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Ad for the Jones House, 1869

Abraham Lincoln stayed at the Jones House, on Market Square, during his 1861 visit to Harrisburg. The ad above, from 1869, depicts the hotel as it would have appeared during that time.

Abraham Lincoln in Harrisburg, 1861 & 1865

This article by George F. Nagle originally appeared in The Bugle, the newsletter of the Camp Curtin Historical Society, April-June 2002. Substantial portions of it have been published in The Year of Jubilee, by George F. Nagle.

Flags, streamers and banners

“The morning of the 22d was a lively one in the town of Harrisburg, ” reported the Baltimore correspondent for the Charleston Mercury, “The Legislature had adjourned for the day, and from every prominent point was displayed flags, streamers and banners. During the morning, long trains of cars came in from every direction.” Thousands of persons were swarming into the state capital, gathering in boisterous crowds in the streets and gawking at the impressive lines of state militia forming up near the Pennsylvania Railroad Station. Although February 22, 1861 was indeed a patriotic holiday, the anniversary of the birth of George Washington, the nearly palpable air of excitement that hung over the town was not in anticipation of the usual parade of militia, to be followed in every local tavern by patriotic toasts to the union. On this day Harrisburg was to welcome Abraham Lincoln, the new president-elect of the United States, on his way to Washington for his March 4th inauguration.

Lincoln was to arrive in the early afternoon from Philadelphia, where, in the early morning he was given the privilege of raising the American flag over Independence Hall. That had been an impressive event, punctuated by cannon volleys at dawn and the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd that overflowed the revered building to listen to this man tell them that he would do everything in his power to keep the Union together because it embodied the principles of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence. It was a stirring speech that contained the basic philosophy that would sustain Lincoln over the next four years as he fought against secession. It is chiefly remembered, however, for the ominous line “But if this country can not be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

In Harrisburg, Lincoln was to formally address the legislature after delivering a short speech to the assembled crowd at the Jones House, his lodging place for the evening before continuing on to Baltimore on the 23rd. In total, he would deliver five speeches this day, including brief remarks to a whistle stop crowd in Downingtown, and an equally brief speech to supporters and the curious in Lancaster’s Caldwell House, out of respect to the hometown of outgoing president James Buchanan. There were other quick stops at towns along the route from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, with “Old Abe” appearing on the rear platform of his car to wave to the cheering crowds, asking to be excused from another speech. Harrisburg would be the final stop for the day.

Among those traveling with the president-elect were his wife Mary and son Robert, Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, Judge David Davis, secretaries John Nicolay, Ward Hill Lamon and John Hay, Chicago railroad man Norman B. Judd, and Zouave Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth. Awaiting his arrival at the Pennsylvania depot was an impressive display of Pennsylvania’s militia, estimated by reporters at thirty thousand—most likely exaggerated but in any case far outnumbering the civilians present—and at their head, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin.

Pennsylvania train station at Market Street<<< The Pennsylvania Railroad train station as it appeared during Lincoln's visit. Lincoln and his party actually disembarked from the train at Second and Vine streets, and did not reach the station. From an old stereoview. Image courtesy of Robin Lighty.

The much-awaited train finally pulled into Harrisburg at two o’clock, an hour behind schedule. Behind the gaily-decorated locomotive were three cars: one baggage car followed by two passenger cars. Red white and blue bunting hung from the sides of all three cars and from the rear-car’s platform. Each car shone with freshly polished mahogany, still distinguishable beneath the accumulating soot and dust that it gathered along the route. The press and military escorts emerged from the front car while the president-elect, his family and close associates descended from the second car to the waiting carriages. The carriage in which Lincoln rode was a barouche drawn by six white horses. It was preceded in the procession by a troop of cavalry, followed by more carriages, with line after line of militia bringing up the rear. The procession itself was nearly as long as the distance to the final destination, the Jones House on Market Square, but it did not take the direct route down Second Street to the hotel. Instead, as the Mercury reporter wrote, “the man of Pennsylvania’s choice [was] conducted all over town.”

