Saturday, July 4, 2015

Assassination Attempt on Lincoln - August 1864

  There was no Secret Service when Lincoln was elected in 1860. Ironically he signed the bill creating the Secret Service on April 14, 1865, the day he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. There had been earlier threats against Lincoln however. In February 1861 Detective Allen Pinkerton uncovered a plot against Lincoln in Baltimore. Lincoln was traveling from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration in February 1861. The Constitution at that time designated March 4, as the inauguration date. The date was changed to January 20th by the Twentieth Amendment ratified in January 1933. Franklin Roosevelt would be the first president inaugurated in January on his second inauguration.

  Lincoln's friend, and self appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon advised him to arrive there late at night in order to confuse any potential assassins. When Lincoln arrived in Washington he wore a soft felt hat instead of his stovepipe and walked hunched over wearing an overcoat over his shoulders for disguise. The press criticized him about his secret arrival and a myth arose that he had dressed as a woman to avoid detection. Lincoln was embarrassed by the episode and from that point on he was nonchalant about his safety. He became fatalistic, believing that if anyone wanted to hurt him there was nothing that could be done to prevent it. Occasionally the army or the Washington police department was utilized to protect him but he was not always protected.

  Before air conditioning Washington D.C. was a pretty miserable place to live during the summer. I was there in July 2003 and it was very hot. Presidents and government officials would find somewhere outside of Washington to stay during the summer. Andrew Jackson lived at a a place called the Rip Raps in Hampton Roads Virginia. Abraham Lincoln would stay at the Soldiers Home in the suburbs of Washington. While here he usually had security provided by the army but because of the lonely location it was feared that Confederate cavalry would swoop in and kidnap him. Sometimes Lincoln would mount his horse and commute back and forth to the White House without a guard. Or he would sneak out for a moonlight ride on his own. The following is from the website Today I Found Out.
The Soldiers Home

1864 Assassination Attempt

It was during a lonely ride back to the Soldiers’ Home one night in August when an attempt was made on the President’s life. Riding slowly on the road that led to the entrance to the grounds, a rifle shot from approximately fifty yards away startled his horse; Old Abe, the horse, took off at what the President called “break-neck speed [which] unceremoniously separated me from my eight-dollar plug hat, with which I parted company without any assent, express or implied.”

When he arrived at the Soldiers’ Home at about 11 o’clock that evening, he met Private John W. Nichols, whom he knew. Nichols noticed that the President was “bareheaded” and riding briskly. When he asked, the President mentioned the rifle shot and that the quick jump of his startled horse “jerked his hat off.”

Later, Nichols and another soldier went searching and found the hat with a bullet hole in it. Nichols presented the hat to Lincoln who was dismissive of the danger. When his friend Ward Hill Lamon (to whom he told the story as a humorous, Ichabod Crane-type tale) expressed concern, Lincoln remained convinced that it was just an accident:

Now, in the face of this testimony in favor of your theory of danger to me, personally, I can’t bring myself to believe that any one has shot or will deliberately shoot at me with the purpose of killing me; although I must acknowledge that I heard this fellow’s bullet whistle at an uncomfortably short distance from these headquarters of mine. I have about concluded that the shot was the result of accident. It may be that some one on his return from a day’s hunt, regardless of the course of his discharge, fired off his gun as a precautionary measure of safety to his family after reaching his house.

In the end, Lincoln wanted the entire matter hushed up. He instructed Private Nichols that the event should be “kept quiet,” and told Lamon:

The whole thing seems farcical. No good can result at this time from giving it publicity. It does seem to me that I am in more danger from the augmentation of an imaginary peril than from a judicious silence, be the danger ever so great.


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