Buffalo to Albany, Feb. 18, 1861
Their day of rest over, Lincoln and his party rose early, boarding a train for Albany at 5:48 a.m. The early hour was intended to avoid the scenes of misrule that their arrival had witnessed. Greater security was in place, too – the day before, crews had inspected all 298 miles of the track ahead of them. A lithograph of Lincoln covered the train’s kerosene headlight, blazing light forward in the pre-dawn darkness.
But the best laid plans, as they say – and some chaos crept into the journey. At Rochester, a large crowd waited in the wrong place to see Lincoln; after Buffalo, it was decided to move his speaking place from a downtown hotel to the back of his train, but many who had not read the newspaper didn’t know about the new location.
The next town was Clyde, along the Erie Canal. Fascinatingly, the New York Times reported that a local photographer stood on a woodpile and took pictures of Lincoln on the rear end of the car – photographs that have never been seen since then. Perhaps someday they will surface?
Ten thousand people came out in Syracuse. A boy who threw a snowball at Lincoln was arrested, as was “a cross eyed rag picker… for squinting at the president.” In Utica, Mary Todd Lincoln decided to upgrade her husband’s appearance, and asked their African-American manservant, William Johnson, to do something about it. The result was a new broadcloth overcoat. The media reported that Lincoln’s appearance improved by 50 percent. At Schenectady, a welcome turned into an artillery assault as a cannon intended to salute the presidential party instead burst open a door of the first coach and shattered windows.
But for the most part, New York had received Lincoln with open arms. Even when Lincoln could not stop, the people came out to honor him at the train depot. The papers reported that, “in the grey twilight of the early day crowds of country people had gathered at every little station along the first part of the route, and there, bidding a cordial God-speed to the rapidly flying train.” At some places the train achieved 60 miles an hour, an almost incomprehensible speed. From distant houses along the route, people waved handkerchiefs and hoisted American flags as it hurried past. John Hay wrote about it evocatively:
The vital history of that day’s ride is to be written in three words: “Crowds, cannons and cheers.” Such crowds – surging through long arches, cursing the military and blessing Old Abe, swinging hats, banners, handerkchiefs, and every possible variety of festival bunting, and standing with open mouths as the train, relentlessly punctual moved away. The history of one is the history of all; depots in waves, as if the multitudinous seas had been let loose, and its billows transformed into patriots, clinging along roofs and balconies and pillars, fringing long embankments, swarming upon adjacent trains of motionless cars, shouting, bellowing, shrieking, howling, all were boisterous; all bubbling with patriotism. The enthusiasm for the president was spontaneous and universal; and when we reached Albany, everybody present congratulated himself that he had been a witness of one of the memorable of triumphal processions which this or any other country has witnessed.
The Special pulled into Albany at 2:20 p.m. In 1754 a Plan of Union had been devised here that matured into the Union of 1776. But democracy’s imperfections are all too often on view in the capital of the Empire State, and that day was no exception. As at Buffalo, a tremendous crowd surged forward as the Special came into view. A battle ensued between the police and the mob. Henry Villard wrote, “all was confusion, hurry, disorder, mud, riot and discomfort.” John Wilkes Booth was said to be in the crowd – he was appearing in “The Apostate,” and that night he accidentally fell on his dagger onstage, giving himself a three-inch gash.
Wisely, Lincoln stayed put until military reinforcements arrived. Then, at the state capitol, another series of frustrations began, as he encountered the not-very-distinguished leadership of New York. Outside the capitol a banner welcomed Lincoln to Albany with the words, “No Compromise,” given the long history of backroom deals in the capital. It is not known whether it was tongue in cheek. Both the governor, Edwin D. Morgan, and the Legislature had planned receptions for him, and there was bad blood between the two branches. Apparently, Morgan wanted Lincoln to himself so he could find out if war was coming, and direct his cousin, a broker, whether to hold or dump their Missouri bonds. Lincoln then spoke to the Legislature, asking for their support in the struggle to come. New York would be generous: out of a population of 3.8 million, 448,850 men served and 46,534 died.
In the evening, Lincoln and his party navigated the warring receptions as best they could, and finally went to their hotel, worn out after having been “leveed and receptioned by remorseless ladies and gentlemen.” According to Villard, they were too angry to sleep. He wrote, “the whole reception has been a sort of failure – a miserable botch.”
But for all the press that Lincoln was getting, especially as he drew closer to New York City, the newspapers ran parallel columns to cover the other events of Feb. 18. For on that day, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated, and delivered a message that warned how “millions would suffer” if anyone sought to deter the Confederacy, and rather confusingly cited the great language of human rights within the Declaration of Independence as a justification for launching a new government, based on slavery. The Charleston Mercury crowed, “The United States of America are dissolved forever! ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well!” But what a sad rogue he was.”
In Albany, Lincoln carried his draft of an answer, and prepared to descend upon New York.
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); John Fagant,”Abraham Lincoln in Western New York”; The Lincoln Log;mrlincolnandnewyork.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.”