At least five thousand spectators had gathered in front of the Jones House by the time the procession arrived. Governor Curtin joined the president-elect on the hotel balcony and, as reported by The New York Herald, welcomed him with wishes that “amity and good feeling” could be restored throughout the country. “But if reconciliation should fail, [Pennsylvania] would be ready and willing to aid, by men and money, in the maintenance of our glorious constitution.” Lincoln replied with thanks, hoping that “a resort to arms would never become necessary.” However the Harrisburg crowd, unlike those at previous stops along the route from Springfield, was not enthusiastic. “Not one man in a hundred cheered,” noted the Herald. This ominous trend had started in Lancaster and was noted by Lincoln’s secretaries and by Norman Judd, who was largely responsible for the traveling arrangements. The procession then reformed for the short journey to the Capitol, where the legislature had reassembled to welcome the future president.

In the hands of the people

Lincoln sat beside Governor Curtin in the House chamber. After the combined Pennsylvania legislators had settled themselves in, State Senator Robert M. Palmer delivered welcoming remarks on behalf of his chamber, followed by Speaker of the House Elisha W. Davis for the state representatives. Welcoming remarks from both men included pointed references to Pennsylvania’s role in the president-elect’s victory. Palmer had been in the Wigwam the previous year as part of the Simon Cameron delegation. It was the politically savvy and powerful Cameronians who reluctantly delivered their votes to Lincoln, only after Cameron’s chances of winning the nomination were killed off, largely through the efforts of the Curtin-led delegation. He welcomed Lincoln on behalf of “the People of Pennsylvania upon whom rests so large a share of the responsibility of your nomination and election.” Palmer’s animosity would be soothed, as would so many of the Cameronians’, by the political rewards coming from the Lincoln administration in the coming months. Robert M. Palmer would be appointed Minister to Argentina on March 28, but would serve little more than a year before his death in 1862.

Postcard: Lincoln's Speech at HarrisburgLincoln speaking to assembled Pennsylvania officials, from a 1909 postcard. Image courtesy of James E. Schmick. (text of Lincoln's speech)

Elisha W. Davis was more supportive of the president-elect in his welcome, “pledging the devotion of Pennsylvania to the Union.” Reflecting Curtin’s earlier speech, he said that the state stood ready to provide “both men and money to sustain the government, if need be to enforce the laws.” Davis would stand loyally behind his pledge during the war, serving as Lt. Colonel of the 121st Pennsylvania from September 1862 until April 1863.

In his response, Lincoln acknowledged the words of Palmer and Davis by thanking “your great Commonwealth for the overwhelming support it recently gave, not to me personally, but the cause, which I think a just one, in the late election.” Loud applause interrupted the president-elect—the first of nine demonstrations during his speech that the Commonwealth’s lawmakers were in a more supportive mood than its citizens gathered in the streets outside. He then began to tell of his experiences in Philadelphia that morning, telling in vivid detail of the raising of the American flag over Independence Hall, and reflecting on the significance of the whole event:

“They had arranged it so that I was given the honor of raising it to the head of its staff, and when it went up I was pleased that it went to its place by the strength of my own feeble arm. When, according to the arrangement, the cord was pulled and it flaunted gloriously to the wind without accident, in the light glowing sunshine of the morning, I could not help hoping that there was in the entire success of that beautiful ceremony at least something of an omen of what is to come. Nor could I help feeling then, as I often have felt, in the whole of the proceeding I was a very humble instrument. I had not provided the flag, I had not made the arrangements for elevating it to its place, I had applied but a very small portion of my feeble strength in raising it; in the whole transaction I was in the hands of the people who had arranged it, and if I can have the same generous cooperation of the people of the nation, I think the flag of our country may yet be kept flaunting gloriously.”

The New York Herald reported that “loud, enthusiastic and continued cheering” accompanied the last few lines of that portion of Lincoln’s speech. Pennsylvania’s lawmakers recognized that a signal change had taken place in the president-elect’s philosophy. Unlike his speech in Philadelphia, delivered in the cradle of American democracy, and in previous speeches, he did not emphasize the role of the government in preserving the Union, but rather it was “in the hands of the people.” Abraham Lincoln was to be merely an instrument of the will of the people—albeit an instrument dedicated to the preservation of democracy and federal government. This analogy, which constituted about half of the entire speech delivered in Harrisburg, seems to have been developed on the train between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Its importance is underscored by its reappearance a short time later in the concluding paragraphs of Lincoln’s Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4th in Washington. After a discussion of the powers and wisdom retained by the people of this country, the new president again refers to the hands of the people, but this time he is not referring to his supporters:

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."

