Samuel Morse Felton: Uncovering the Lincoln Assassination Plot of February, 1861

Did you ever wonder what might have happened if Lincoln never took his first  oath of office as President of the United States, never freed the slaves, never gave the Emancipation Proclamation or the Gettysburg Address?  

"In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine,
is the momentous issue of civil war.  The government will assail you . . . 
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." [1]

"The triumphal progression from Springfield to Washington," where he spoke those words of warning to the South in his first Inaugural Address, "was a travesty --- a fortnight of tense anxiety . . . [with] a nightmarish climax, a sudden midnight trip through Baltimore, which brought him into Washington secretly and ahead of schedule." [2] The success of that secret trip was due in part to Samuel Morse Felton, who was "instrumental in discovering and frustrating the plot to take the life of President-Elect Lincoln on his way to Washington for his inauguration. (See Pinkerton's The Spy of the Rebellion" and "Extract from an Autobiography written by Samuel Morse Felton for his Children in 1866.)"[3] 

At the onset of the Civil War, Lincoln wasn't the only one ready to "preserve, protect and defend [the government]".[1] Felton, who was presding over the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Rail Road, transported the first troops through Maryland and Pennsylvania in 1861. In an interview with Felton, Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler said "I may have to sink or burn your boat," Felton replied, "Do so," and immediately wrote an order authorizing its destruction if necessary. [3] Felton was prepared to do whatever it took to stop the South. 

Prior to Lincoln taking office, Felton was already concerned about secessionist activity in Maryland.  He hired Allen Pinkerton to investigate threats, from "roughs and secessionists," of damage to the railroad.  The investigation turned up more than threats to the rail road.  Pinkerton uncovered information that pointed to a possible assassination attempt on President-Elect Lincoln's life.  Felton authorized Pinkerton to continue working as his investigator, but instructed him to turn all his time and energies to uncovering the plan of the assassination plot [4] 

With the assistance of female detective (one of a kind in that day) [5], Kate Warne, who posed as a flirtatious southern belle to infiltrate secessionist social circles, the details of the plot were uncovered.  Assassins planned to intercept and murder Lincoln at his Baltimore transfer stop on the last leg of his trip from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Washington.  At the transfer stop, Lincoln had to disembark, walk a narrow alley, board a carriage and travel about a mile to another train.  The plan was to stage a fight in the alley with the intent of distracting the attention of officers guarding Lincoln.  While unprotected, the assassins would surround and kill Lincoln.

Lincoln was advised of the plan.  Early in the evening of February 21, 1861, after making his scheduled appearances in Harrisburg, Lincoln changed into traveling clothes, a soft felt cap, and with a shawl upon one arm, took on the disguise of Kate Warne's invalid brother. Pinkerton disrupted telegraph service to prevent Lincoln's schedule change from leaking out, while Lincoln, accompanied by Pinkerton, Warne and   went by special Pennsylvania train to Philadelphia.  In the late night hours of February 22nd, he traveled by special train of the rail road managed by Felton, the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore , and, at 3:30 a.m., on the morning of February 23, 1861, the sleeping car, containing the disguied Lincoln, was shifted to another train which successfully arrived in Washington at 6 a.m. [2].

Although John Wilkes Booth was successful in assassinating Lincoln four years later, on April 14, 1865, in the years between the thwarted plot and Lincoln's death, Lincoln made, what history has shown to be, some of the finest contributions to our country and society to date.  Three days after Lincoln's death, the City of Philadelphia recognized Samuel Morse Felton for his contribution to the Union cause and his role in preventing the first attempt to assassinate Lincoln.  The Preamble and Resolution recognizing Felton, now part of the Smithsonian Archives, is printed below.



Philadelphia, No. 308 Walnut Street
April 17, 1865

At a meeting of Citizens of Philadelphia and its vicinity, held on the 
17th day of April, 1865, Mr. John Welsh was called to the Chair and 
Thomas Kimber, Jr., appointed Secretary.  The following Preamble 
and Resolutions were in motion unanimously adopted, and 
ordered to be publishe in the Journals of the city.

