Civil War Profiles — The pre-Civil War plot to assasinate Lincoln

The outcome of the 1860 presidential election was a foregone conclusion before voters went to the polls. The Democrats had split asunder over how to handle the slavery issue, thereby ensuring their candidates would lose to the Republican nominee.

With the Democrats in turmoil, Abraham Lincoln pulled out a victory for the Republicans with less than 40 percent of the vote. Anger in the South over the election outcome was palpable, and pro-secessionist elements in the city of Baltimore, Md., plotted revenge.

Lincoln was unaware that danger lurked during his railroad trip from Illinois to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration. In his autobiography, “The Spy of the Rebellion,” Allan Pinkerton revealed methods his detective agency employed to thwart an assassination attempt.

Pinkerton claimed he did not make public the details of the plot until 1883, long after the Civil War, for “the personal safety of those who actively participated in this [conspiracy] detection.” Pinkerton got involved when Samuel H. Felton — president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad — enlisted his agency to protect against “roughs and secessionists of Maryland” who planned to damage the railroad.

Pinkerton assigned four agents to this mission and immediately travelled to Philadelphia to meet with Felton. The security plan devised included stationing agents “at various towns along the road … where, it was believed, disaffection existed.”

Upon arriving in Wilmington, Del., Pinkerton found no hostile disposition or potential danger at this location. At Perryville and Havre de Grace, Md., however, residents’ feelings were bitter over the presidential election outcome, motivating Pinkerton to leave agent Timothy Webster behind with instructions “to become acquainted with such men as he might … consider suspicious … [and] obtain … knowledge of their intentions.”

Next stop was Baltimore, where “sympathy with secession was manifestly more intense.” Agent John Seaford received the assignment to remain there and keep watch.

Pinkerton remained in Baltimore and sent for additional agents that he assigned to mingle “among the people of all grades and conditions of life.” Information gained indicated that “the wealthier classes” and “those in [public] office” desired to prevent the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as president.

On Feb. 11, 1861, Lincoln left his home in Springfield, Ill., to begin his journey eastward. He made stops to greet the people in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Albany, New York, Trenton, Newark, Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

Meanwhile, Pinkerton received a letter from a railroad employee that he had learned from a good source that citizens of Baltimore had taken an oath “to assassinate Mr. Lincoln before he gets to Washington and they may attempt to do it while he is passing over our [rail]road.” Pinkerton reacted by assigning two of his best agents to assume identities as pro-secessionist residents of Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans, La., and “secure entrance into their secret societies and military organizations.”

Pinkerton alerted the president-elect’s party of the assassination plot in Baltimore when it reached Cincinnati. After mingling with the Baltimore conspirators’ wives and daughters, female agent Kate Warne obtained additional evidence confirming the plot’s authenticity.

It was learned the attempt on Lincoln’s life would take place at the Calvert Street depot in Baltimore. Pinkerton decided to meet the president-elect’s train in Philadelphia with a plan to escort him to Washington in a surreptitious manner.

Although Lincoln at first demurred about following the secret plan, he eventually recognized the wisdom of avoiding the Baltimore plot. Following a trip to Harrisburg, a special train left from Philadelphia for Baltimore and Washington, before the conspirators had an opportunity to put their plot into effect.

Arriving in Baltimore at 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 22, Lincoln’s car was horse-drawn on rails across town to Camden Station. From there, a train with the Lincoln party reached the capital city at 6 a.m., where a welcoming group escorted Lincoln to Willard’s Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Although, for public relations purposes, the new administration downplayed the detective agency’s role in arranging safe passage for Lincoln to Washington, D.C., Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan recruited Pinkerton to organize a Secret Service staff for his army. As a result, Allan Pinkerton and his operatives became early practitioners of U.S. military intelligence operations, and his firm continues in operation to this day as a private security contractor.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, or contact him directly at, or through his website at