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Journey to Washington

The long period of waiting approached its end. Most of the states and cities lying between Springfield and Washington invited him officially to visit them on his way to the capital. It was decided that he should accept as many as possible of these invitations. This would involve a zigzag route and require considerable time. The invitation of Massachusetts he declined on account of the pressure of time. Maryland was conspicuous by its omission of courtesy. Two private citizens of Baltimore invited him to dinner. That was all.

The presidential party consisted of about a dozen, all told. They were to leave Springfield February 11, and to consume about two weeks on the way. It was a dreary morning, partly drizzling, and partly snowing. A large crowd of neighbors had assembled at the dingy railway station to bid him good-by. The process of handshaking was interrupted by the arrival of the train. After the party had entered the car, the President reappeared on the rear platform. He raised his hand to speak, but did not utter a word until the solemn silence became painful. Then, with great tenderness and seriousness, he spoke as follows:

“My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

The speech was telegraphed, with substantial accuracy all over the country, and was read with loving sympathy by millions of loyal citizens. The words above given are the report as revised by Lincoln himself, and first published in the Century for December, 1887.

The party was in charge of Colonel Ward Hill Lamon, afterwards Marshal of the District of Columbia. He was a trained athlete, a Hercules in strength, a man who knew not what fear was, and, with an enthusiasm akin to religious zeal, he was devoted to his chief soul and body. In the words of a later Marshal, he “worshiped every bone in his body.”

A few friends had accompanied the presidential party to Indianapolis, where the first stop was made. After the address of welcome by Governor Morton and the response, after the speech to the legislature, after the reception and the handshaking, they were left in quiet in the Bates House. These friends then took Lamon into a room, locked the door, and in the most solemn and impressive manner laid upon him the responsibilities of guarding Lincoln’s person until they should reach Washington. The scene was concluded by Dubois with a mixture of solemnity and playfulness, who said: “Now, Lamon, we intrust the sacred life of Mr. Lincoln to your keeping; and if you don’t protect it, never return to Illinois, for we will murder you on sight.”

Neither the exhortation nor the threat were in the least needed by Lamon, who was thoroughly alert. But it is of interest in this, that it indicates that there was a wide-spread feeling that this journey was fraught with unusual dangers.

Of course Lincoln made many brief speeches. These were closely scanned in the hope of finding some premonition of his inaugural. But not one such word escaped him. He complained that though he had in his day done much hard work, this was the hardest work he had ever done,–to keep speaking without saying anything. It was not quite true that he did not say anything, for the speeches were thoughtful and full of interest. But he did not anticipate his inaugural, and to that the popular curiosity was alive. He did not say the things that were uppermost in his mind.

At Indianapolis he asked pregnant questions: “What, then, is ’coercion’? What is ’invasion’?... If the United States should merely hold and retake its own forts and other property [in South Carolina that had seceded], and collect the duties on foreign importations, or even withhold the mails from places where they were habitually violated, would any, or all, of these things be ’invasion’ or ’coercion’?... Upon what principle, what rightful principle, may a state, being no more than one-fiftieth part of the nation in soil and population, break up the nation, and then coerce a proportionally larger subdivision of itself in the most arbitrary way? What mysterious right to play tyrant is conferred on a district of country, with its people, by merely calling it a state? Fellow-citizens, I am not asserting anything. I am merely asking questions for you to consider.”

At Trenton, New Jersey, historic in the annals of the revolutionary war, he spoke with simple candor of the influence upon his life of Weems’ “Life of Washington,” one of the first books he ever read. The audience broke into cheers, loud and long, when he appealed to them to stand by him in the discharge of his patriotic duty. “I shall endeavor,” said he, “to take the ground I deem most just to the North, the East, the West, the South, and the whole country. I take it, I hope, in good temper; certainly with no malice towards any section. I shall do all that may be in my power to promote a peaceful settlement of all our difficulties. The man does not live who is more devoted to peace than I am, none who would do more to preserve it; but it may be necessary to put the foot down firmly. And if I do my duty and do right, you will sustain me, will you not?”

