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President Lincoln Wore a Dress!

While every presidential election elicits strong antagonistic emotions directed towards the opposite candidate, the campaign for 1860 was likely history’s most embittered. Lincoln campaigned on an anti-slavery platform. Douglas, his leading opponent, wanted to keep slavery. Lincoln won the popular vote by over 500,000 votes and 180 electoral votes to Douglas’ 12. The majority of the people voted for Lincoln despite knowing that if he were elected there would certainly be a Civil War. The time between Lincoln being named President of the United States and his inauguration was an era of high anxiety and apprehension with one major question: How soon would the inevitable war begin? Most students are at least familiar with Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 a few days after the end of the Civil War. However, few know of the plot to assassinate him on his way to be inaugurated in 1860 and the fascinating story of how he had to sneak into Washington disguised as a frail woman for the inauguration. The story begins in Chicago.

In mid-January 1861, Allan Pinkerton, who owned a small, little-known detective agency in Chicago, was hired by S. M. Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, to do some detective work for him. Felton had learned that Southern sympathizers were planning to sabotage his train at Baltimore soon in an effort to cut off traffic to the South. Pinkerton took the case and began investigating by going to Baltimore with two operatives. What he learned was that the railroad was not the target. Rather it was President-elect Lincoln.

On February 11, 1861 President-elect Abraham Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois by train with his wife and three sons. The journey would take him through seven states and would end in Washington, DC on February 22. Several stops were planned on the way for him to make speeches and public appearances. Pinkerton had confirmed there was an assassination plot by February 20. The next evening, Lincoln, while on a stop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was advised of the plot and the danger he was in if he went ahead with the festivities in Baltimore the next day. Lincoln had been a long-time friend of Pinkerton and trusted him. Pinkerton had made arrangements for a special train to meet Lincoln in Harrisburg that evening. Mrs. Lincoln, her sons, and the rest of the party would continue on the original train and schedule.

Since Lincoln was so tall, 6 foot 4, it was advised that he would need a disguise, as his height would make him stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Pinkerton requested that, when getting off the cab and boarding the special train, Abe not wear his trademark stovepipe hat, slump over so as to not appear as tall, walk with a cane, AND disguise himself as a fail woman, complete with a scotch-plaid shawl. Lincoln agreed and left his family behind and boarded the 10:10 PM special at Harrisburg that night. (Train personnel were told the special train was to carry a frail, society woman, her attendants, and a highly important package to Washington and was to await the arrival of both before departing -- The package, unknown to them, contained a handful of newspapers.) Lincoln arrived safely in Washington City even before his family left Harrisburg for Baltimore at 9 AM February 22. When his wife, sons and entourage arrived in Baltimore, they were greeted by an angry mob of Southern sympathizers. They escaped shaken but otherwise unharmed. The assassination plot was foiled. This episode spawned several ironies.

First, it can be said that by boarding that special train on a Friday and at 10:10 PM it saved his life. Ironically, when Lincoln WAS assassinated, in 1865, it was also a Friday and 10:10 PM!

Further, it is also quite ironic that perhaps the most famous and endeared American president had to sneak into town for the inauguration disguised as a frail woman, HOWEVER, the irony does not end there.

Perhaps the most poignant irony centered on Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. When the war was officially over, a warrant was issued for his arrest for treason. Davis, no longer President of the now non-existent Confederacy, had to sneak out of Richmond and was on the run. On May 10, 1865 Davis was captured in Georgia. In an attempt to disguise him, he was dressed as a fail woman, complete with shawl!