Full text of Lincoln's Harrisburg speech is here

“Like a thief in the night”

Upon the conclusion of his Harrisburg speech, Lincoln listened attentively as Senator Palmer again took the floor and delivered a lengthy oration about George Washington, after which the president-elect made the journey, with his retinue, back to the Jones House. Officially, Mr. Lincoln received a few guests in his room and retired at eight o’clock, having endured a very long day. That same fatigue forced Mrs. Lincoln to decline to receive guests, to the great disappointment of Harrisburg’s leading ladies. Unofficially, however, great schemes that would greatly affect the future president’s first few months in office, and would color the way the nation viewed their new leader, were underway inside of the hotel.

Outside of the Jones House, and on all of the town’s streets, crowds of citizens and soldiers drank, sang, roamed and fought throughout the night. The office-seekers who thronged the town had quickly filled up all available hotel space, and many visitors, unable to find accommodations, simply roamed the crowded streets until daybreak. The Charleston Mercury reporter wrote, “At almost every step one would stumble over either a drunken or very sick soldier, and on Saturday morning may of them looked like they had been steeped in a whiskey bath.”

Inside of the Jones House, Lincoln was in an urgent private conference that included, among others, Norman Judd, Governor Curtin and Colonel Sumner. The subject was a serious one: rumors that secession sympathizers had planned to either destroy the train on its journey from Harrisburg to Baltimore, or assassinate Lincoln upon his arrival in that city. Fantastic plans of explosives placed beneath railroad tracks, unruly mobs and fanatical assassins filled the room. Lincoln had only learned of the rumors the night before in Philadelphia, when he was introduced to railroad detective Allen Pinkerton in Norman Judd’s room at the Continental Hotel. Pinkerton bore dire warnings and plans to thwart the plots by sending the president-elect on a night train immediately to Washington, bypassing Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Baltimore. Lincoln was skeptical and reiterated his promises to visit Independence Hall and address the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Hours later, after a frustrated Pinkerton had departed, another visitor, Frederick Seward, son of Lincoln’s designated Secretary of State William Seward, arrived and was received in Lincoln’s suite at the Continental. Frederick bore news of the Baltimore plots that confirmed Pinkerton’s stories.

Now Lincoln asked Curtin’s advice: “What would the nation think of its President stealing into the capital like a thief in the night?” Curtin considered the question and replied that it was not for Lincoln to decide. Clearly, the governor had heeded Lincoln’s earlier words about being an instrument of the people. He must be protected, in order to carry out that role. Upon being told that Norman Judd had already made extensive plans to spirit Lincoln away to Washington that very night, the old soldier Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner, veteran of the Black Hawk wars, Mexican Wars, and most recently from Bleeding Kansas, protested vehemently. “It is a damned piece of cowardice. I’ll get a squad of cavalry, sir and cut our way to Washington, sir.” Sumner was dissuaded from his rather more sensational plan, and Judd gave the word to put his own plan into effect.

Samuel Morse Felton, of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, was instructed to provide for the two special trains that would be needed in the plan. Felton was one of the few people who knew of the plots before the president-elect, having been the person who invited the young Allen Pinkerton to make investigations in Baltimore. Men were secretly dispatched to cut telegraph wires from Harrisburg, effectively shutting the town off from the outside world. Carriages to carry Lincoln from the Jones House to the railroad station were arranged with William Calder, who operated stagecoach lines and an extensive livery stable on Market Square. As all of this was being carried out, Lincoln’s secretaries turned away visitors on the excuse that the president-elect was extremely tired from the day’s exertions.

Grave marker for Jacob Cumpton, in Lincoln Cemetery, Penbrook.<<< Grave marker of Jacob Cumpton, in Lincoln Cemetery, Penbrook, Dauphin County. According to Cumpton's obituary, he was the carriage driver that secretly took Lincoln from the Jones House to his rendezvous with a waiting train to Washington.

At about six o’clock, while seated at the dinner table, Lincoln was given a sign that all was in readiness and he excused himself to go to his room. He appeared shortly in a traveling suit, a soft felt hat in his pocket, and a shawl folded over his arm. A carriage was parked at a side door to the hotel, and Ward Hill Lamon entered first, followed by Mr. Lincoln. A hitch in the plan developed when Colonel Sumner went to board the carriage. Norman Judd hurriedly placed his hand on Sumner’s shoulder and the soldier turned to see who wanted to speak with him. At that instant the door shut and the carriage moved off into the night. Sumner was furious at being fooled, and Judd told him “When we get to Washington, Mr. Lincoln shall determine what apology is due you.”

