Road to Lincoln's end ran through Baltimore

Lincoln branded a coward for “sneaking” through Baltimore

From the night Abraham Lincoln secretly rode a train into Baltimore en route to his inauguration in 1861, through April 24, 1865, when his body lay in a coffin at the Merchant Exchange downtown, his fate was a tragedy largely written in Charm City — by men and women who lived, worked, met and hid out within a few miles of the Inner Harbor.

The plot had roots in Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender to his Northern counterpart, Gen. U.S. Grant, 150 years ago Thursday. Five days later, Maryland native John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln with the help of accomplices who had strong ties to Baltimore.

For many years, one historian says, the public had a general notion the plot was hatched somewhere in the Confederacy, but it took time to grasp its direct links to Baltimore.

"When I first started my research, I didn't fully appreciate what a key role Baltimore played [in the assassination]," says Michael W. Kauffman, author of "American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies." "The standard account is that Booth was a Southern actor, a Southern sympathizer. ... But I think [Booth's] being from Baltimore made all the difference in the world."

It may well have been the city's very reputation that sowed the seeds for Lincoln's demise.

He had just been elected president in 1861 and was preparing for a whistle-stop train trip from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, when a rumor surfaced that angry Baltimoreans were plotting to kill him as he changed trains here.

The city's name as a hotbed of gang violence was so strong that Lincoln took precautions. He boarded an earlier train than expected, arriving in Baltimore at 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 23.

The next morning, a throng at the Calvert Street Station saw the president-elect's family step off a train but not Lincoln.

"That was one disappointed crowd," says Robert Reyes, vice president of the Friends of President Street Station, which runs the Baltimore Civil War Museum downtown.

The press skewered Lincoln for his "cowardice," and historians say the fallout so scarred him that he kept his security detail small from then on. The night Booth gunned him down at Ford's Theatre, only one policeman was assigned to guard his box.

In some ways, Baltimore proved the right breeding ground for one of history's most infamous plots. When federal troops occupied the city in May 1861, and Lincoln declared martial law, moderate pro-Southerners hardened their position and the city became a tinderbox, Kauffman says.

That affected John Wilkes Booth.

It's widely known that Booth grew up largely in Harford County, where his father, the actor Junius Booth, built Tudor Hall, the family estate, near Bel Air. But John's parents' relationship was strained, and for about 10 years beginning in the 1840s, John and his siblings lived much of the year with their mother in a house the family owned on North Exeter Street near what is now the main Post Office.

Kauffman learned that the children often played around the Shot Tower, engaging in tag games and sometimes setting up neighborhood plays, and Booth's sister, Asia, was a member at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.

"John never joined; it was just her," says Ralph Vincent, an amateur historian who helped found the Baltimore Civil War Museum in 1997.

Baltimore was such a violent place, Kauffman says, that the Booths chose to send John to Sparks, where he studied at the Milton Academy, a boarding school located in what is now the Milton Inn. There he got a look at history in the making.

His best friend was Tom Gorsuch, a boy who lived on the farm next door. Booth was 11 in 1849 when several of the Gorsuches' slaves escaped.

In keeping with the controversial Fugitive Slave Act,Tom's father, Edward, went to Pennsylvania to reclaim his "property" and was killed by abolitionists in a violent encounter.

Kauffman helped establish how Booth likely felt about the so-called Christiana riot, an event that divided the nation. He unearthed a speech the young actor wrote in 1860 in which he described the elder Gorsuch as a "noble" and wronged man.

By 1861, Booth's pro-Southern views were well known. Kauffman even found evidence he was part of the mob that attacked Union soldiers on their way to Washington in the bloody Pratt Street Riot of April 19 . The historian believes the Sparks events fanned his passions.

It was Booth who hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln and hold him in exchange for Confederate prisoners, a plan that seems to have given way to a murder plot later on. Baltimore was fertile ground as things developed.

Michael O'Laughlen, a plasterer who grew up near the Shot Tower with the Booth children, was one of Booth's first recruits to the kidnapping plot. In March1865, he dropped out of the conspiracy, but he was later found guilty of involvement. He died in prison in 1867.

Lewis Powell, a strapping ex-Confederate spy who was hospitalized in Baltimore, wound up staying at a boarding house at 16 N. Eutaw St., where he met intermediaries who introduced him to Booth. He was later hanged for trying to kill a secondary target, Secretary of State William Seward.

Many historians still believe a Clinton, Md., man, John Surratt, was part of the murder plot, but he fled to Canada, then Europe and Egypt, for several months before being returned to the U.S. for an 1867 trial. After a hung jury freed him of the worst charges, he moved to Baltimore, got a job as a freight auditor for the Old Bay Line, and lived here the last 44 years of his life.

"He was in it up to his chinny-chin chin, but he looked out for No. 1," Vincent says. "Go figure — he ended up a respected citizen of Baltimore."

Booth is known to have been stunned that the public did not celebrate his deed. Even Baltimore, no bastion of Union support, plunged into grief at the news.

The mayor, John Lee Chapman, ordered flags draped in mourning and taverns closed, says Charles W. Mitchell, author of "Maryland Voices of the Civil War", a history that appeared in 2007. Church bells tolled; the press railed. "Mr. Lincoln has been basely, cowardly and traitorously murdered," the Baltimore American wrote.

A week later, businesses closed and spectators lined the streets on a rainy day as Lincoln's black-draped funeral train made its way into Camden Station. A horse-drawn hearse carried his coffin up Eutaw Street to the Market Exchange building on Lombard Street, where it lay for 90 minutes. The coffin was then taken to the Calvert Street station, loaded on a train, and shipped north on the first leg of its journey to Lincoln's Illinois home.

Baltimore remains a map of landmarks to the assassination, most of them muted with the passage of time.

Baltimoreans can visit the resting places of key players such as O'Laughlen and Booth, who are buried at Greenmount Cemetery (Booth in an unmarked grave near the family plot). Surratt is buried at New Cathedral Cemetery in West Baltimore.

On April 18 and 19, residents can enjoy re-enactments of Lincoln's funeral cortege at the B&O Railroad Museum, where an exhibit explores locomotive travel in the Civil War.

Nearly a century and a half ago, by the time the train carrying Lincoln's body left town, hundreds doffing their hats in tribute, his entanglement with Charm City was a chapter in history.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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