One of Joe Biden’s endearing traits is his love of trains. His regular use of rail travel to shuttle back and forth between Wilmington, Dela., and Washington, D.C., earned him the moniker “Amtrak Joe.” But as a direct result of the failed insurrection at the Capitol, Biden had to abandon the planned final train trip from Wilmington to Washington he was going to make this week before being sworn in as president.
This 90-minute nostalgic journey is only one casualty of ramped-up security. Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris are going to experience an unusually nervous inauguration. The Pentagon has authorized nearly 21,000 National Guard troops to patrol the nation’s capital. Given the participation of former and current soldiers in last week’s botched putsch, the Pentagon admits it is being extra careful about the loyalty of the troops and using the FBI to screen out extremists. According to the AP, the military is worried about any “potential insider threats.”
It would be a mistake to say that the United States is on the verge of a new Civil War. The actual Civil War built on long-standing political battles over slavery that had even before 1861 produced far greater killing than anything America has witnessed in the Trump era. That conflict also rested on clear regional identities and the fact that many soldiers in the South proved to have a greater loyalty to their state governments than to the union. So far, the potential insurrectionists in the military seem far fewer in number and geographically dispersed.
Still, there are some striking parallels between the inauguration of 1861 and that of 2021. On February 11, 1861, the recently elected Abraham Lincoln started a 13-day train trip from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C. Even before the trip, Lincoln’s advisers were gripped with worries about his safety. The president-elect had been inundated with threats from white Southerners who believed he would end slavery.
Lincoln was torn between two competing imperatives. He naturally had a desire to protect his life. But he also wanted to assure the nation that he was securely in command and that a peaceful transition of power was underway. As historian Daniel Stashower noted in his deft and well-grounded 2013 narrative history The Hour of Peril, Lincoln was “determined to make a public display of openness and goodwill in the days leading up to his inaugural.” At times, Lincoln was inclined to dismiss talk of assassination. “All imagination,” Lincoln said. “What does anyone want to harm me for?”
But Lincoln’s own voluminous correspondence was filled with letters either threatening his life—“Beware the Ides of March. The Suthron [sic] people will not Stand your administration,” read one—or warning that the writer had heard of impending plots. As Lincoln’s aide John Nicolay would recall, “His mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, and warnings of all sorts came to him from zealous or nervous friends.” An especially compelling letter came from David Hunter, a major stationed in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., who passed along reports that “a number of young men in Virginia had bound themselves, by oaths most solemn, to cause your assassination, should you be elected.” Lincoln regarded Hunter’s alarm as merited and brought the major into his security detail.
As Lincoln’s train traveled from Springfield toward Washington, rumors continued to circulate of impending violence, including of an unattended carpetbag that according to one contemporary report contained a bomb “so arranged that within fifteen minutes it would have exploded, with a force sufficient to have demolished the car and destroyed the lives of all the persons in it.”
Historians still debate whether these threats were in fact real or merely lurid tall tales born of a tense historical moment. Whatever the truth might be, these stories undeniably influenced Lincoln and his advisers. They were especially worried about Baltimore, the last stop on the journey and the only one south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Allan Pinkerton, founder of the notorious detective agency, who had been enlisted in the president-elect’s security team, provided evidence of a plot to kill Lincoln in a surprise attack in Baltimore. As Stashower admits, “There is no denying that at least some of Pinkerton’s evidence was pure hearsay. Much of it was obtained in saloons and brothels, under circumstances where the telling of falsehoods is not unknown. But Pinkerton’s detractors tend to overlook the fact that his conclusions were confirmed and amplified by Lincoln’s most trusted advisors.”
Stashower could add that the reality of the plot gains credence when we consider the fact that Lincoln’s opponents were on the verge of waging a bloody civil war and eventually did carry out a successful assassination. These were not people averse to violence.
Rather than enter Baltimore for a daytime stop as planned, Lincoln was spirited away to Philadelphia and put in an anonymous passenger train that went through Baltimore at night. Traveling incognito under cover of darkness, the president-to-be snuck into Washington.
The city he entered was heavily militarized. As Stashower details, “Sharpshooters crouched on the rooftops along Pennsylvania Avenue and in the windows of the Capitol.” One Washington resident complained, “Nothing could have been more ill-advised or more ostentatious. I never expected to experience such a sense of mortification and shame in my own country as I felt today, in entering the Capitol through hedges of Marines armed to the teeth.”
Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the United States, refused to be cowed by such complaints. He saw the military presence as a necessity. He said, “If any of the Maryland or Virginia gentlemen who have become so threatening and troublesome show their heads or even venture to raise a finger, I shall blow them to hell.”
In his inaugural address, Lincoln took a magnanimous but firm line. He offered friendship to the Southern states if they remained in the union, but warned against the consequences of a different course of action.
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war,” Lincoln said. “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.”
The insurrection Biden is facing is far less serious in scale and very unlikely to lead to civil war. But it could easily produce years of festering low-level political violence. Like Lincoln, Biden’s task will be to balance the competing demands of being magnanimous to his opponents with the overriding need to preserve, protect, and defend the government.