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Posted at 10:36 AM ET, 02/14/2011

Dennis Frye: How real was the so-called "Baltimore Plot" to kill President-elect Lincoln when he passed through Baltimore en route to Washington?

By Dennis Frye

Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Frye

America’s first presidential assassination conspiracy launched not at Ford’s Theater, but at Baltimore--with assistance from New York.

Baltimore waved in red, white, and blue on February 22, 1861. American flags by the hundreds decorated public buildings, offices, stores and dwellings in all parts of the city celebrating George Washington’s birthday and the “prevailing Union sentiment and deep devotion to the meaning and teachings of Washington.”

None of those flags welcomed President-elect Lincoln. His expected entrance into Baltimore the next day, journeying to his inauguration in Washington, would solicit “no sympathy from the masses.” “As a representative of political sectional views which find but few adherents among our people,” observed the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, Lincoln “will miss here the popular ovations which have attended every step of his progress.”

But a few Republicans did exist in Baltimore. They boldly proposed a public demonstration as an escort for Lincoln as he transferred from one train station to another. Police Commission Marshal Kane considered it a terrible idea. Kane predicted the demonstrators would be “assailed and pelted with eggs, if not otherwise maltreated,” and he advised the Presidential party that any Republican rapture “might provoke some indignity.”

Lincoln’s travel plans abruptly changed. He left Harrisburg early; used different trains; followed an alternative route; arrived in Baltimore unannounced; whisked through town without ceremony; and silently rushed to Washington.

Then the New York Times broke this story -- “Design upon Mr. Lincoln’s Life.” The Times unveiled a “fiendish plot” that would have wrecked Lincoln’s train, rolling it down a steep embankment near Baltimore, with assailants murdering any survivors. If that failed, assassins would strike in the city, ensuring the President-elect’s death.

The report created a sensation. The Deep South mused, noting it already had a president with the recently inaugurated Jefferson Davis. The Philadelphia Inquirer dismissed the plot, explaining that Mr. Lincoln was not invited to stop in Baltimore, and therefore did not. The Baltimore American & Commercial Advertiser defended Marshal Kane’s explanation, exposing the conspiracy as “invented by New York reporters.”

“This plot had no existence except in the imaginative minds of sensation writers,” declared the Baltimore paper. The American & Commercial Advertiser editor concurred with the alteration of Lincoln’s travel plan as the proposed Republican demonstration -- “obnoxious to public sentiment” -- would have created “an occasion of disorder or mortification.”

Mr. Lincoln “passed through incog in order to avoid the attention of his political friends here whose unpopularity with the great mass of the people is so notorious,” determined the American & Commercial Advertiser editor. He judged the alteration “discreet, though not exactly capable of being praised as dignified or courageous.”

Assassination--no. Alteration--yes.

By Dennis Frye  | February 14, 2011; 10:36 AM ET
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