Key point: Had a different secret service member been present and the media not mocked the idea of an assassination plot, Lincoln may have lived.
“Early in the year 1861, I was at my headquarters in the city of Chicago, attending to the manifold duties of my profession. I had, of course, perused the daily journals which contained the reports of doings of the malcontents of the South, but in common with others, I entertained no serious fears of an open rebellion, and was disposed to regard the whole matter as of trivial importance.” – Detective Allan Pinkerton, detective, just before being summoned to guard President Abraham Lincoln
The Baltimore Plot
On February 18, as President Lincoln’s train traveled across New York, Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Ala., took the oath of office as President of the Confederate States of America. Passions were running high and, despite Lincoln’s stance of moderation, many hated him thoroughly. That night a man with the cover name Joseph Howard—one of Alan Pinkerton’s implanted Baltimore spies—was taken to a secret meeting of the conspirators where he was sworn in as a member. He was warily congratulated by members of the polite circles of Baltimore society, whom he had previously met.
Then the meeting got down to business. A box containing lots was prepared. Each man was to keep secret the color of paper he drew out. The man who drew the red lot was to be the assassin. The leaders, doubting the courage of all present, and to ensure success, secretly placed eight red lots in the box. The room was darkened so that no one would see the color of the lot drawn by another. Thus each man drew a red lot and believed he would be the lone assassin.
No Time to Lose
Pinkerton had little time to spare because President Lincoln was already on his way to Washington. His trip included speeches in major northern cities, shaking thousands of hands, and greeting people at every whistle-stop en route to the nation’s capital.
As he spoke at Independence Hall the next morning, President Lincoln seemed to have the assassination threat in mind. He talked first of the Declaration of Independence, and then said: “It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance…. But, if the country cannot be saved without giving up that principle—I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”
In any event, President Lincoln, accompanied by Pinkerton and Lamon, passed through Baltimore without being attacked, although there was an odd and long train delay on the station platform. The party arrived in Washington, unannounced, at 6 am, February 23, 1861.
The Media's Role in Lincoln's Assassination
As the story of President Lincoln’s secret passage to Washington became known, his political enemies denied the existence of the “Baltimore Plot” and ridiculed him as a coward. Even the president’s friends embarrassed him. A sympathetic newspaper ran the story that caused him the most trouble. New York Times correspondent Joseph Howard, Jr., was one of the reporters left behind in Harrisburg. Howard believed in the reality of the plot but lacked details, so he simply made them up.
He described President Lincoln as having arrived in Washington disguised in “a Scotch plaid cap and a very long military cloak, so that he was entirely unrecognizable.” Editorial cartoonists seized on Howard’s description and had a field day mocking the president-elect.
Pinkerton inadvertently added to the ridicule by selecting the word “Nuts” as Lincoln’s codename. Once in Washington, Pinkerton, who was using the code name “Plums,” wired Sanford of the American Telegraph Company, “Plums arrived here with Nuts this morning.”
Lincoln had shown great personal courage throughout his life and was also well known for his self-effacing sense of humor. During a political debate an opponent once called him “two-faced.” Lincoln answered, “I leave it to my audience: If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”
The president-elect, however, saw nothing funny about the ridicule. According to his friend Lamon, Lincoln regretted his surreptitious entrance into the nation’s capital and could never again be persuaded to submit himself to such extreme measures to safeguard his life. Thus the media had laid the foundation for his eventual assassination.
Pinkerton Absent at Ford's Theatre
As the Civil War heated up, Pinkerton again wrote the president, offering his assistance. In response, Lincoln summoned him at once to Washington, stating: “[Your] services are, I think, greatly needed by the government at this time.” Pinkerton was made chief of the U.S. Secret Service. He served through 1862 and thereafter was less active around Washington, in sympathy for his friend, General George McClellan, who was sacked in November of that year.
In fact, Pinkerton was in New Orleans conducting fraud investigations for the government when word of Lincoln’s assassination reached him. He wrote the War Department offering his assistance. He also observed, “Under providence of God, in February, 1861, I was enabled to save him from the fate he has now met. How I regret that I had not been near to him previous to this fatal act. I might have been the means to arrest it.”
Could Pinkerton have saved the president in April 1865? It’s quite likely. Allan Pinkerton was the foremost detective of his day. Lincoln’s guard that night was John F. Parker, a notoriously unfit police officer with a drinking problem. Had Pinkerton been on guard at Ford’s Theatre that night, it is unlikely Booth would have reached the president’s box to fire his fatal shot.
This article by Clark Larson originally appeared on the Warfare History Network. Originally Published January 31, 2019
Image: Wikimedia Commons