Politics & Policy

The Man Who Would Kill Lincoln

The mob in Baltimore did not even respect Lincoln. In fact, they hated him.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The First Assassin, by John J. Miller.

Saturday, February 23, 1861

When Lorenzo Smith heard the chugging of the train, he felt for the revolver at his side. His fingers met its smooth handle, hidden beneath his black coat. Then he found the short barrel and the trigger below. Smith had reached for it a dozen times in the last hour, but he wanted to be certain that the gun was still there. It will make me a hero, he thought. It will change history.

Listening for the rumble of the train had been difficult. A loud mass of people waited for its arrival at Calvert Street Station. Smith did not know how many were there, but they must have numbered in the thousands. The noisy throng spilled from the open-ended depot onto Calvert and Franklin Streets. Inside the station, where Smith stood, shouts bounced off the walls and ceiling. This place of tearful departures and happy reunions had become a hotbed of agitation.

The train’s steam whistle pierced the din of the crowd. The engine would pull into Baltimore on schedule, at half past noon. Heads bobbed for a view. Smith struggled to keep his position near the track. He had picked it two hours earlier, when the flood of people was just a trickle. He was not sure precisely where the train would stop, but he thought he had made a good guess about where the last car might come to a halt. He wanted to be within striking distance.

As the locomotive’s big chimney came into view, a man standing next to Smith bellowed, “Here he comes! Here comes the Black Republican!” A roar of jeers and insults filled the station. Smith craned his neck. He saw the engine’s massive oil lamp mounted on top of the smoke box. It gazed forward like the unblinking eye of a mechanical Cyclops. Behind it were the cab, the coal tender, and a line of cars. Flags and streamers covered them all. The whole train glistened from a recent cleaning. At the rear, Smith spotted a car painted in orange and black. He reached into his coat another time and tapped the gun. Just making sure.

For the last ten days, the train carrying Abraham Lincoln on his inaugural journey from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., had taken the president-elect through six northern states — all populated by the abolitionists who had voted him into office. Applause greeted him at almost every stop. But on this morning, as Lincoln’s train turned south into Maryland, it had entered slaveholding territory for the first time. Baltimore was the only city on the trip that had not extended a formal welcome to the incoming president — an obvious snub that pleased Smith when he thought of it.

Smith scanned the crowd and saw several men wearing hats with blue-ribbon cockades. This was the fashion among Baltimore’s secessionist set. Each cockade had a button in its center displaying the palmetto tree, the symbol of South Carolina. That state had quit the Union in December, before any of the others. Many Marylanders now wanted to join the growing Confederacy. The moment Lincoln pulled into the depot, the members of the mob would let him know that he did not have their support. They did not even respect him. In fact, they hated him.

Rumors had circulated for weeks that Lincoln would not be safe when he reached Baltimore. But the president-elect had no choice about the visit. The only rail route into Washington from the north required going through Baltimore. Lincoln had to stop and switch to the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road line at another station more than a mile away. That meant the presidential party would have to make a slow transit from one depot to the other, surrounded the whole way by an angry swarm. Lincoln was supposed to catch a three o’clock departure for Washington, where he would arrive about an hour and a half later.

Smith could not keep from grinning. He could hardly have asked for a better opportunity than the one handed to him here and now. He was about to become a hero — the hero of a new nation. He had planned for this moment from the day he heard Lincoln would pass through his city. He had visited the depot to see where the trains stopped along the platform. He had walked the route Lincoln would take to the other rail line, checking alleys and side streets for the best escape routes. He had studied a picture of Lincoln that had appeared in a magazine. When he learned that the president-elect had grown a beard, he drew whiskers on the picture and studied it more. Smith had cleaned his revolver over and over, trying to keep it in perfect condition. He had tried on his entire wardrobe, testing the gun in trouser pockets, through belts, and in his coat. He bought himself a new pair of shoes and broke them in.

They felt good on his feet as Lincoln’s train crawled into the station. The shouting grew louder and louder. The engine rolled past Smith slowly, from right to left. His eyes met the conductor’s for a moment. The man was shaking his head from side to side. Smith wondered what it meant, but not for long — there was too much going on. The cars kept moving by him. The presidential car in back crept closer. He could see the silhouettes of a few heads through its windows. A fellow up the platform from Smith began to smack the car’s exterior with his cane, but it rolled out of his reach a moment later.

