lincoln goes to washington -- 6/17/24

Today's excerpt -- from The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson. In 1861, newly elected president Abraham Lincoln made the journey from Illinois to Washington, DC:

“Lincoln found large crowds at every stop, no matter what the weather. In one city, a man gave him an apple, which prompted a small but savvy boy to shout, ‘Mr. Lincoln! That man is running for postmaster!’ Everyone laughed, including Lincoln. Even this boy understood that Lincoln was now being dogged at every stop by swarms of people seeking patronage jobs in the new administration. The character and size of his retinue changed dramatically from city to city. His cars took on office seekers the way his locomotive took on water. At Girard, Ohio, Horace Greeley himself climbed aboard bearing his familiar red-and-blue traveling blanket, and accompanied Lincoln for a short leg of his journey. As testimony to the fast-changing character of the age, at least one of Lincoln's trains reached sixty miles an hour. 

“Lincoln veered east to Albany, where a certain well-respected actor was onstage performing in a play called The Apostate. The actor, John Wilkes Booth, threw himself so energetically into his role that at one point he fell on his character's dagger and carved open a three-inch wound. So well known was Booth as a ‘tragedian’ that the incident made news as far away as Montgomery, Alabama. 

“The entourage reached New York City the next day, Tuesday, February 19. The streets outside the Astor House were unusually quiet because all buses and carriages had been shunted to other streets. Among the many who witnessed Lincoln's arrival was poet Walt Whitman. 

"Presently two or three shabby black barouches’— carriages with large rear wheels, two smaller in front, and two rows of seats facing each other— ‘made their way with some difficulty through the crowd, and drew up at the Astor House entrance,’ Whitman wrote. ‘A tall figure stepp'd out of the center of the barouches, paused leisurely on the sidewalk, look'd up at the dark granite walls and looming architecture of the grand old hotel–then, after a relieving stretch of arms and legs, turn'd round for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance of the vast and silent crowds.’

Lincoln's first inaugural at the United States Capitol, March 4, 1861. The Capitol dome above the rotunda was still under construction.

“Whitman's perch afforded him ‘a capital view of it all and especially of Mr. Lincoln: his looks and gait; his perfect composure and coolness; his unusual and uncouth height; his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat pushed back on his head; dark-brown complexion; seamed and wrinkled yet canny-looking face; black, bushy head of hair; disproportionately long neck; and his hands held behind, as he stood observing the people.’

“As Lincoln made his way toward the hotel, Kate Warne, Pinkerton's chief female detective, also got a first look at the president-elect and registered a different impression. In her report she described him as looking ‘very pale and fatigued.’ That evening, she sent a note to Lincoln aide Norman Judd by way of a hotel messenger, urging him to meet her in her room.

“Judd complied. ‘I followed the servant to one of the upper rooms of the hotel,’ he wrote, ‘where, upon entering, I found a lady seated at a table with some papers before her.’

“He read Pinkerton's letter. Inexplicably, Judd also kept this one to himself, possibly out of the conviction that it was just one more false threat, like so many others Lincoln had received since his election.

“During one of the many receptions arranged for Lincoln in New York, he met P. T. Barnum, the famed showman, who repeatedly invited him to visit his American Museum. Never one to miss a marketing opportunity, Barnum placed an advertisement on the front page of the New York World inviting New Yorkers to come to the museum and use its windows and balconies to observe Lincoln's departure from the city.

“‘Remember, this is the last chance in New York,’ the ad bellowed. ‘Come early and get a good place.’ While there, visitors ‘at no extra charge’ could take in the museum's exhibits, including ‘The Great Lincoln Turkey,’ a forty-pounder allegedly to be presented to Lincoln on Inauguration Day; a giant two-thousand-pound bear named Samson; two ‘living Aztec children’; an albino family from Madagascar; a ‘man monkey’; thirty living ‘monster snakes’; a $150 speckled brook trout; and perhaps that most novel of phenomena, ‘The Living Happy Family.’ Lincoln didn't go, but his wife and sons did, with the exception of Tad, who demurred on grounds that he had no need to see any more bears; there were ‘plenty of bears’ back home. That night Lincoln took in a popular opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, A Masked Ball, by Giuseppe Verdi, set improbably in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, and featuring the assassination of the ‘governor of Boston.’ Lincoln did not stay for the climactic murder.”



Erik Larson


The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War




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