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Intelligence Throughout History: Abraham Lincoln and Intelligence

Every year when Presidents’ Day rolls around, we take time to think about one great man who changed the path of our nation: Abraham Lincoln. As a wartime president whose term in office almost exactly corresponded with the duration of the Civil War, Lincoln necessarily received a great deal of intelligence reporting and became by default a manager and occasionally a practitioner of intelligence in its many contemporary forms, like espionage, analysis, cryptology, and counter-espionage. He even authorized covert actions, with one of the first aimed at securing the loyalties of the "Border State" of Kentucky. Indeed, Lincoln was the subject of an intelligence operation even before he took the oath of office in 1861.


Plots to Assassinate the President

On February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln said his farewell to the people of his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and boarded a train that would take him to Washington for his inauguration on March 4. As he started out, rumors of assassination plots circulated in several cities along the planned route. In Washington, stories spread that assassins would strike down Lincoln before or during his inauguration.

The South Carolina legislature had responded to Lincoln's election by unanimously voting to secede from the Union, leading the march of Southern states toward secession.

Rumors of plots swirled around the city. Secessionist congressmen were said to be planning to kidnap lame-duck President James Buchanan so that Vice President (and future Confederate general) John C. Breckinridge, who had run against Lincoln as a pro-slavery candidate, could seize power.

"Minutemen" from Virginia and Maryland were reportedly ready to invade the city.

Luckily, Lincoln had many loyal citizens looking out for him, including U.S. Army Col. Charles Pomeroy Stone and detective Allan Pinkerton. Both men used intelligence sources and methods to thwart plots to assassinate the president.


Purging Traitors from the Armed Forces

Stone eliminated the threats against Lincoln by weeding out secessionists from the ranks of the armed forces. Like many other Army officers of the time, Stone had to grope for military intelligence, using whatever resources he managed to find. There was no formal military intelligence organization, and counterintelligence was an unknown art. Stone realized that he needed help from civilians with special skills: detectives.

The U.S. government, lacking any federal investigative agency, often used private detectives to track down counterfeiters and mail thieves. Suspecting that certain groups harbored secessionists, Stone planted a detective in the ranks and told him to keep the group’s leader under surveillance.

Sure enough, Stone's detective uncovered many different plots to take over Washington. Through the detective's undercover work, Stone was able to learn enough to force the disbanding of these secessionist groups.


Pinkerton Gathers Intelligence

Pinkerton came into play when threats against Lincoln moved to his mode of transportation: the railroad. Samuel Morse Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, hired Pinkerton after hearing reports that rabid secessionists in Baltimore were planning to cut Baltimore off from Washington by burning bridges and sinking the Susquehanna River train ferry.

Pinkerton went to Baltimore with five operatives, including a trusted assistant, Kate Warne, described by Pinkerton as America's first woman detective. Pinkerton set up an office and posed as a stockbroker named John H. Hutchinson.

While investigating the sabotage rumors, Pinkerton heard of a plot to kill Lincoln in Baltimore when his train arrived from Harrisburg on February 23. Lincoln was to be taken by carriage to a private home for lunch and then returned to the train. While secessionists whipped up a riot, a barber who called himself Captain Ferrandini would kill Lincoln, vanish into the mob, and slip away to the South. Baltimore police would have only a small force at the scene, under orders from the mayor and chief of police, both Southern sympathizers.


Fooling the Secessionists

Pinkerton hoped to foil the plot by getting Lincoln to change his schedule. On February 21, he met with Lincoln in a Chicago hotel room. Lincoln said he could not believe there was a conspiracy to kill him.

Hours later, Frederick Seward, son of Senator William Henry Seward, arrived at Lincoln's room and warned him of the plot, which had been discovered independently by detectives working for Colonel Stone and General Scott. They had sent young Seward to Lincoln, who now was convinced.

Pinkerton and his associates were able to come up with a plan to get Lincoln safely to and from the inauguration which involved shifting the cars with the president on board to another train.


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Posted: Feb 17, 2011 10:36 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:51 PM