Niagara Gazette

May 26, 2013

GLYNN: Lincoln escapes wild crowd at Buffalo depot

Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Abraham Lincoln was lucky to escape with his life that day when he visited Buffalo.

It is a story that has been generally ignored through the decades until the recently published book “The Hour of Peril,” by Daniel Stashower. It’s a riveting account of the secret plot to murder Lincoln before he was inaugurated. 

The author traces the diligent efforts to protect the president-elect as he traveled from his home in Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., to take the oath of office in February 1861.

Lincoln’s arduous trip — made more difficult by rumors that assassins were on his trail — was in sharp contrast to what Jefferson Davis experienced  enroute to Montgomery, Ala., to be sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America. On his five-day rail trip from Mississippi, Davis made some 20 speeches while Lincoln was more comfortable sitting in his Pullman car until the security force assured him it was safe to venture out to the rear platform of the train.

The New York Herald pointed out the differences in style — not all its readers agreed — between the two chief executives. Davis was a dapper graduate of West Point and a hero of the Mexican-American War. Lincoln was a rail splitter, a distiller of whiskey, a story teller and a joke maker. 

At first, Lincoln must have been thoroughly confused when his special train slipped into the siding at Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station (near the old Memorial Auditorium site). An estimated 10,000 people started pushing toward the train. Fortunately, that mass of humanity undoubtedly wiped out any chance for even a potential assassin to get a clear shot at Lincoln. (Ironically, that chance occurred 40 years later when President McKinley was slain at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo).  

Plans for a red-carpet welcome at trackside were quickly changed when the 1861 delegation headed by former President Millard Fillmore had difficulty even making contact with the most important visitor. 

Herald reporter Henry Villard, who had covered the tumult and shouting on many campaign trails and during massive protests, said it was one of the wildest affairs he had ever witnessed. 

If it  hadn’t been for a small group of men surrounding Lincoln when he stepped down from the train, the day could have turned into disaster. In the story he filed for his newspaper, Villard wrote “The pressure was so great that it is really a wonder that many people were not crushed and trampled to death.”

Viewing the hordes of spectators outside the station seeking to force their way into the receiving area that was filled to capacity, a Lincoln assistant said, “The hub of Barnum’s grizzly bear would have been a tender and fraternal embrace.”

Army Maj. David Hunter, part of the uniformed escort team, was crushed violently against a wall. He spent the remainder of the trip suffering from a dislocated shoulder. Others had broken ribs and some staggered around with blood streaming from facial injuries. “Women fainted and men were crushed under the mass of bodies,” a reporter for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser stated. After people managed to break free from the ugly scene at the station, almost everyone was expressing the same feeling, “Thank God! We’re okay.”

As for Lincoln, he was so thankful that on the following day he went to church twice in downtown Buffalo. That evening he dined with Fillmore at the former president’s home.

According to countless tips from concerned citizens, the plot to kill Lincoln would unravel at the Baltimore train station, just  38 miles from the nation’s capital. The man most responsible for coordinating the delicate task to safely deliver the next U.S. president was Allan Pinkerton, the controversial founder of the legendary detective agency. Some historians and scholars are severely critical of how he handled the involved project, claiming he was prone to exaggerating many situations.

In end, the “Lincoln Special” bypassed Baltimore and the president-elect was actually smuggled to his destination. The news media, among other observers took offense. Some newspapers called him a coward.

Contact reporter Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246.