At Philadelphia he spoke in Independence Hall on Washington’s Birthday, and raised a flag. “Our friends,” he said of it, “had provided a magnificent flag of our country. They had arranged it so that I was given the honor of raising it to the head of its staff. And when it went up, I was pleased that it went to its place by the strength of my own feeble arm. When, according to the arrangement, the cord was pulled, and it flaunted gloriously to the wind without an accident, in the bright glowing sunshine of the morning, I could not help hoping that there was in the entire success of that beautiful ceremony at least something of an omen of what is to come.”

On this very day, President Buchanan, in Washington City, was apologizing for permitting the American flag to be carried at the head of a procession that was marching to celebrate the birthday of George Washington!

It was at Philadelphia that matters became more exciting. At that place they were informed of a plot to assassinate the President as he passed through Baltimore. This information came to them from a variety of sources entirely independent, and the various stories so nearly agreed in substance that they could not be disregarded. Most important of these informants was Allan Pinkerton of Chicago, one of the most famous detectives in the world. He had been personally with his assistants in Baltimore and knew the details of the plot. But Lincoln was neither suspicious nor timid, and was therefore disinclined to pay heed to the warnings of Pinkerton.

At about this time the son of William H. Seward met Lincoln with confidential communications from his father. This gave other evidences of this plot, gathered by some detectives from New York City. These two sets of detectives had worked on the case; each party entirely ignorant of the other. Both got specific evidence of the plot.

It was remembered, too, that since leaving Springfield ten days before, they had had at least two escapes. The track had been tampered with in a manifest attempt to wreck the train. A hand grenade had been found in one of the cars. It is not likely that this deadly machine was taken on the train merely for fun.

The members of the party were deeply concerned about the Baltimore revelations. But it was hard to get Lincoln to take them seriously. With difficulty was he persuaded to follow Pinkerton’s plan and enter Washington secretly. He consented to do this really out of consideration for the judgment of others, not that he shared their apprehension. On one thing, however, Lincoln was firm. He had made certain appointments for speaking en route which he would not abandon. His promise had been given and would be kept. One was the flag-raising at Philadelphia, narrated above, and the other was to address the legislature at Harrisburg. “Both these appointments,” said he, “I will keep if it costs me my life.” These words suggest that he may have realized more of the danger than he was willing to show.

There are also intimations of the same thing which will be noticed by the careful reader of the speeches at Philadelphia and Harrisburg. In declining to give a hint of the details of his proposed policy, he said: “It were useless for me to speak of details of plans now; I shall speak officially next Monday week, if ever. If I should not speak then, it were useless for me to do so now.”

Again: “If this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle,–I was about to say that I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

And finally: “I may have said something indiscreet. But I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by, and, if it be the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.”

These veiled references would pass unnoticed by the crowd, but they would be perfectly intelligible to those who knew of the warnings that had just been received. Lincoln was not in the habit of using such phrases, and the fact that he used them at this particular time can hardly be explained as a mere coincidence. He took in the situation, and–except for keeping the engagements already made–he submitted meekly to Pinkerton’s plans.

An incident occurred at Harrisburg which made a great stir in the little party. This was nothing less than the loss of the manuscript of the inaugural address. This precious document the President himself had carried in a satchel. This satchel he had given to his son Robert to hold. When Robert was asked for it, it was missing. He “thought he had given it to a waiter–or somebody.” This was one of the rare occasions on which Lincoln lost control of his temper, and for about one minute he addressed the careless young man with great plainness of speech.

For obvious reasons it was not judicious to say much about this loss. The President applied to Lamon for help. “Lamon,” he whispered, “I have lost my certificate of moral character written by myself. Bob has lost my gripsack containing my inaugural address. I want you to help me find it.”

Lamon, who knew Lincoln intimately, said that he never saw him so much annoyed, nor, for the time, so angry. If the address were to be published prematurely, it might be made the occasion of a vast amount of mischief. Then, too, it was the product of much painstaking thought and he had no duplicate copy.

