Today, 1861: President-elect Lincoln Eludes Assassination Plot

Growing up, I read everything written about Lincoln that I could get my hands and one thing always stuck out to me that Lincoln was both devoutly loved and bitterly hated. Many blamed him for the Civil War when in fact the motions of war were set long before Lincoln was elected. Like in today’s world, we tend to take out our anger for whatever is vexing us on the one person most visible at the time and in the 1860s, that person was Lincoln.

I also learned that unlike our current leaders, Lincoln carried the weight of the nation’s troubles on his shoulders. I read some historians who wrote that the weight of the nation’s troubles that Lincoln carried are what led to his often appearing with stooped shoulders. He wept and prayed for our nation and for every soldier, Union or Confederate, that fell in battle. If our current leaders cared as much for you and me as Lincoln cared for the people, I’m sure our nation would not be experiencing half of the problems we are today.

What do you think of when you hear the name of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln?  Do you think about the Civil War, freeing the slaves or do think about his assassination?

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If you are one the many that think of Lincoln’s assassination, you may be surprised to learn that he had escaped other attempts on his life, including one that was planned on this day, February 23, 1861 just prior to his being sworn into office.

After losing 5 straight political campaigns, the most unlikely of politicians won the national presidential election in 1860. Back home in Springfield, Illinois, the 6 foot 4 inch gangly looking Lincoln was taking care of things and preparing for his move to Washington DC where he would be sworn in as the nation’s 16th President and the first member of the Republican Party to serve as president.

He hired a young Bavarian immigrant by the name of John Nicolay to help him with many of this tasks. One of those tasks was helping Lincoln with the all of the mail he began receiving and young Nicolay soon became concerned about the growing number of threats being made against the president-elect. He wrote about it, saying:

“His mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, and warnings of all sorts came to him from zealous or nervous friends. But he had himself so sane a mind, and a heart so kindly, even to his enemies, that it was hard for him to believe in political hatred so deadly as to lead to murder.”

In January 1861, plans were also being made for Lincoln’s train trip from Springfield to Washington DC. Railroad officials were growing concerned about some of the rumors they were hearing about possible assassination attempts while Lincoln was traveling to Washington. Some of those rumors reached the desk of Samuel Morse Felton, President of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, who was not only concerned for Lincoln’s life, but for the future of his railroad if such an assassination succeeded. Felton took the threats serious, later recalling:

“I then determined to investigate the matter in my own way.”

Felton did that by hiring a Scottish immigrant who had started up his own detective agency known as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The immigrant was none other than Allan Pinkerton who received Felton’s inquiry on January 19. He immediately left for Philadelphia to meet with Felton and then went to work investigating one of the more serious threats.
Pinkerton went undercover and on February 15 met with a Captain Ferdinand and another man. Ferdinand told Pinkerton:

“that d—d abolitionist shall never set foot on Southern soil but to find a grave. One week from today the North shall want a new president, for Lincoln will be dead.”

Pinkerton learned of the plot to assassinate Lincoln when his train arrived in Baltimore on the way to Washington DC. He reported the news back to Felton and Lincoln’s aides. However, Lincoln reportedly dismissed the danger and insisted on stopping in Baltimore as planned. As Lincoln’s train left Illinois headed to Washington DV, his aides continued to try to convince him to avoid stopping in Baltimore, but it wasn’t until Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln used her wifely influence to persuade him to travel on to DC.

On February 23, 1861, the would be assassins were waiting in Baltimore for the arrival of their target. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Lincoln showed up at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC. He quickly made his way inside where he remained until his inauguration on March 4.

This wasn’t the only failed attempt on Lincoln’s life. Someone tried to shoot him in the head on an August night in 1864 as he made his way to the Lincoln’s summer retreat outside the city, known as Soldier’s Home. Private John W. Nichols was standing guard that night and later described what happened:

“One night about the middle of August Mr. Nichols was doing sentinel duty at the large gate to the grounds of the home. About 11 o’clock he heard a rifle shot, and shortly afterward Mr. Lincoln dashed up to the gate on horseback. The President was bareheaded, and as he dismounted he said, referring to his horse; ‘He came pretty near getting away with me, didn’t he? He got the bit in his teeth before I could draw the rein.’ Mr. Nichols asked him where his hat was, and he replied that somebody had fired a gun off at the foot of the hill, and that his horse had become scared and jerked his hat off.”


“‘Thinking the affair rather strange,’ said Mr. Nichols, ‘a corporal and myself went down the hill to make an investigation. At the intersection of the driveway and main road we found the President’s hat — a plain silk one — and upon examining it we discovered a bullet hole through the crown. The shot had been fired upward, and it was evident that the person who fired the shot had secreted himself close by the roadside. The next day I gave Mr. Lincoln his hat and called his attention to the bullet hole. He remarked rather unconcernedly, that it was put there by some foolish gunner and was not intended for him. He said, however, that he wanted the matter kept quiet, and admonished us to say nothing about it. We felt confident that it was an attempt to kill him, and a well nigh successful one, too. The affair was, of course, kept quiet in compliance with the President’s request. After that the President never rode alone.’”

Ward Hill Lamon, a friend of Lincoln’s, also reported the incident, only he heard it from Lincoln himself. Eight months later, Lincoln’s fortune of avoiding assassination ended when John Wilkes Booth shot the president in the back of the head on April 14, 1865, and he died early the following morning.

Above is a compilation of the following sources: Lincoln avoids assassination attempt; The Unsuccessful Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln; 1861 February 27: The Baltimore Plot; Attempted Assassination of Abraham Lincoln; 5 Failed Assassination Attempts on President Lincoln You Didn’t Know About; When Lincoln Was Almost Assassinated Nine Months Before He Was Assassination.


Dave Jolly

R.L. David Jolly holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Biology – Population Genetics. He has worked in a number of fields, giving him a broad perspective on life, business, economics and politics. He is a very conservative Christian, husband, father and grandfather who cares deeply for his Savior, family and the future of our troubled nation.

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