Whereas, It is now publicly announced that Mr. Samuel M. Felton, --- 
who, for many years has so ably presided over the Philadelphia, 
Wilmington & Baltimore Rail Road Company, and who, during the long 
and painful ordeal of our Civil strife, has, in that capacity, so eminently 
and faithfully discharged every duty to his Country and to this community, 
as well as to the special interests in his care, --- has recently been obliged 
to retire from that important position, and to withdraw from all public duties: 

And Whereas, It is well understood that rapidly failing health, 
the result of too great a pressure of anxiety and care imposed upon him 
during the late public emergency, is the cause of his retirement; 
          and it is not deemed fitting that so prominent and useful a citizen should, 
under such circumstances, pass unnoticed and unhonored into
the shades of private life: 

And Whereas, It is a matter of official record, authenticated
beyond a question, and attested by many, now participating in 
these preceedings, that to Mr. Felton, more than to any other man, 
is due the credit of successfully opening the Annapolis Route to Washington
in April, 1861; a measure which contributed so essentially to the 
preservation of our National Capitol, after the destruction of the 
southern portion of his Road by the Baltimore Secessionists:

And Whereas, It was, as we have the strongest reason to believe, 
         mainly owing to the vigilence, energy and skill of Mr. Felton
that the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, on his way to 
the National Capitol, in February, 1861, was discovered and frustrated: --- 
a crime, the blackest in our annals, which has at length been 
unhappily consummated, and has filled the land with mourning: ---

And Whereas, --- We cherish in grateful remembrance 
the unswerving fidelity and untiring and watchful zeal, with which, 
not only in these important instances, but through all the earlier stages 
of the present great Rebellion, Mr. Felton guarded the honor and 
interests of his Country, holding all other interests subservient to these; 
as was shown in his memorable and courageous response 
to those deluded men, who threatened the utter destruction 
of the property in his charge, if he continued to transport the
National troops --- and which we wish were here to record: ---

"The time has come" said he, on the 17th of April, 1861, 
"when there must be only two classes recognized in this country,
Union Men and Disunion men.  For myself, I do not hesitate 
to decide upon my duty in this trying hour; it is to stand by the Government 
and abide by the consequences.  I shall therefore endeavor to do, 
to the best of my ability, what is required of me.  If our Road is disabled, 
the responsibility must rest upon the wicked persons, who do the the deed, 
and a terrible retribution certainly will await them."

And Whereas --- while thus devoting his utmost energies 
to the service of his Country, it is well known that Mr. Felton 
determined at the outset of this was neither to accept for himself 
nor to ask for a friend, a Government contract or office, 
or any pecuniary advantage, in order that he might more disinterestedly 
discharge his public duties; to which the resolution he has faithfully adhered 
throughout the whole term of his office.

It is therefore Resolved, That the Citizens of Philadelphia have heard 
that Mr. Samuel M. Felton has been obliged to relinquish the 
important position he has so long held with honor before our Country, 
and in this community and they earnestly trust, that, under the blessing 
of Providence, his health may be restored by the opportunity of rest and relaxation, 
now afforded him, from his arduous duties.

Resolved, That in commemmoration of these eminent public services 
         and virtues, a Committee of gentlemen be appointed, including the officers 
of this meeting, to prepare and present to Mr. Felton a suitable service 
of silver plate as a testimonial of our admiration and regard.

Resolved, That a Record of the proceedings of this meeting, 
and the accomplanying Resolutions, be appropriately engrossed on parchment,
signed by its officers and the above mentioned Committee, and also 
presented to Mr. Felton on its behalf.

On motion, Edward W. Clark, Esq., was appointed Treasurer of the fund 
proposed to be raised for the purpose above mentioned.

The Chairman having announced the following Committee, on motion 
the meeting adjourned. [6]


from the Archives of the Smithsonian Institute
  
I am priviledged to say that I'm related to Samuel Morse Felton.  Yet, with any right or priviledge comes a responsibiltiy.  So, "I shall therefore endeavor to do, to the best of my ability, what is required of me"[5] and honor the legacy of Samuel Morse Felton, and that of other Feltons before me, through my words and deeds, that hopefully, when history tells my story, it will be a good one. 


Mary Kay Felton, Editor




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1. Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861.
2. Lincoln and the Baltimore Plot, 1861, Norma Barrett  Cuthbert, 1949 Huntington Library Publication, Sand Marino, California
3. A Genealogical History of the Felton Family , William Reid Felton, 1935, The Tuttle Company, rutland, Vermont.
4. Blood on the Moon, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,  Edward Steers, 2005.
5. Kate Warne, Wikipedia.
6. Philadelphia Preambe and Resolution, 1865, Smithsonian Institute Archives.