Presidential Brass Knuckles: Lincoln Sneaks into Washington

The fact that the Ford’s Theatre Museum has several weapons on display should not be surprising. After all, it’s a site where a presidential assassination took place. What is perhaps surprising is that some of the weapons aren’t associated with the “main event” for which Ford’s Theatre is famous: John Wilkes Booth’s successful plot against President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

As you enter the Museum, you see a set of brass knuckles, a knife and a pair of artillery goggles from four years before the assassination, when Lincoln first faced a threat to his life as he journeyed to Washington to take the office of President.

Lincoln's brass knuckles photographed by Carol M. Highsmith.

Anyone who has been near the capital city during a presidential inauguration knows what a big deal that event can be. Festivities go on for days, and the president-elect arrives in the city to great fanfare. In February 1861, however, it was exactly the opposite.

Today, the Museum’s entrance gives you a taste of the tension surrounding President-Elect Lincoln’s February 23 arrival in Washington after a rail journey from his home in Springfield, Ill. The sounds of a moving train and a whistle greet you as you go down the stairs. You can peek through the window of a mock train depot to see a tall mannequin wearing a blue cloak—with a high collar, all the better to be inconspicuous—and beret. A nearby artifact case shows brass knuckles, a knife and artillery goggles—items carried by Lincoln’s personal guard, Ward Hill Lamon, to protect him from harm.

As a precaution, Lincoln’s train journey did not follow the most direct route from Springfield to Washington. As Dr. Kenneth Winkle describes in his recent book Lincoln’s Citadel, the new president’s advisors warned against entering any southern state along the way. So instead, Lincoln toured northern cities. But he could not completely avoid entering the South because of the location of the capital city.

Given how Americans revere Lincoln today, it’s hard to imagine what a polarizing figure he was when he journeyed to Washington in 1861. By that time, seven states had voted to leave the United States rather than accept him as president, fearing that his presidency would doom the basis of their economic system: slavery.

Today, many of us think of Maryland and the District of Columbia as part of the Mid-Atlantic rather than the South, but in 1861 both were in solidly southern territory. Maryland was a slave state, and although Congress had abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia in 1850, slavery remained legal here, too.

The New York Public Library. "Contrabands Entering A Camp Within The Union Lines." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-ee37-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Secessionist sentiment ran high in Maryland in 1861, and threats against the President-Elect abounded. One of these entered history as the “Baltimore Plot.” At that time, the two train lines in Baltimore did not connect. In order to travel from Philadelphia to Washington, as Lincoln did, one needed to disembark at one station and travel several city blocks on foot or by carriage to reach the other station. Vague but credible intelligence convinced the men in charge of Lincoln’s security that those blocks presented a mortal danger. To avoid this, they planned for Lincoln to sneak into Baltimore unannounced in the middle of the night and make the journey between the stations in secret.

Lincoln boarded a train in Harrisburg, Pa., at 11 p.m. on February 22. To prevent word of his departure reaching Baltimore before Lincoln himself, his security detail even cut the telegraph wires. The trick worked. Lincoln pulled into Baltimore and made the perilous 45-minute journey between stations in the middle of the night without a hitch. Baltimore’s citizens did not know of his arrival until he was gone.

Baltimore was not the only city that posed a danger to Lincoln —the capital city also presented a problem. As Winkle explains in detail, Washington was a southern town where opposition to Lincoln ran strong. Thus, Lincoln would also have to arrive in Washington unannounced.

Lincoln circa 1860. Photo courtesy Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.

Not everyone agreed with this security-conscious decision. Some thought it cowardly. In the Ford’s Theatre Museum today, you see political cartoons lampooning Lincoln. And Lincoln himself understood the sentiment. In raised letters on the wall behind the disguised Lincoln figure is a quote from Lincoln, “What would the nation think of its President stealing into its capital like a thief in the night?”

This Ford’s Theatre Museum section provides a fitting bookend to Lincoln’s time in Washington. As the display demonstrates, Lincoln entered a strained and divided Washington City under the shadow of potential assassination and looming war. When his body departed along a reverse train route to Springfield four years later, the Civil War was in its final throes and an assassination conspiracy had sadly succeeded.

David McKenzie is Digital Projects Manager at Ford’s Theatre. He is also a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo.