on blog in 2021—three years ago and another year ahead until the next Presidential inauguration.  It framed the Lincoln inauguration tale in a particularly dramatic moment in time.

The big day that so many of us have been breathlessly awaiting, the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, is finally at hand.  But it is hardly what we had hoped for.  More than 25,000 National Guard troops and thousands more from Federal law enforcement agencies, state, and local police are encamped in Washington and standing guard around the city after the insurrectionist siege of the Capitol building on January 6.  Bridges and highways into the city are closed, mile upon mile of fencing and barricades have been erected, most of the center of the city is on lock-down, the National Mall is closed, and flags fill the spaces where huge crowds would have gathered, and almost all outdoor events have been canceled except for the actual swearing in ceremony and inaugural addresses in front of a very limited crowd of dignitaries and family.  That’s what this historic event will be like in this time of ongoing treason and treachery.

Weeks after the January 6 Seine of the Capitol Joe Biden's inauguration was marked by unprecedented security--thousands of troops, police, and security service personnel and the ceremonies held before a small, highly screened audience of officials, dignitaries, and family.

But it is not the only time the transfer of Presidential power occurred under similar conditions.  In 1861 Abraham Lincolns first inauguration was even more tumultuous and dangerous. But the parallels between the two are astonishing.

Lincoln, a former Illinois horse-trading state legislator, one term Congressman who had opposed the popular Mexican War, and shrew railroad lawyer with a folksy demeanor with a rags to riches story had risen rapidly from national obscurity to a national figure in the four years before the 1861 election.  On the basis his 1858 speech to the Illinois Republican convention which nominated him for the Senate—“A house divided against itself cannot stand”—his subsequent debates against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the losing campaign, and an address at Coopers Union in New York City thrust him into limelight.

The Republican Party had been cobbled together with former Whigs like Lincoln, Free Soilers, abolitionists, a handful of anti-slavery Democrats, and even vestiges of the anti-immigrant Know Nothings to challenge the Democrats who had except for two terms controlled the Executive Mansion since Andrew Jackson.  In 1856 they were essentially a minor party who put western explorer and adventurer John C. Fremont in nomination.  He was swamped by Democrat James Buchanan, former Senator from Pennsylvania and Secretary of State.

Buchanan’s term was an utter failure.  A “northern man of Southern principles his attempts to placate Southern slave interests had only emboldened firebrands like John C. Calhoun into making more demands for Northern concessions and threats of secession if they were not met.  As the threats began to turn into reality, Buchanan did nothing.  His own party abandoned him and split into factions.  He has been almost unanimously judged the worst President before the Civil War and maintained that position on all-time lists until challenged by Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and of course Donald Trump.

When the Republican National Convention met conveniently at the Wigwam in Chicago Lincoln was a favorite son candidate and dark horse.  Important, well known figures like abolitionist William Seward of New York, and Ohio governor and financier Salmon P. Chase were the leading contenders for the nomination but no one could get a majority after multiple ballots.  Thanks to some shrew convention management by Judge David Davis and a packed gallery, the convention was finally stampeded into nominating Lincoln.

Meanwhile the Democrats were shattered.  Lincoln’s old rival Stephen Douglas ran on his platform of popular sovereignty to preserve the Union.   Southern Democrats rallied behind Buchanan’s vice president John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky,  A third faction became the short-lived Constitutional Union Party led by John Bell, former anti-Jackson Democrat turned Whig and Senator from Tennessee who ran on a pro-union platform and against the expansion of slavery.

In the November election Lincoln captured slightly less than 40 % of the popular vote but swept the North plus California and Oregon gaining 180 Electoral College votes.  Breckenridge carried most of the South and 72 electoral votes.  Bell carried only the border states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee with 39 votes.  The hapless Douglas carried only Missouri took three of New Jersey’s split vote for a total of 12, 

Almost immediately Southern states began to secede from the Union believing that the “Black Republican” was an existential threat to slavery despite Lincoln’s repeated pledge to leave slavery unmolested in states where it was legal to preserve the Union. Between December and February seven states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—left the Union without any interference from lame duck Buchanan.  At least four more—Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina—expected to follow.  The border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were teetering on the edge.  Before he ever took power, Lincoln was faced with a broken Union.

Lincoln sat for this portrait in February just weeks before the inauguration.  That day would be the first he made a major public appearance sporting his new whiskers.

In those days there were months between the election and an inauguration in March of the next year, a holdover from the early republic when transportation to the Capitol in winter was perilous and difficult.   As Lincoln began to prepare for his long train tour from his home in Springfield to the Capitol, Congress convened to open and officially count the Electoral College votes on February 13, 1861 a mob tried to break into the building to prevent it but was turned away by a hastily arranged Army security force organized by Virginian General-in-Chief Winfield Scott who was taunted by the mob as a Free state pimp, old dotard and traitor to the state of his birth.  Sound familiar?

