Feb. 23, 1861: The First Time Abraham Lincoln Was Almost Killed

RealClear Contributor


It's a famous historical fact that President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, but most don't know that he was almost killed even before he was President. Feb. 23, 1861 is the day that Lincoln almost died -- about 1 week before his inauguration.

Working on the Railroad

It all started with the president of the railroad. Shortly after the November 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Morse Felton (who ran the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad) started hearing rumors. Some were whispering that Lincoln would never make it to Washington to be inaugurated, and that made Felton worry. He decided to write a letter to someone who could help: Allan Pinkerton.

Call in the Pinkertons

Allan Pinkerton, left, standing with Abraham Lincoln, right

The first official detective for the city of Chicago, Allan Pinkerton was already becoming famous in law enforcement. Pinkerton was in Philadelphia to talk to Felton just two days later,  and started doing his own investigation.

Meanwhile, then-President elect Lincoln's plans were well-known. He was already scheduled to leave Springfield to go to Washington, a trip that would include frequent stops so he could talk to the people in an "open and public" fashion. Lincoln planned to be in Baltimore on Feb. 23, and leave later that same afternoon to head on to the nation's capital.

Everyone in Baltimore was talking about the upcoming visit. And some talked too much. Days before the President's train was scheduled to stop in the city, Allan Pinkerton managed to uncover a plot to murder Lincoln during his time in the city. That's when everything changed.

Hiding Lincoln

Instead of following the much-publicized Presidential schedule, Pinkerton planned a route that would take Lincoln straight through Baltimore quickly, with no stops, and onto a safe inauguration in Washington, D.C. To accomplish it, Lincoln had to travel more than 200 miles on one night, changing trains twice.

To switch Lincoln from a private train -- too much of a target -- to a passenger train, Allan Pinkerton used decoys and distraction to hide the President elect among the civilian travelers. His cabin was kept dark, to prevent him from being recognized during water stops. And at the end of the trip, Lincoln was in fact safe in Washington.

Allan Pinkerton, later in life, wrote about his experiences that day and in the weeks leading up to it. "I had informed Mr. Lincoln in Philadelphia that I would answer with my life for his safe arrival in Washington...and I had redeemed my pledge."

Because of Allan Pinkerton’s actions, Lincoln governed the country through his first term in office, and was reelected to a second. But if a railroad president had never called in a detective, history may have remembered Lincoln as the President who never was. Share this incredible true story!



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