Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The road to glory traveled by Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration took him in and out of Pennsylvania three times: first to Pittsburgh, then through Erie County along the southern shore of the lake, to Philadelphia, and finally through Harrisburg where he spoke to the state legislature. Throughout the trip he was well received by great crowds who thronged to the train depots and, although his official receptions were bipartisan, the newspaper coverage strictly followed party lines. Typical of this was Lincoln’s treatment in Erie County.

During the autumn, Erie countians had overwhelmingly voted Republican. Abraham Lincoln was elected by a more than two-to-one ratio over all the other parties and candidates combined. But it was the newly formed Republican party, more than the man himself, who was elected in November 1860. Nationally, Lincoln was regarded as a compromise candidate who claimed he was opposed to the spread of slavery but who would not interfere with it where already established; what he sought most was a unified nation. He opposed three other candidates, two of whom were Democrats, splitting their party vote by region.

Between his nomination and the election, the candidate had not repealed his platform, allowing other party members to reiterate his views in their own districts. Once elected he continued to remain silent, believing it was best to wait until taking office to announce official policies.

The president-elect was not widely known and needed to be seen and heard by his countrymen in order to rally their support for the coming days. For that purpose he planned this leisurely tour from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. The trek began Monday, February 11, 1861, and for nearly two weeks criss-crossed six states, exposing Lincoln to great danger from the elements; from zealous, sometimes unruly crowds; and from fanatics who already had promised him harm.

At all stops, whether in state houses before august official bodies or at depots where he did not leave the train’s rear platform, he began each speech by announcing he was not at all ready to discuss the issues of the day. Even so, he made certain revelations, such as in Pittsburgh were he remarked, “There is no crisis but an artificial one.” He repeated this sentiment in Cleveland, and in Harrisburg was called upon to defend his statements. They were “rather carefully worded … I leave them precisely as they stand,” he laconically said.

At the informal stops he seemed relaxed, and he appar­ently enjoyed the interactions with the enthusiastic audiences. Frequently, after he had been introduced, he would present his diminutive wife, adding, “And that’s the long and the short of it!” The crowds found their new leader warm and unaffected; he spoke easily with wit and humor. His humble begin­nings and lack of formal education mirrored the many who turned out to see him. They regarded his visit to their small communities as exciting, even momentous, and their favorable reception of him was reported by the press.

Of the country’s 3,242 newspapers being published at the time, at least eighty percent were politically inclined. They represented the greatest means of mass communication in 1861 and had tremendously influenced the public. The Republican press generally was support­ive of Lincoln’s tour, although some of the reporters from the eastern metropolitan newspa­pers were more critical of his remarks, as well as his mannerisms, dress and earthy humor.

In the communities along the lake in Erie County, four newspapers, all weeklies, were being published. They were the Girard Union, and in Erie, the Dispatch, the Observer and the Gazette, the most influential. The Observer was Democratic and the others were staunchly Republican. It was their custom to publicly quote and debate each other.

Prior to the inaugural trip, a former railroad official, William S. Wood, took the route and made all the arrangements with the ten different railroad companies involved in this extraordinary tour. He established connec­tions and dispatched a sched­ule to the newspapers along the way, urging them to publish it so that the residents would be able to greet the president-elect.

The Gazette published the schedule on Thursday, Febru­ary 14, stating that Lincoln, riding the Presidential Special, was due to pass through Erie County two days later and would remain at the Erie depot long enough for the curious to “take a look at him.” Wood’s schedule also noted that Lincoln would be riding two different lines through the forty-six miles of the lakeshore route. From Cleveland to the City of Erie he would ride the Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula Railroad and at Erie he would change engines and travel the Erie and Buffalo line. During most of the previous decade in Erie there had been a vicious railroad “gauge war” with tracks ripped up and relaid repeatedly. Now, in the event of new trouble at an awkward moment, substitute engines stood fired and stationed every few miles from Erie to the New York state line. They would not be needed, however.

William S. Wood’s notice further explained that, to maintain strict security measures, the Presidential Special would be preceded by pilot trains during the entire trip. Other directions stated: “To avoid crowding and annoyances to Mr. Lincoln, representatives of the leading papers only will be admitted in the different stopping places. The Presidential party will be under the charge of the local committees and no party coloring being intended to be given to the trip.” The Gazette complied by calling for a bipartisan display.

By the time the Gazette published the train schedule, several southern states had seceded and Jefferson Davis had been named provisional president. This news was featured in the February 14 issue with a reference to an article in the Democratic paper, the Observer. The Gazette editorialized: “An attempt is being made to place the blame of the present diffi­culties between the North and the South upon the Republi­cans.” It advised the Erie County Democrats to “take heed,” that the South had been planning this action despite Lincoln and the Republican party.

