The New York TimesClick on the map to follow Lincoln’s journey.
The presidential party rose at 6:15 a.m. and broke its fast at 7. An eight-carriage motorcade (without motors) took them to the depot of the Little Miami Railroad, where they left Cincinnati on schedule at 9 a.m. The New York Times got a close look as he walked past: “His forehead and face are actually seamed with deep-set furrows and wrinkles, such as no man of his years should have.” The reporter worried that this trip was “wearing the life out of him by inches.”
Or maybe not by inches. Just after they left, a bag was found in Lincoln’s car; when it was opened, a live bomb was discovered, set to go off within 15 minutes. Again, Lincoln kept going, northeast this time, toward the capital of the Buckeye State.
The crowds on the way nearly killed him with kindness. The Times wrote, “At Xenia they were really crazy. They jumped upon the car-roof, climbed in at windows, attempted to force the doors and storm the platform.” Worse, they ate his lunch! A crowd of 5,000 waiting for his arrival saw that “a lunch, varied and extensive in its dainties” had been left on the table in the depot. They devoured it like termites, leaving Lincoln hungry, and then demanded a speech from him.
Columbus was not a large city (18,554), but like so many American capitals, it was a center of state power and culture. An observer wrote, “at an early hour High Street was swarming with excited humanity,” and soon a crowd of 50,000 was packed together “as closely as pickles in a jar.” When the Presidential Special came into view at 2 p.m., it was greeted by “a vigorous huzza.”
Library of CongressReception of President Lincoln in the legislature in Columbus, Ohio
Just as he had done in Indianapolis, Lincoln addressed the representatives of a state, to establish formal relations and to prepare them for the extraordinary demands that the federal government would make of Ohio. The state had 2,339,511 people according to the 1860 census; 313,180 would serve and 35,475 would fall during the war. A few months later, when Lincoln asked for 75,000 men to serve in the army, Ohio volunteered 30,000, more than twice its quota. Columbus became the headquarters of this massive mobilization; Camp Chase, the largest Confederate P.O.W. camp in the North, was built there. Today 2,260 Confederate veterans lie there, in a cemetery maintained by the United States government they were fighting against.
Track Abraham Lincoln’s historic train trip to Washington, D.C.
But unlike his earlier orations, which had been nearly letter-perfect, Lincoln committed a misstep in this speech when he insisted that there was “nothing going wrong,” and that the crisis was overblown. We tend to think of Lincoln as infallible, but he was so buffeted by the throngs and by the winds of history that he was capable of misstatements. Even among his supporters, there was no shortage of critics. Charles Francis Adams wrote that his speeches had “fallen like a wet blanket.” A prominent Republican newspaper in Massachusetts called Lincoln a “simple Susan.” The prominent orator Edward Everett, who would share the stage with Lincoln at Gettysburg, asserted that the “speeches thus far have been of the most ordinary kind, destitute of everything, not merely of felicity and grace, but of common pertinence.” (Then again, how many people today can quote a great line from an Edward Everett speech?)
A reception followed the remarks, and Lincoln-palooza struck again. A reporter commented, “Almost immediately the vast rotunda was crowded with eager, turbulent, pushing, crowding, jostling sovereigns, frantic to touch the hand of the president elect.” His secretary John Nicolay betrayed some of the panic that the presidential party felt when he remembered, “Before anyone was well aware of the occurrence there was a concentric jam of the crowd toward the president-elect which threatened to crush him and those about him. Fortunately Colonel Lamon of his suite, who was a man of extraordinary size and herculean strength, was able to place himself before him and by formidable exertion to hold back the advancing pressure until Mr. Lincoln could be hurried to a more secure place.”
So many Americans who saw Lincoln only once must have remembered him this way – as a man surrounded by maniacal people, shouting themselves hoarse. Presumably, the children who were there could tell their stories well into the 20th century. On that day in Columbus, a teenage schoolboy named Smith Stimmel followed Lincoln everywhere he could, powerfully drawn to him. He wrote one of the best accounts of what it must have been like to be in the crowd as Lincoln passed through:
As the great crowd passed by, every one seemed to feel good-natured and had something amusing to say. Some would wave a hand at him and call out, “How are you, Abe?” and other similar expressions of familiarity; and he would wave his big hand back with a generous smile, indicating that he appreciated the good fellowship manifested toward him. In my mind’s eye I can see his tall form, as he stood on that stairway, with his big bony hands resting upon the marble balustrade.
For Stimmel, lightning struck twice, and amazingly, he was called to service to protect Lincoln during the war. As an Ohio volunteer, he was assigned to guard duty at the White House, and his humble memoir, published in 1928, offers a wealth of personal detail about Lincoln’s clothes (his hat had several dents in it), the way he looked on a horse (“interesting”) and his spontaneity (Lincoln once insisted that a lieutenant follow him to look at a bony cow in Washington, to prove that “the cow is a lop-sided animal” and “one side is higher than the other.”)
Another observer in Columbus was a future president, James A. Garfield. “In some respects I was disappointed in Lincoln,” he wrote, “and found him distressingly homely.” But he admired that “he has the tone and bearing of a fearless, firm man,” and felt that “his visits are having a fine effect upon the country.”
Two notes to end the day.
At 5:43 p.m., Jefferson Davis boarded a train of his own, at Jackson, Miss., heading toward Montgomery, Ala., where he too would be inaugurated as a president. Apparently attempting to imitate Lincoln, he chose an 800-mile route through the South, to see as many people as possible, even though the distance between Jackson and Montgomery was less than half that.
Second, it being the second Wednesday of the month, Feb. 13 was the day that the presidential vote was officially counted in Lincoln’s destination, Washington D.C. There were rumors of a Southern conspiracy to sabotage the vote. When he heard this, the commander of the Army, Winfield Scott, replied, “I have said that any man who attempted to . . . interfere with the lawful count of the electoral vote . . . should be lashed to the muzzle of a 12-pounder and fired out of the window of the Capitol. I would manure the hills of Arlington with the fragments of his body.” A senator from Texas, dismayed by Scott’s riposte, asked if he would dare to arrest a senator for treason. Scott’s answer: “No sire, I would not arrest him. I would blow him to hell!”
No disruption was attempted, and Abraham Lincoln was duly certified the next president of the United States. But before taking the oath of office, he would have to make it to Washington.
Sources: John Hay, private scrapbook, from the collection of Robert and Joan Hoffman; William T. Coggeshall, “The Journeys of Abraham Lincoln”; Victor Searcher, “Lincoln’s Journey to Greatness;” Harold Holzer, “Lincoln, President-Elect;” Michael Burlingame, “Abraham Lincoln: A Life;” John Nicolay (ed. Michael Burlingame), “With Lincoln in the White House;” John Nicolay, “Some Incidents in Lincoln’s Journey from Springfield to Washington;” Henry Villard, “Memoirs of Henry Villard”; Henry Villard, “Lincoln on the Eve of ‘61”; Scott D. Trostel, “The Lincoln Inaugural Train” (forthcoming); Smith Stimmel, “Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln”; “The Ohio Guide”; The Lincoln Log (http://www.thelincolnlog.org).
Ted Widmer is director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume “American Speeches.”