lincoln in disguise -- 8/2/21

Today's selection -- from Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss. Threats to his life caused Abraham Lincoln to wear a disguise when he entered Washington to take office in 1861:

"When Lincoln and his family reached New York City, on Febru­ary 19, Mayor Fernando Wood told the President-elect, at an Astor House reception, that New Yorkers were 'deeply interested' in the se­cession crisis because 'we fear that if the Union dies, the present superi­ority of New York may perish with it.' The New York Herald reported that the unruly crowd, with 'hair disheveled, clothes awry, faces grim and sweaty and bulging eyes,' surged forward to meet Lincoln. People cried, 'Keep off my toes, God damn you!' and 'Make room for this lady!' The Herald tactfully noted that 'toilettes were anything but com­plete.' When a Charleston visitor extended his hand, Mayor Wood anx­iously told Lincoln he hoped a handshake would not be 'beyond the pale.' Lincoln chuckled, 'I will shake hands with South Carolinians if they will shake hands with me!'

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner

"That evening, under guard by twenty policemen, Lincoln attended the opera. For security's sake, he was slipped into his box, at the Acad­emy of Music, after the overture. In the near dark, New Yorkers swiveled their heads and pointed up at what someone described as the 'plain black cravat, the next shirt collar turned over the neckcloth, the incipient whis­kers, and good humored face.' An ovation built. Gentlemen and ladies rose ('Jump up! Jump up!') to cheer the President-elect, waving hats and handkerchiefs. Lincoln took a faint bow, then, as the acclaim grew louder, stood up, towering above the others in his box. When the orchestra played 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' the audience sang along and a large Ameri­can flag was unfurled from the proscenium. The night's opera was a lugu­brious choice for a leader taking power against the backdrop of impending national violence -- Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, about the assassination of Sweden's King Gustav III by a conspiracy.

"As the President-elect reboarded his railroad car, he was told about a plot to kill him when he changed trains in Baltimore, known as a 'Mobtown' of Confederate sympathizers, thugs, and rampaging po­litical murderers like the Blood Tubs and the Plug-Uglies. Keeping a scheduled date to raise a new, thirty-four-star flag at Philadelphia's Inde­pendence Hall, he evinced his inner worries by insisting that he 'would rather be assassinated on this spot' than surrender the Union. The next day, on the train, Lincoln's young secretary John Hay found his boss 'so unwell he could hardly be persuaded to show himself.' Arriving at pro­-Union Pennsylvania's capital of Harrisburg, Lincoln, in his upset mood, disrupted his effort to conceal his exact intentions toward the South: he reported that a military parade he just saw had heartened him about 'what may be done when war is inevitable.' Later that day, someone asked him how soon he would send boys into Dixie; another called out, 'We will all go, if you want us!'

"Convinced that he might be risking his own murder, Lincoln agreed to skip Baltimore and enter Washington in disguise, although one adviser warned it would be 'a damned piece of cowardice.' Wearing a frayed coat and wool cap, the President-elect looked, so one friend thought, like 'a well-to-do farmer,' as he stepped off the train in the Capital, on February 23, with two bodyguards, Allan Pinkerton and Ward Hill Lamon. Unfortunately, the swaggering, hard-drinking, self­-inflating Lamon, who had been one of Lincoln's temporary law part­ners during his circuit rides (usually armed with gun and knife, he once joked to Lincoln, 'I might not be mighty in Counsel, but might be useful in a fight'), cabled the Chicago journal about his chief's costumed arrival and his own role in the scheme.

"Soon appeared an embarrassing cartoon of a timorous Lincoln, clad in military cloak and Scotch plaid beret. The New York World wondered why the President-elect would 'blench at the first show of danger.' The Cincin­nati Enquirer called him 'more than coward.' Lincoln's supporter Con­gressman Samuel Curtis of Iowa called it 'humiliating to have a President smuggled into the capital by night.' 'As if he were an absconding felon,' observed another Lincoln man, Senator John Hale of New Hampshire. 'Frightened at his own shadow,' said someone else. When the President­ elect's official train -- bearing Mary Lincoln and her sons -- finally rolled into Baltimore, his family was heckled with loud catcalls.

"That same week, in Montgomery, Alabama, Jefferson Davis, hav­ing resigned from the US Senate, was installed as the provisional Con­federate president. This slaveholder, champion of states' rights, and ex-Secretary of War (under Franklin Pierce) had been chosen by a con­gress of the by-now seven departed states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas). After a gun salvo, Davis told his fellow secessionists, 'If we must again baptize in blood the principles for which our fathers bled in the Revolution, we shall show that we are not degenerate sons, but will redeem the pledges they gave, preserve the sacred rights they transmitted to us, and show that Southern valor still shines as brightly as in 1776, 1812, and in every other conflict.'"



Michael Beschloss


Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times


Penguin Random House


Copyright 2018 by Michael Beschloss


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