Then the train hissed to a halt, with the presidential car directly in front of Smith. His meticulous planning had paid off. Smith jumped onto the car’s metal steps. His feet clanged against them as he thrust himself forward and up. He heard men rushing behind him. At the door into Lincoln’s car, Smith hesitated. He quickly surveyed the depot from this elevated position. It was so full of people that Smith was not sure how he or anybody else could make a hasty exit. He would have to slip into the crowd and count on its anonymity to envelop him.

First things first, he reminded himself. Several other men stood beside him on the back of the car. Smith thought he recognized one of them from a secessionist meeting he had attended. His hand was hidden inside his coat. Smith saw a slight bulge. So at least two of us are ready to perform the job today, he thought. Then Smith reached into his own coat and clutched his revolver. He was about to pull it out when the door flew open.

“Stop right there!”

The shout came from within the car. Before Smith could comprehend it, he saw the end of a pistol pointing at his face, just inches away. Behind the weapon he met the gaze of a man who looked ready to pull the trigger.

“Raise your hands!”

Smith knew that before he could even lift his gun, he would be shot between the eyes. But he did not loosen his grip. He was too close to his goal.

“Where’s Lincoln?” yelled Smith.

“Raise your hands, sir, or I will shoot!” came the reply. The man leaned forward. His pistol almost touched Smith’s forehead.

Suddenly Smith felt a commotion in the depot. He sensed that the men backing him up were pulling away. The tone of the mob’s shouting had changed, too. He could not hear exactly what they were saying.

“One last time, sir: Raise your hands!”

Smith released the revolver. It slid back into his pocket. He showed his hands.

“Lincoln is not on this train,” said the man. “You won’t find him in Baltimore today.”

Smith peered over the man’s shoulders, into the rest of the car. It looked like a room in the mansion of a wealthy family. The red walls and heavy furniture bore all the dainty trappings of Victorian elegance. Blue silk covered the space between the windows. Little tassels dangled from the chairs and shined in the light of the open door. As Smith peered inside, he realized the man with the gun was actually letting him study the car’s interior. He wanted Smith to see who was aboard — and who was not.

Toward the rear, Smith noticed a plump, round-faced woman with her arms wrapped around a couple of frightened girls. A hulking man stood beside her, his arm on the back of her seat. A couple of boys sat nearby. Smith was certain he had seen the woman before. She glared back at him, her eyes glowing with anger. Then Smith realized who she was. He had seen her photograph. It was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the president-elect. He spent another few seconds looking at the other faces. Mrs. Lincoln’s husband was definitely not aboard.

The man with the gun spoke again: “There’s your proof. He’s not here. Now leave this train immediately!”

Smith studied the man. He was in his early twenties. Except for a thin mustache, his face was clean-shaven. His features were soft. He did not look like the sort of fellow who would pack a gun and protect a dignitary, but there was a steady determination in his gaze. Smith had no doubt the young man was willing to pull the trigger.

Smith still did not move. “Who are you?” he asked meekly.

“I am John Hay, secretary to Abraham Lincoln, who at this very moment is relaxing in Washington. He passed through Baltimore early this morning, in darkness. Now back off or I will shoot!”

Smith retreated a step. The door slammed shut. Smith realized that he now stood on the back of the car with a single companion, the man he had recognized. The others who had followed him up the steps were gone. He looked at the mass of people surrounding the train. He heard voices up the track: “Lincoln is not on the train! He’s not on board!” Someone at the front of the car must have delivered the message, which spread quickly through the crowd.

Dozens of faces now turned to Smith, hoping he would contradict this report. But they saw a demoralized man. “It’s true,” he said. “Lincoln is not here.”

The catcalls started again. “Lincoln is a coward!” “He’s a sneak!” “He’s lucky he’s not here!”

Smith slumped his shoulders and looked at the man beside him.

“We have failed,” he said.

Then Smith stepped off the train and vanished into the mob. On the way out, he did not touch his gun.

– John J. Miller is NR’s national reporter.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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