Lincoln and Lamon instituted a search for the missing satchel and were directed to the baggage-room of the hotel. Here they spied a satchel that looked like the lost one. Lincoln tried the key. It fitted. With great joy he opened it, and he found within–one bottle of whisky, one soiled shirt, and several paper collars. So quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous.

A little later the right satchel was found, and was not again entrusted to Robert. The President kept it in his own hands. After the nervous strain was over, the humor of the situation grew on the President, and it reminded him of a little story.

A man had saved up his earnings until they reached the sum of fifteen hundred dollars. This was deposited for safekeeping in a bank. The bank failed and the man received as his share, ten per cent, or one hundred and fifty dollars. This he deposited in another bank. The second bank also failed and the poor fellow again received ten per cent, or fifteen dollars. When this remnant of his fortune was paid over to him, he held it in his hand, looking at it thoughtfully. Finally he said: “Now, I’ve got you reduced to a portable shape, so I’ll put you in my pocket." Suiting the action to the word, Lincoln took his “certificate of moral character” from the satchel and carefully put it in the inside pocket of his vest. No further mishap came to that document.

The journey from Harrisburg to Washington was accomplished as planned, with the assistance of certain officials of the railway and telegraph companies. First all the wires leading out of Harrisburg were cut, so that, if Lincoln’s departure were discovered, the news could not be communicated by telegraph. Then, after the reception, Lincoln, attended by Lamon, left the hotel by a side door and was driven to the railway station. Here they found waiting a special train consisting of one baggage car and one passenger car. The track was for the time kept entirely clear for this train. Arriving at Philadelphia they stopped outside the station, where Pinkerton met them with a closed carriage in readiness. They were driven rapidly across the city to the Washington train which had been detained a few minutes for “a sick passenger and one attendant.” They entered the rear door of the sleeping car. The "sick passenger” went to his berth at once and the attendant gave the tickets to the conductor who did not even see the “sick passenger,” and who did not dream of what a precious life he was carrying. They arrived at six o’clock in the morning at Washington City, where they were met by Seward and Washburn and taken to Willard’s Hotel.

The rest of the party came on schedule time. At Baltimore there was a large crowd in waiting, but no disturbance. The news of the President’s arrival had been telegraphed over the country, and the band of assassins were for the time helpless. Their intended victim had escaped. There was no reason why they should create a disturbance.

Lincoln always regretted this “secret passage.” He later came to discount heavily the revelations of a professional spy. Long after, he said: “I did not then, nor do I now, believe I should have been assassinated had I gone through Baltimore as first contemplated, but I thought it wise to run no risk where no risk was necessary.”

It is positively asserted by Lamon, who knew whereof he spake, that there was no time, from the moment of leaving Springfield to his death, when Lincoln was free from danger of murder. Yet he never could be prevailed on to accept precautions. What were the reasons for his apparent carelessness?

It is almost certain that he realized, more than he would have his friends know, that he was surrounded by dangers. He probably realized this more keenly than they did. They could locate specific dangers, but no man ever better understood the murderous spirit which underlay much of the hatred towards this man who had never harmed a human being. He felt that an escape from one danger might be simply running into another more deadly. It was like dodging bullets on the field of battle. He, better than they, realized that the unseen dangers were greater than those which they thought they had discovered. The only way, then, was to go straight ahead as if unmindful of all dangers.

Then, too, though Lincoln could understand dangers in the abstract, his mind did not seem to be able to individualize them. He knew full well that many persons wanted to kill him, but when it came to the point of the murder being done by X, or Y, or Z, he did not believe it possible that they would do such a thing.

These explanations are suggested. There may be others. But these two conflicting and paradoxical facts must be kept in mind. All through his public life he was oppressed with the belief that he would not live to see the end of the national crisis. On the other hand, not all the importunities of his most devoted friends could persuade him to guard himself. In the light of what we now know, it is wonderful that he escaped these plots for more than four years. Had he been more cautious, he might not have escaped so long. At the same time, as we shall presently see, had he heeded the last caution of his devoted friend, he would not have been shot in 1865.