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Lincoln's Inauguration Journey – Cleveland to Buffalo February 16, 1861

Nov 29, 2017
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Abraham Lincoln wasn’t feeling well 150 years ago today, on February 16, 1861. He had been traveling on a cold train for five days and attempting to speak to countless thousands of people along the way, without really saying anything important. He found the ordeal exhausting, as he told his private secretary, John Nicolay. His voice was still hoarse and he no doubt simply wanted to get to Washington City. But he still had a long journey ahead.

Lincoln had traveled the previous day from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cleveland, Ohio, at least part of that way in a snowstorm. Before he arrived in Cleveland, he had spoken in Ravenna, Ohio once more not saying much of substance. He did thank the people of Ohio for their strong support of the Union, and told them that it was important to keep the ship afloat. The people of Hudson, Ohio merely got to hear him state flatly that he could not say much, thanks to his extreme hoarseness. The people must have been thrilled to see Lincoln, but disappointed in his lack of a speech.

The Lincoln Inaugural Train left Cleveland that morning 150 years ago today at around 9:00 a.m. for the final stop that day scheduled for the growing industrial city of Buffalo, New York, then the 10th largest city in the United States.

The first stop that day we have a record of was in the town of Painesville, Ohio not far east of Cleveland. He briefly greeted the crowd waiting for him, made polite remarks about the “good-looking” ladies and asked to have music from the assembled music band.

Further along the track, the train stopped in Ashtabula, Ohio, in the far northeastern corner of the state. After the crowd there asked to see Mrs. Lincoln, he replied that he learned long ago that he could not compel her to do what she did not want to do. Mary Todd Lincoln made very few appearances along the entire journey.

At the last stop in Ohio, in the village of Conneaut, someone shouted to Lincoln “Don’t give up the ship!”. Lincoln replied, “with your aid I never will as long as life lasts.”

The train then entered Erie, Pennsylvania, on the shores of Lake Erie. He once more declined to give a speech, but promised he would speak later, in accordance with the Constitution and the manifest interests of the whole country. He urged adherence to the Union.

The most interesting part of the leg of the Inaugural Journey that day was the stop in the town of Westfield, New York where lived a young girl of 11 named Grace Bedell. It was she who wrote Abraham Lincoln a letter in October 1860, suggesting that he grow a beard because his “face was so thin.” Lincoln took her advice and had a full beard during his journey. He asked if she might be present in the crowd, and surely enough, she was. The child was beautiful, with black eyes and hair, being pointed out by the crowd. Lincoln left the train car, walked through the crowd to the girl and gave her several kisses on her cheek. Young Grace blushed, but didn’t run away.

The next stop at Dunkirk, New York was less eventful than the one before. Although a crowd of around 15,000 were waiting to greet Lincoln, he again declined to make a speech. He instead stood with his hand on a flag staff, and asked the crowd to stand by him as long as he stood by it. The crowd roared its approval.

Lincoln’s train finally pulled into Buffalo that afternoon at around 4:00 p.m. According to the New York Times report of the event, at least 75,000 people were awaiting his arrival. An impressive number to be sure, considering that the population of the city that day was slightly over 80,000. It was a crowd about to lose control.

Waiting for Mr. Lincoln when he left the train car was the man who had been the 13th President Of The United States, Millard Fillmore. Fillmore and Lincoln shook hands, then as they began walking away from the train, the crowd surged towards the two men, as if a tsunami itself was about to strike. Policeman and soldiers charged with guarding Mr. Lincoln were quickly “swept away like weeds before an angry current.” Finally, what soldiers remained quickly lowered their weapons so the bayonets were facing the mob. Amazingly, no one was seriously injured. A repeat of this chaos would occur again barely four years later as Buffalo hosted one of Lincoln’s funerals.

(The image included in this post is a print of the crowd waiting for Lincoln that day in Buffalo, courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Lincoln did make some remarks that day in Buffalo, once he had been safely secured from the sea of humanity. At the American Hotel, Lincoln yet again said not much, other than the platitudes he had said already in other cities. He said that he was still absorbing the current events then sweeping across the country and urged the crowd to “maintain their composure,” standing up for their rights and obligations under the U.S. Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln was the “rock star” of his time. Everywhere he went, masses of people tried to catch at least a glimpse of him. The crowds had been dangerous in Columbus, Pittsburgh, and now Buffalo. There was a growing concern for his safety and it was struggle to keep him from being killed by the very people who hoped he could save the country.

As fate would have it, another man who would someday become President Of The United States was in the throngs of people as Lincoln spoke: young Stephen Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd and 24th President.

Lincoln and his family stayed in Buffalo that night and the entire day and night of February 17, 1861 for rest after what had already been a grueling journey. He was scheduled to speak in Albany and New York City, throughout New Jersey, and in Philadelphia. He had many more miles to go before he would at last reach Washington.

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