Not the First Canceled Train Ride

The week before Biden’s Inauguration, it was announced that his planned arrival to D.C. would no longer happen by train. This was significant for Biden because rail travel has been an important part of his identity so much that he has earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe.” Biden began taking the train back when he was just a Senator in the 1970s, partly to connect with common folks, but also because he lost his wife and daughter to a car accident and he wanted a safer mode of transportation to allow him to raise his two sons. Biden hoped to continue this common man theme for his inauguration but with security heightened he was forced to change his plans.

Having to modify his arrival by train may sounds strange in today’s world, but it was not the first time this happened for security reasons.

There is still yet an election as polarizing as the 1860 election. The new upstart Republican Party had been around for six years. The Republicans were different from other parties. First, the Republican Party was a sectional party. Parties in the past – Federalists, Jeffersonian Republicans, Whigs, Democrats – had all been national parties. They fought over issues like banks and tariffs but did so as parties instead of sections. Republicans only had members from the north, so if they won the election, they would only represent northerners. With that it is understandable why the South had issues with the party.

The reason Republicans were a northern party only is their second difference – they pledged to stop the spread of slavery. The Republicans were a diverse party, even when it came to slavery. At one end were those who did not have an issue with slavery itself but did not think whites in the west should have to compete with the peculiar institution. On the other end were strong abolitionists who wanted to see slavery eradicated. The Party’s official stance was stopping the expansion of slavery, not outlawing it, but to the south anything restricting slavery was the same as abolition.
Between Republicans solely representing northern interests and wanting to restrict the southern way of life, the south declared that if the Republicans won, the south would be forced to leave the Union to start their own nation where their concerns would be protected.

The day after Lincoln’s victory, South Carolina followed through with its threat and voted to leave the Union. Six more states quickly followed. Getting ready for Lincoln’s inaugural, the nation was teetering on the brink of war with all sides waiting to see what Lincoln would say in his speech, especially about Fort Sumpter. Sumpter was the only Fort in the South still controlled by the Union and it happened to be in the Charleston, S.C., harbor, the birthplace of secession.

In such a climate, Lincoln’s chief of security, Allen Pinkerton, of the detective agency fame, worried about Lincoln’s safety. Just like Biden’s inaugural, D.C. was on heightened security fearing a secessionist plot. Since his election, Lincoln had received numerous death threats. Pinkerton’s biggest fear was Lincoln’s route to D.C. and what worried him most was Baltimore. People forget today, but Maryland was a slave state and Baltimore at the time was a strong southern city. In Baltimore, Lincoln needed to take a short carriage ride between two stations, and Pinkerton believed he had uncovered a plot to kill Lincoln as he made that connection.

Lincoln, however, was not as confident about an assassination plot and refused to veer from his planned schedule. He took his time from Illinois to the Capitol, stopping at every city along the way to speak and attend celebrations. However, once in Pennsylvania, Lincoln received word from General Winfield Scott verifying a potential plot which forced Lincoln to act.

Against his wishes, Lincoln excused himself after dinner and, instead of staying the night, left by train to the Capital. When he left his residence, he wore a new hat instead of his traditional stove pipe hat and wore a shawl to disguise himself. Leaving after dinner instead of the next day meant he arrived in Baltimore in the middle of the night without warning or fanfare. His car was unhooked from the train and pulled by horse to Camden Station and hooked to a new engine which brought him safely to Washington. The inaugural went off without a hitch and Lincoln was safe. It was not until four years later that an assassin’s bullet finally found its mark, leaving Lincoln to the ages.

As Lincoln feared, his entrance into the Capital drew some criticism. Instead of a grand triumphal entrance, he had more of what some thought was a subdued back-door whimper. His arrival was called cowardice and some even reported he wore women’s clothes to escape detection, a crime charged against Jefferson Davis four years later as he tried to escape capture.

In the end both Lincoln’s and Biden’s inaugurations went smoothly. Both had a large military presence to keep the peace, but neither was ultimately needed. Lincoln did not enter the way he had hoped but went on to be arguably the greatest president in history. Biden’s legacy still needs to be written.

Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at or on Facebook

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