On this day in 1861, Abraham Lincoln and his entourage show up unexpectedly at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., foiling a Baltimore plot against his life.
The president-elect left his home in Springfield, Illinois, by train several days earlier and had planned to stop in Baltimore before continuing to the capital. Before leaving, he delivered a poignant farewell to his hometown and close friends, who observed that he seemed to realize he might never return to the town where, he said, my children have been born, and one is buried. Shortly after departing Springfield, his aides received reports of a planned assassination attempt in Baltimore and ordered the train to proceed immediately to Washington.
Lincoln assumed the presidency on the eve of civil war. Following a contentious election during which slaveholding states threatened to secede from the Union, angry southern conspirators vowed to kill the man they perceived as an abolitionist president before he entered office. Chicago police detective Allan Pinkerton, a devout supporter of Lincoln, led the effort to infiltrate secessionist groups in order to thwart such assassination attempts.
Working undercover, Pinkerton engaged in a conversation on February 15 with one Captain Ferdinanda and an associate who told him “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.” Even when news of the plot reached Lincoln, he argued for keeping the Baltimore engagement, much to his aides’ frustration. A stubborn Lincoln finally submitted to his wife’s insistence that he abandon his plans and the attack was successfully avoided.
Observers who heard of Lincoln’s arrival at the Willard Hotel noticed the tall and awkward form of Lincoln. The president appeared nervous and quickly worked his way through the gathering throng toward his room. Shortly thereafter, his wife, Mary, and their sons joined him at the hotel, where the family stayed until his inauguration on March 4, 1861.