The Democrats’ message had been foreboding ever since the election. They warned of the impending trouble in the South in many issues of the Observer. “We foresaw and faithfully foretold the disturbance of public opinion and the financial diffi­culties that would result there­ from …. We predicted the evil that is now upon us.”

In the December 15, 1860, issue Abraham Lincoln was assessed as a “nothing and a nobody.” His importance came only from the office he represented. “He is a bit of seaweed floating on the surface of the great popular movement, and significant only at serving to mark the direction and rapidity of the current.” Despite the strident party loyalties in Erie County, the local leaders all planned to follow the prescribed guide­lines for Lincoln’s visit. In fact, his receptions were bipartisan and more orderly than at some stops in other states.

The Presidential Special for much of the trip was comprised of three passenger cars, a baggage car and the ever-changing engines along the way. Lincoln and his immediate party were in the rear car; the middle coach was occupied by the working staff and the railroad personnel. The front car was assigned to the press and the many politi­cal representatives who boarded and disembarked with great frequency. The politicos introduced themselves to the new leader which he thoroughly welcomed.

The morning of Saturday, February 16, was cold. The rain the day before had churned the snow to mud, yet hundreds of people waited along the tracks to wave and cheer as the train went by. Hundreds more waited at the nine depots along the Lake Erie shoreline. Lincoln had scheduled stops at three. At the depots where the train was not scheduled to stop crowds waited in hopes that he would at least step out onto the rear platform and wave.

The first stop in Erie County was at Miles Grove (now called Lake City) where Lincoln only planned to greet the crowd. Years later in an interview with eyewitnesses the Girard Cosmopolite Herald reported that Lincoln had much to say while standing on the rear platform, but his voice was hoarse and he suffered from a cold.

The crowds at the Miles Grove depot were treated to a thrilling surprise when Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, arrived. Greeley had helped form the Republi­can party and was one of Lincoln’s strongest support­ers. He had spoken at the Central Hall in Meadville on Thursday evening and that morning had taken the Pitts­burgh and Erie train north to the Girard station, then a wagon the short distance to the lake shore line in order to ride to Erie with the president­-elect.

Greeley’s arrival caused quite a sensation. His eccentric manner of dress amused the crowd. He wore a long overcoat with the collar haphazardly upturned. His pockets bulged with papers. He wore huge boots and an old Quaker hat tipped rakishly on his head. Although he slouched, he was nearly six feet tall and could easily be seen by the people who had gathered there.

He immediately enraptured the crowd and entertained them with recollections of his early days thirty years before when he had worked in Erie as a printer for the Gazette. Greeley recalled that Erie was an extremely political city, marked by vigorous disagree­ment among the political factions which the newspapers duly reflected. He told his stories with great humor and the crowd enjoyed the fun. They seemed to harbor no ill feeling about statements he had made six years earlier during the “Gauge War” when he publicly labeled the region as “this inhospitable northern neck of Pennsylvania.”

When the Presidential Special slowed to a stop, Greeley quickly boarded the train and was escorted to Lincoln for a few minutes of discussion. The first official greeting was a military salute by the Girard Guard. Lincoln appeared on the platform, was presented with several baskets of fruit, and introduced by leading citizen, Judge James Miles, who had traveled to Cleveland earlier to accompany the entourage. In his introduction Miles referred to Stephen Girard, the Philadelphia philanthropist for whom the township had been named, and Lincoln responded that he had read Girard’s biography a number of times with increas­ing interest.

As Lincoln spoke, the Girard Guard’s overzealous color sergeant waved the flag back and forth so vigorously that it frequently obscured Lincoln’s face. Lincoln reached out and grabbed the pole, holding it still while he finished speaking. The ceremony lasted only a few minutes and, immediately after Lincoln’s remarks, the train began pulling away from the depot. Lincoln stood on the platform waving until the crowd was out of sight.

At the Swanville station about seven miles east of Miles Grove, a delegation hurried to explode a cannon salute as the train passed. The group included John J. Swan, a pioneer tavern owner in the vicinity, and several members of his family. When they saw the Presidential Special approaching, they became excited and set off the cannon blast too soon. Swan’s young son, Henry, was severely injured by the premature explosion. (Coincidentally, several years later he again received public attention when named paymaster for the United States Treasury.)

The train reached Erie at 12:20 P.M. A triumphal arch had been erected over the track and the pillars were entwined with evergreens and the words ”The Union, The Constitution and The Laws.” The train slowed to a stop, the cannons of the Franklin Pierce Rifle Company boomed and the huge crowd cheered wildly.

A committee of Erie’s leading citizens had met Lincoln in Cleveland to extend to him the hospitality of the city. They now escorted him and his retinue to the second floor dining hall of the old brick depot for a luncheon. According to one published account, Lincoln declined a glass of wine but asked for a second serving of mince pie.

