On the clear, crisp morning of Feb. 23, 1861, a crowd of nearly 15,000 gathered in Baltimore to greet Abraham Lincoln en route to his inauguration in Washington. It would be the last of 70 whistle stops for Lincoln on a 12-day trip from his home in Springfield, Illinois, and the only one south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But when the train arrived that Saturday at the Calvert Street station, the president-elect was missing, having slipped through the city in disguise, during the night, to thwart an alleged assassination plot.
Lincoln’s stealth and subterfuge triggered cries of cowardice in mid-19th century America, especially in Baltimore, where residents resented the snub by their next commander-in-chief. So what if Lincoln’s secret operatives had found the city fraught with danger for Lincoln, or that Baltimore’s own police chief had clear Southern leanings? That the president-elect had passed through town “like a thief in the night,” The Sun said, showed his true colors.
“Baltimore is thus made the scapegoat of a weak man’s fears,” proclaimed the newspaper, chastising Lincoln and calling his ruse “a contemptible escapade” that was “especially offensive to the honor and reputation of our city.”
Then The Sun opined:
“We fear that such a man ... may prove capable of infinitely more mischief than folly, when [entrusted] with power. Imagine a lunatic invested with authority over a sane people and armed with weapons of offense and defense.”
Was Lincoln’s life at risk on the last leg of his 2,000-mile journey? His undercover agents, led by detective Allan Pinkerton, feared so, having exposed a plot they claimed was hatched in the barbershop of Barnum’s City Hotel at Calvert and Fayette streets. Reportedly, either the railway Lincoln was to take from Philadelphia would be blown up en route, sending Lincoln’s car careening down an embankment, or he would be set upon while changing trains in Baltimore, and shot or stabbed by his attackers.
The threats were real enough that at least one member of Lincoln’s traveling party made out his will, should the president-elect adhere to his original plans.
Small wonder that Lincoln changed his itinerary, on the sly, and boarded a red-eye special. He swapped his stovepipe hat for a Scotch plaid cap, dressed in a military coat and, at the behest of his security detail, hunkered down to hide his 6-foot-4 frame as he walked. He arrived at the Calvert Street station at 3:30 a.m. and in Washington at 6, where he was whisked to safety by nervous envoys.
Meanwhile, unaware that he’d already come and gone, people convened at the Calvert Street depot to glimpse the next head of state. Their interest was piqued more by curiosity than allegiance: Lincoln had mustered just 1,000 votes in the city during the 1860 election and had finished a distant fourth in Maryland balloting overall.
When Lincoln’s originally scheduled train did arrive, The Sun reported, people “mounted to the tops of the cars like so many monkeys until, like a hive of bees, they swarmed upon them — shouting, hallooing and making all manner of noises.”
Learning that it had been hoodwinked stoked the crowd.
“Persons were knocked from the [train] platforms and trampled on; others had their clothing torn,” The Sun reported. “The disappointment was very great, and there were some harsh expressions used.”
The mood turned ugly. Some men, “bent on fun and mischief, seized a [Black] man driving a horse-and-wagon through North Calvert St. and attempted to chalk ‘Abe Lincoln’ on his back” before police intervened.
That Lincoln’s wife, Mary, was on the train, having braved the warnings, earned praise from The Sun.
“So there is to be some pluck in the White House, if it is under a bodice,” an editorial quipped.
Beside Mrs. Lincoln stood the family’s luggage, which included several large trunks initialed A.L.
“It was suggested that the lost president-elect might have been stowed away in one of them, to be smuggled through, but his great reputed length at once [put to rest] that idea.”
Eventually the group dispersed, to read the whole account the following day in a story headlined, “Lincoln’s Underground Railroad Journey.”
Four years later, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot and killed the president as he watched a performance of “Our American Cousin.”