Those loitering around the alley who were sure that they saw Lincoln in the carriage were told that he was going to the Governor’s Residence to rest. By at least one account, a decoy carriage carrying a person dressed like the president-elect was also dispatched in another direction. At the reins of Lincoln’s carriage, according to some local accounts, was a trusted Calder employee, Jacob Cumpton, the only African American in on the plot. Cumpton later said that Lincoln talked briefly with him; still worrying about how he would be perceived by the American people for fleeing in the night.

A single car attached to a locomotive was waiting at a remote grade crossing, and after Lincoln and a heavily armed Ward Hill Lamon were on board, it pulled out, without lights, headed toward Philadelphia where Pinkerton was already waiting, to conduct the future president on the next leg of the journey.

Back at the Jones House, Lincoln’s secretaries were now saying that the president-elect was feeling ill and had gone to bed, and Mrs. Lincoln, complaining of fatigue and inadequate facilities for a proper reception, cancelled all appointments. It took some time for the disappointed crowds to disperse, but gradually the streets quieted and Judd began to relax as it appeared that this part of the plan had worked. Harrisburg would not remain quiet for long, however, as rumors began to circulate that all was not as it seemed. The New York Herald reporter got wind of the plot from a friend of Colonel Sumner. He reported that the colonel, unable to contain his exasperation, had complained that Lincoln had already left the town. The friend told someone else, and soon the secret was out. Not more than five hours after the darkened train carrying Lincoln and his bodyguard pulled away from Harrisburg, the New York Herald reporter was at the Jones House asking dangerous questions. Someone in the official party locked the reporter in a room until 1:30 in the morning, when the flight was publicly admitted. Telegraph communications would not be restored in Harrisburg until six a.m., about the same time that Lincoln was arriving in the nation’s capital.

Fallout from the late-night flight, as it was characterized in the press, was as bad as Lincoln feared it would be. To make matters worse, a story that he had journeyed in disguise, in a “Scotch plaid cap and a very long military cloak,” was picked up by nearly every newspaper. The story was false, fabricated by a copywriter named Joseph Howard, Jr. Howard had submitted the imaginary description of Lincoln’s arrival to the New York Times, who ran it verbatim. The story was embellished by the New York Herald, which added “The ‘Scotch cap’ we dare say, was furnished by Gen. Cameron, from his relics of the Highland clan of his ancestors, and the military cloak was probably furnished by Col. Sumner.”

Was Lincoln's secret flight justified?
Click here for more on that question.

Cannons and bells, thunder and lightning

Events over the next four years would transpire to keep Lincoln from returning to Harrisburg. With his 1863 journey to the battlefield and cemetery at Gettysburg, he would come close, but the schedule did not include time for a stop further north. Earlier that same year, Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton wired a coded message to the president requesting a meeting in Harrisburg. Morton wanted to discuss his fear that pro-southern secret societies were planning something big in his state. Lincoln wired back that he was unable to travel to Harrisburg at that time, and another opportunity was lost.

It was only in April 1865 that Lincoln would again be in Harrisburg, but instead of being greeted by red, white and blue banners, the funeral train of the country’s wartime leader was met by yards of black bombazine. Only days before, on April 15th, the city was set to celebrate General Lee’s surrender with a day of music, parades and speeches. On the 14th, however, the horrible news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Harrisburg, and Mayor A. L. Roumfort closed the taverns and places of amusement, declaring a day of mourning in the city. Not long after, Governor Curtin received news that Lincoln’s funeral train would be stopping in Harrisburg on its way between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Preparations were immediately begun to receive the martyred president with at least as much ceremony as was presented upon his arrival here in 1861.

W. W. Boyer and Peter R. Boyd, city undertakers, were given the honor of constructing a special hearse to convey the president’s coffin from the train station to the capitol, where it would be placed in the chamber of the House of Representatives. A suitable catafalque, formed from yards of black cloth, was constructed over the clerk’s desk and the speaker’s dais, completely hiding those pieces of furniture. Arrangements were made for a band to play a funeral dirge during the procession, the route was laid out, an order of appearance in the procession for the mourners was worked out, and most importantly, plans were made to accommodate the huge crowds that were expected to file through the narrow aisles of the state house chamber to view the coffin.

