Mr. Hay Goes to Washington
In February 1861, 22-year-old John Hay boarded a train in Springfield, Illinois, traveling with his new boss en route to a job in the White House. The journey would take more than a week. Departing from Springfield on February 11th, the train made stops in Indianapolis, New York, Trenton, Philadelphia and Harrisburg for public events and official receptions by the state legislatures of Indiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Far from a routine political junket, this trip was fraught with danger. Threats against Lincoln were a constant thread of public discourse in a nation increasingly polarized between pro- and anti-slavery interests. Though Lincoln paid little heed to these, he was accompanied on this trip by a bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. At Philadelphia, the party was warned of a credible threat to Lincoln’s life at Baltimore, through which the train would have to pass to reach Washington, D.C. With difficulty, Lincoln was persuaded to heed the advice of detective Allan Pinkerton and make the final leg of the trip to Washington secretly by night. The machinations required to make this happen caused much excitement in the presidential party. In the end, however, Lincoln arrived safely in Washington on the morning of February 23, 1861, and the rest of the party followed by scheduled departure later that day. Lincoln was inaugurated a little more than a week later on the steps of the still unfinished Capitol building on March 4, 1861. The precautions were later lampooned in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which also covered Lincoln’s progress to Washington.
Hay apparently wrote only one letter during his journey, to his friend and cousin, Annie E. Johnston, from Harrisburg. The breathless style of this letter is dramatic, capturing some of the intensity of Hay’s experience on the trip. Earlier that month, just prior to leaving Springfield, he had been congratulated on his ascension to the status of Lincoln’s right hand man by a friend and classmate from Brown, Walter Bernard Noyes.
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"There may be trouble in Baltimore. If so, we will not go to Washington, unless in long, narrow, boxes. The telegraph will inform you of the result, long before this letter reaches you.”
from the March 9, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly