Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (National Archives)
Lincoln was a no-show in York 160 years ago
Abraham Lincoln won election to the presidency in November 1860 over three competitors despite not being on the ballot in the Deep South. His victory proved controversial almost immediately, sparking outrage in parts of the South where citizens were concerned that the Republican platform meant Federal interference with slavery. That anger carried over to parts of the Upper South, including the eastern part of Maryland. Pro-secession hotheads in Harford County were openly drilling in anticipation of a war.
Samuel Morse Felton, the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad faced a dilemma. Rumors spread that secessionists planned to destroy bridges north of Baltimore, disrupting service from Pennsylvania on the PW&B RR and its rival Northern Central Railway. He hired an old acquaintance, Chicago-based private detective Alan Pinkerton, to investigate. Pinkerton met with Felton in Philadelphia and soon dispatched his agents into Maryland to snoop around about the potential threat to the railroads.
In early 1861, the detectives reported that assassins planned to knife President-elect Lincoln when he changed trains at Calvert Station in Baltimore as he headed across the country for his inauguration. Pinkerton and Felton changed the planned route, which had been announced in the papers the previous week. After Lincoln spoke in Harrisburg on February 22, 1861, and had dinner at the Jones House with Governor Curtin and other officials, he was whisked away secretly to a PRR train awaiting outside of the city limits. That train carried him back to Philadelphia, where he boarded a regularly scheduled southbound PW&B train. He arrived in Baltimore early the next morning.
Meanwhile, on the morning of February 23, Mrs. Lincoln and the entourage boarded the NCR train in Harrisburg that was supposed to carry the presidential party south to Baltimore. Their arrival in York, minus Honest Abe, caused great disappointment despite the fact the county and borough had given most of its votes to the Democrats. Here is how the York Gazette, a partisan Democratic paper, described the incident in its February 26, 1861, edition:
York’s train station at the beginning of the Civil War.
“Bad sell — Old Abe Among the Missing
“It being officially announced and generally understood that Mr. Lincoln, family and suite would pass through York on Saturday morning last, between 10 and 11 o’clock, a large crowd of ‘the faithful’ from the town and adjacent country, augmented by the curious of all parties was attracted to the depot to pay their respects to the office, extending a fitting welcome to the President elect–and to see the sights. Shortly after 10 o’clock the whistle was heard and the train approached. It stops and every eye is directed to the rear car distinguished by a flag as the Presidential car. There was the expectant and vast assemblage. There was one of our excellent bands discoursing the most stirring and thrilling of national airs. There was the best Barouche of the borough for the reception of the distinguished guest and last though not least there was the Corporation Committee composed of the leading Republicans in their best attire and on their best behavior, with extended arms of welcome to the ‘coming man’ and anxious ‘to do him reverence.’ But where was Abraham?
“After the confusion had somewhat subsided a man with whiskers, tall and something resembling the accounts given of Mr. Lincoln as improved by his whiskers, appeared on the platform. — It was soon fixed that he was not the man–‘too good looking.’ He speaks: ‘Gentlemen, I am sorry to announce to you that Mr. Lincoln is not on the train. He was called to Washington last night on important business. He was sorry to disappoint you, but left this morning on the early train.’
“Alas the vanity of earthly hopes. The dream is past–the charm is broken. The crowd is sold, the committee is chagrined and mortified. Abraham is safe, having stealthily passed through the dangers of Baltimore, and is beyond all harm in the arms of General [Winfield] Scott. Bob [Robert Lincoln, the president-elect’s son] appeared at the end of the car as it moved off, but even the good natured countenance of this ‘broth of a boy’ did not serve to assuage the general disappointment, at the absence of the sire.
“The disappointed and dissatisfied crowd headed by the committee (somewhat scattered it is true), and the carriage intended for the President elect, mournfully made their way from the depot. Who will attempt to give the various comments passed upon Mr. Lincoln and his movements.–Let our readers put their imaginations to work. They cannot fail.
“Thus ended the grand demonstration in honor of Mr. Lincoln in York. How true it is that ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley [go oft awry], an’ lea’e us naught but grief and pain, For promised joy.”
Lincoln never would visit York borough while alive. He did pass through York County on November 18 and 19, 1863, as he traveled to and from Gettysburg to deliver the Gettysburg Address but his train went through Hanover Junction, well south of York borough. His funeral train did stop in York on April 21, 1865, on its way to Springfield, Illinois, essentially reversing his planned 1861 route.
To read the story of what transpired to cause Lincoln’s redirection, please pick up a copy of Robert Williams’s and my book on the PW&B RR in the Civil War.