On April 21, Governor Curtin and his staff met the train at the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line just south of Shrewsbury. Leaving Baltimore at 3 p.m., the train arrived at the state border a few hours later. The Pennsylvania delegation joined Maryland Governor Bradford and his staff in the front car of the train, and it continued on its journey, through Shrewsbury at 6 p.m., stopping in York to allow the ladies of York to lay a wreath of red, white and blue flowers on the coffin. The train left York at 6:50 p.m. and arrived in Harrisburg, amid a driving rain, at 8:30. The train’s arrival at the west end of the Northern Central Railway bridge was heralded by a cannon salute from capital hill. As the train pulled into the station, the heavy rain increased, and lightning and thunder added emphasis to the constantly pealing church bells.

Lincoln funeral train car.The funeral train pulled forward so that the car that carried the coffin was astride Market Street. Members of the Veterans Corps transferred the coffin from the coach to the new Boyer and Boyd hearse, which was harnessed to four white horses. Grooms led the horses in the procession, which wound down Market Street to the square, then north on Second Street to State Street, and finally up State Street to the Capitol. Leading the procession through the violent rainstorm was Harrisburg’s own Colonel Henry McCormick. Following the hearse was a contingent of the city’s ministers, followed by Mayor Roumfort and a delegation of the city’s leading citizens. A band playing a funeral dirge led Governor Curtin and his staff, state government officials, another band and two regiments of Pennsylvania troops and one New York unit. The entire procession was lit by the city’s new chemical streetlights, which gave off a deep orange glow.

At 9:30 p.m. the public began filing into the capitol for a last look at the man who had piloted the country through four years of civil war. For two and a half hours the mourners filed past the coffin, described by the Harrisburg Patriot and Union as “probably the handsomest ever constructed in this country.” Thousands entered the House chamber in two lines that split at the foot of the coffin, filing along either side of the president’s remains. Each line exited through specially rigged doorways through the large windows on opposite sides of the chamber. So many filed through that the undertaker had to re-chalk the visibly discoloring face and dust the body before the chamber could be reopened the next morning.

“Crowds stood uncovered”

The rain continued through the night and into the morning of April 22nd. Thousands more filed past the coffin beginning at 7 a.m. and continuing until 9, when the doors were closed to permit the reassembly of the funeral procession to return the president’s remains to the train. Church bells began tolling and cannons began firing at 8:30, and Harrisburg’s streets along the route were thronged with an estimated forty thousand spectators. The procession was arranged pretty much as it had been for the journey from the train to the capitol. Last in line in each instance were the ordinary citizen mourners, ironically, segregated by race. “Colored citizens on foot” comprising the last, but not least significant, group of mourners.

Again the train stopped with the funeral coach astride Market Street, and again Governor Curtin and his staff took their places in the lead car. Governor Bradford, who had ridden all the way to Harrisburg, returned to Maryland. As the train pulled away from Harrisburg, about 11 a.m., it passed a large national flag that was spread upon an open field outside of the city. The New York Herald reported “crowds stood uncovered on each side of it.”


John F. Coleman. The Disruption of the Pennsylvania Democracy, 1848-1860. 1975.
Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. Twenty Days. 1985
Ernest Morrison. “Final Respects,” Apprise, April 1990.
Carl Sandburg. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. 1954
Richard Sheppard. “Lincoln Vanishes in Harrisburg.” Original publication not known. Clipping file of James E. Schmick.
Nathaniel Wright Stephenson. Lincoln’s Personal Life. Reprint. 1999.

Newspapers and original documents:
Oliver P. Morton to Abraham Lincoln, January 31, 1863. Telegram. Library of Congress, Abraham Lincoln Papers. Transcribed and annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Galesburg, IL.
Charleston Mercury. February 28, 1861.
New York Herald. February 23, 24, 26, 28, 1861; April 22, 23, 1865.

Internet resources and pages:
Accessible Archives.
Pinkerton Resource Page, Chapter Nine.
The Great Civil War Gold Hoax.

The Year of Jubilee

Vol. 1: Men of God and Vol. 2: Men of Muscle

by George F. Nagle

book coverBoth volumes of the Afrolumens book are out of print, but may be found used. You can read the book for free on this site: Year of Jubilee (1863)

cover image




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