After the luncheon Lincoln stepped to the outer door of the dining hall and looked down over the crowd. He thanked them for their warm reception and fine food. Someone called out asking him to comment on the problems facing the nation. The Gazette offered: “When the time came for speaking folly and plainly upon the exciting questions of the day he would endeavor to satisfy the people of the whole land of the rectitude of his inten­tions as their chosen chief magistrate. He counseled ‘firmness, forbearance and
adherence to the Constitu­tion.'”

The Lincoln party reboarded the train, now being pulled by “The Rocket.” As it eased slowly away, the president-elect stood on the rear platform, holding the American flag. His appearance was termed “grand.” A reporter for the Gazette wrote that he had a “noble manly face which lit up with patriotic fire, while his firm grasp of the flag indicated an unyield­ing determination to defend and uphold it.” The reporter added that all the proceedings were “divested of party spirit.”

The train continued fifteen miles to the North East depot. There flags fluttered, bands played and the local military company fired the traditional salute. A miniature Fort Sumter had been constructed near the railroad track but Lincoln did not mention it in his comments. Finally, his train proceeded five miles to the New York state line and then to Buffalo where he was to spend the night and follow­ing day.

Once the train was out of sight the Democrats and Republicans took opposing sides again. The February 21 issue of the Gazette reported:

During Mr. Lincoln’s brief stop at the depot last Saturday, a Democrat remarked to a Republi­can that ‘he didn’t want a man for president like Lincoln who relied upon Divine Providence in conducting affairs of government … he wanted a man who relied upon himself!’ We present this as a signal proof of the narrow strait to which a certain class of person are driven in objecting to the President-elect …. We would be sorry to believe that any human being is really disposed to disclaim such reliance.

The same newspaper called Lincoln “a man from the times. Let us all wait patiently for the positive development of his policy.” It judged him as possessing firmness and courage. “For ourselves we are perfectly willing to trust him.”

The same issue also reported: “A Democrat friend predicts that Abraham Lincoln’s election will prove a greater calamity than ‘war, pestilence and famine.'” The Gazette suggested that it might take Lincoln more than four years to repair the evils done by James Buchanan, the outgoing Democratic presi­dent. “But (Lincoln) will, we are confident, establish the character of an honest man and a true patriot.”

The Observer‘s opinion of Lincoln reiterated party senti­ment. “During his journey (Lincoln) has shown (himself) to be a mere pigmy compared with the giant canvasser for Senator (Stephen Douglas – Democrat).”

In answer, the Gazette reminded its readers that Douglas, who had appeared the fall before in Erie’s Perry Square, gave the same speech everywhere he appeared. It added:

Mr. Lincoln … was called out by crowds at every stopping place on the route between Springfield and Washington merely to return thanks. What he did say was always said properly and acceptably – so said as to please most of those before whom he appeared …. Several of Mr. Lincoln’s impromptu speeches were excellent in spirit and diction …

It is evident that the Gazette‘s editor totally supported Lincoln. A few of the more sophisticated eastern reporters such as the Associ­ated Press representative Henry Villard criticized Lincoln for the insignificance of his remarks. Others objected to his many refer­ences to God. But the Republi­can press of Erie County found no fault with him. And they were joined by the Illinois State Journal, the Cincinnati Gazette, the Cleveland Leader and others.

Lincoln’s visit to Erie County and other areas of the midwest and north aroused public awareness and a commitment to save the Union as no other gesture could. During that twelve day tour he shook the hands of thousands of people and was seen by hundreds of thousands more.

Subsequently, as national conditions worsened the Observer printed an article which offered unified support. The Republican Gazette called attention to it by saying, “The Democratic organ in this city avows a willingness … to cast party wholly aside if thereby the Union can be saved.”

Their unity was needed when, on April 12, Fort Sumter was fired upon. Lincoln, who had been in office just over five weeks, issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 troops to suppress the uprising. In Erie County the quota was filled quickly. Greater numbers volunteered than could be accepted as countians put aside politics for Lincoln and the Union.

 

For Further Reading

Brockett, Linus P. The Life and Times of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Philadelphia: Bradley & Co., 1865.

Horner, Harlan Hay. Lincoln and Greeley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1953.

Miers, Earl Schenck, gen. ed. Lincoln Day by Day: A Chronology, 1809-1865. Vol. III. Washington: Lincoln Sesquicen­tennial Commission, 1960.

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years. One Volume edition. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1954.

 

Sabina Shields Freeman, who holds a degree from Ohio State University, is involved in local history projects in Fairview, Erie County, where she lives. She is a member of the Erie County Historical Society, the Fairview Area Historical Society and serves as president of Erie Yesterday, a consortium of Erie County histor­ical societies, museums and associated groups. She has co­authored three books on Erie County history and writes a bi­monthly column for Girard’s Cosmopolite Herald.