Lincoln’s train trip took a rambling route making frequent stops to greet and rally supporters but as the train neared its final destination, Lincoln’s chief of security detective Allan Pinkerton and his personal friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon got wind of a plot to kidnap or kill the President Elect. A planned route through Bellaire, Ohio, to Wheeling, Virginia and eastward, was subsequently rerouted through the Pittsburgh vicinity, Harrisburg, and into Maryland and before reaching Washington.

Lincoln escorted by detective Allan Pinkerton, in Derby left rear, and his personal body guard William Lamon, in slouch hat.

But Maryland was a divided state with a secessionist governor.  Pinkerton’s agents turned up a plot to ambush Lincoln when he changed trains in Baltimore by a mob that might include state militia and Baltimore police.  Pinkerton was unsure even of the loyalty of Army troops at Fort McHenry. 

On the evening of February 22, telegraph lines to Baltimore were cut at Pinkerton's behest to prevent communications from passing between potential conspirators in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Lincoln left Harrisburg on a special train and arrived secretly in Baltimore where he would have to change trains in the middle of the night where a city ordinance prohibited night-time rail travel through the downtown area. The railcars had to be horse drawn between the President Street and Camden Street stations.

An anti-Lincoln mob assembled at the expected transfer point in Baltimore.  Illustration by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly.

The New York Times published a report by Joseph Howard, Jr. that Lincoln was disguised in a Scottish tam and long cloak in his passage between trains.  Other accounts, particularly those circulated in the South embellished the account and accused him of disguising himself as a woman—pretty hard for a bearded man of 6’ 3” to carry off.  By the time he finally reached Washington he was a laughing-stock and denounced by even previously favorable newspapers.  The story of him slinking to his inauguration would haunt Lincoln for the duration of presidency.

Ordinarily supportive even Harper's Weekly could not resist portraying a panicked, long-legged Lincoln fleeing through the streets of Baltimore disguise as a Scotsman.  Other publications had him disguised as a woman.

Mary Lincoln, the children, and other members of the party kept to the original plan and made it through the city unmolested.  Lamon later claimed that there was no Baltimore plot and that Pinkerton had invented it to enhance his prestige with Lincoln and secure future government contracts. 

We may never know the truth but Joe Biden surely had an easier trip this week from Delaware.

On Inauguration Day members of the Senate and House from the soon to secede states still set in their chambers.  President Buchanan had refused to turn over coastal fortification to the already departed states but had refused to re-inforce their garrisons or supply them.  The many of the heavily Southern professional Army officer corps had already resigned their commission and taken up arms with their state forces or with the infant Confederate Army.  Old Fuss and Feathers Winfield Scott had remained loyal and there was hope that the unanimously acknowledged ablest man in the service, Colonel Robert E. Lee of Virginia would follow his example.  But when Virginia seceded he instead took command of its State troops.  The U.S. Army was tiny and much of it was scattered in small detachments on the frontier.  The perpetually cash starved Federal government dependent on almost exclusively on tariffs and land sales seemingly could not afford to raise a new Volunteer army.  Financial markets were in a state of near panic over potential disruptions to trade, especially in cotton which kept New England mills humming.  The country was in an acute crisis.

Chief Justice Roger Taney administers the oath of office to Lincoln.  Stephen Douglas can be seen over Taney's shoulder and out-going President James Buchanan is seated next to new Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.

Lincoln’s procession to the Capitol accompanied by Buchanan was surrounded by heavily armed cavalry and infantry, an unprecedented amount of protection for the President-elect as the nation stood on the brink of war.  Southern Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney who is best remembered as the author of the Dred Scott Decision administered the oath of office to Lincoln.  Vice President Breckenridge administered the oath to his successor Hannibal Hamlin.  Breckenridge then took a seat in the Senate but was expelled after he enlisted in the Confederate Army.  He later served as the Confederacy’s Secretary of War in 1865.

Lincoln’s First Inaugural speech is considered one of the greatest orations in American history.  In it he concluded:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The South was unmoved by the conciliatory language and northern abolitionists were alarmed by his soft stance on the maintenance of slavery.  Less than six weeks later, on April 12 state militia fired on Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor which was forced to surrender the following day.  President Lincoln declared a formal state of insurrection and one after another four states followed with the three border states held in the union by force of arms and in the cases of Kentucky and Missouri civil wars within the Civil War.

You know the rest of the story of the bloodiest war in American history and of Lincoln’s ultimate fate on the cusp of final victory,

Two presidents inaugurated with treason fresh in the air.

We are all holding our collective breaths that things turn out better for Biden and Harris and for our nation.  But it might be a close thing. 


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