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Posted at 10:38 AM ET, 02/14/2011

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

By Harold Holzer

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation


As we know, President-elect Abraham Lincoln aborted his pre-announced public schedule in Baltimore on February 23, 1861. Convinced that danger lurked there, he stole through the city, changing trains in total secrecy, and speeding off toward Washington before daybreak.

When the inaugural train chugged into Baltimore later that morning, a crowd gathered to greet him, but he was nowhere to be seen. Vice President-elect Hannibal Hamlin was on board, along with Mary Lincoln and sons Robert, Willie, and Tad. According to a mock dispatch, a knot of perplexed well-wishers followed a suitcase bearing the initials “A. L.” assuming “the lost President-elect must have been stored” inside “to be smuggled through.” Before long, rumors spread that a cowardly Lincoln had donned a Scotch cap and military cloak, or perhaps even his wife’s dress, to sneak through the first Southern city on his pre-inaugural journey. His image suffered under assault from reporters and cartoonists.

Was the plot real? Lincoln himself cast doubts by permitting his family to enter the purported danger zone, and later admitting: “I do not think I should have been killed, or even that a serious attempt would have been made to kill me.” But as he added: “It ain’t best to run a risk of any consequence for looks’ sake.”

In truth, though he never so admitted publicly, Lincoln had received at least two, and perhaps three, independent and credible reports that a serious assassination plot was indeed being hatched in Baltimore. The city had awarded him less than 2% of the popular vote in the recent election, and pro-slavery, anti-Union sentiment was indeed boiling over. Scholars have recently shed new and convincing light on the sloppy but determined plot to kill him there before he could become President. As we know from history, it does not take an organized army to murder a leader and change history.

In the end, Lincoln made the wisest choice. Reaching Washington was his priority. One of his few Baltimore supporters said it best when he later wrote Lincoln to say that while his evasion had fallen “like a thunder clap upon the community,” a genuine attack had indeed been “determined.” As he stressed: “By your course you have saved bloodshed and a mob.” And lived to become President and change history on his own terms.

By Harold Holzer  | February 14, 2011; 10:38 AM ET
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