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Chapter 3:

  • The conspirators at work.
  • -- detectives on their trail. -- Webster as a soldier.

Every day reports would be brought to me from the numerous men I had detailed along the line of the railroad, and regularly on alternate days I would make the journey from Baltimore to Philadelphia for consultation with the officers of the company.

At every visit which I made to the suspected localities, I could not fail to notice an increase in the excitement and the indications of a disposition to open revolt became more evident. Everywhere the ruling principle seemed to be opposition to the new administration and a decided inclination to aid the Confederacy. As the daily papers, which chronicled the events which occurred upon the journey of Mr. Lincoln towards Washington, or the desperate movements of the Southern ringleaders, were perused by the people, or were read aloud in tavern or store, they would be greeted by alternate expressions of hate and malignity for the abolitionist and wild cheers for the rebellion.

This feeling, too, was largely increased by the [59] visits which prominent villagers would make to Baltimore, and who, upon their return, would relate marvelous stories of what they had seen and heard of the courage, the unity and the determination of the Southern people. Everything calculated to inflame the popular mind was seized upon, and the wonderful spirit of invention which these men evinced was simply astonishing. As a consequence, the ignorant residents of these villages and towns, having no authoritative information of their own, relied implicitly upon the exaggerated statements and untruthful reports of their leaders, and were kept in a condition of excitement that made them ready tools of their unscrupulous and better-informed managers. As far as could be learned, however, no definite plan of action had been arranged, and no public outbreak had as yet occurred.

Barnum's Hotel, in Baltimore, appeared to be the favorite resort of the Southern element. The visitors from all portions of the South located at this house, and in the evenings the corridors and parlors would be thronged by the tall, lank forms of the long-haired gentlemen who represented the aristocracy of the slaveholding interests. Their conversations were loud and unrestrained, and any one bold enough or sufficiently indiscreet to venture an opinion contrary to the righteousness of their cause, would soon find himself in an unenviable position and frequently the subject of violence. [60]

As this hotel was so largely patronized by the socalled “Fire-eaters,” I instructed Howard to go there in order to secure quarters and to ingratiate himself with these extremists. It was not long after this, that, joining a company of gentlemen who were loudly declaiming against the ruling powers of the country, he entered into their discussion, and by blatant expressions of the most rebellious nature, he was warmly welcomed by the coterie and instantly made one of their number.

Hailing as he did from New Orleans, his residence was a ready passport to their favor and confidence, and his fine personal appearance, gentlemanly address and the fervor of his utterances soon won the favor of those with whom he associated. To a general inquiry he stated that private affairs of a financial nature required his presence in Baltimore, but as his acquaintance with the trustworthy emissaries of rebeldom increased, he quietly insinuated that affairs of a national character were far more dear to him than individual interests or private concerns.

By continued intercourse with these men, he greatly increased the circle of his acquaintances, and soon became a welcome guest at the residences of many of the first families of that refined and aristocratic city. Here his accomplishments appeared to the best advantage. His romantic disposition and the ease of his manner captivated many of the susceptible [61] hearts of the beautiful Baltimore belles, whose eyes grew brighter in his presence, and who listened enraptured to the poetic utterances which were whispered into their ears under the witching spell of music and moonlit nature.

He gradually neared the circle of which Marshal George P. Kane appeared to be the leader, and in a short time he had succeeded in entirely winning his confidence, and from this gentleman Howard acquired many important items of information. The entire police force of the city-officers and men — were in full sympathy with the rebellion, and it became apparent to him that a strict watch was kept over every man who expressed Northern opinions, or who was not identified with the cause which they had espoused.

To all of these arrangements Howard signified his hearty indorsement, and by every means in his power he sought to convince the leaders of his full sympathy with their efforts and his resolve to take a leading part in the struggle that seemed to be impending.

Accepting the invitation of Mr. Kane, he one evening accompanied that gentleman to a meeting of one of the secret societies that then existed, the first one he had succeeded in gaining entrance to. Arriving at the place of assembly, he was surprised at the many familiar faces which greeted him. Men whose aristocratic doors had opened to his entrance and whose social positions were unquestioned; young [62] men who traced their lineage through several generations, and whose wealth and intelligence gave them a social status of no ordinary character, were found in full accord and upon perfect equality with tradesmen, artificers, and even with those whose vocation was decidedly doubtful, and some of whom had heard the key of a prison lock turned upon them for offenses committed in days gone by.

The leader and President of this society was a Captain Fernandina, who was known as one of the most active of the conspirators. This individual at one time occupied the exalted position of a barber at Barnum's Hotel, but treason and conspiracy had elevated him to the station of a military captain whose orders were to be obeyed, and a leader whose mandates compelled respect. He was an Italian or of Italian descent, and having lived in the South for a number of years he was thoroughly impressed with the idea of Southern wrongs, and that the election of Mr. Lincoln was an outrage which must not be tamely submitted to by the high-toned and chivalrous people of the South.

He was an enthusiast and fanatic, a dangerous man in any crisis, and particularly so in the one now impending, which threatened a civil war and all its direful consequences. Educated with Italian ideas and possessed of the temperament of his people, he openly justified the use of the stiletto, and fiercely advocated assassination as the means of preventing the President-elect [63] from taking his seat in the executive chair. He was also the captain of a military company which drilled regularly and whose members were believed to fully indorse the views of their chief.

At this meeting Fernandina delivered an address which, for its treasonable nature and its violent opposition to all laws, human or divine, has scarcely a parallel. He boldly advocated the doctrine of State rights; he fiercely denounced the party who had succeeded in obtaining power; he inveighed in violent language against the policy of the so-called abolitionists, and his arraignment of Mr. Lincoln was most vile and repulsive. As these words fell from his lips the excitement became intense. Faces were eagerly turned towards him, eyes glistened with the fires of hate, and hands were clenched as though each one present was imbued with the same feelings which animated their sanguinary leader.

As he proceeded, overcome by the violence of his emotions, he drew from his breast a long, glittering knife, and waving it aloft, exclaimed:

This hireling Lincoln shall never, never be President. My life is of no consequence in a cause like this, and I am willing to give it for his. As Orsini gave his life for Italy, I am ready to die for the rights of the South and to crush out the abolitionist.

As he stood before them, his black eyes flashing with excitement, his sallow face pale and colorless and his long hair brushed fiercely back from his low [64] forehead, he seemed a fitting representative of so desperate a cause, and his influence over the assemblage was wonderful to behold. Loud cheers and wild clapping of hands greeted his utterances, and all seemed in perfect accord with his declared intentions.

There could be no mistaking the fact, that the object of these men was dangerous, and that they had fully determined to oppose and prevent the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, but the exact plan of operation had not as yet been agreed upon.

Upon these facts being conveyed to me by Howard on the following morning, I resolved to interview this desperate leader of the conspiracy myself, and endeavor to learn from him further particulars of their movements and designs.

In the immediate vicinity of Barnum's Hotel at that time there was a famous restaurant, popularly known as “Guy's,” and this place was much frequented by the secessionists who were in the city. Fernandina spent much of his time there, either in drinking or in consultation with his numerous political friends, who all seemed to regard him as an important personage, and one who was eventually to perform giant service in the cause.

Howard having effecting an introduction to Fernandina, and convinced him of his devotion to the interests of the South, I experienced no difficulty in obtaining the desired interview. About three o'clock on the following afternoon Howard and myself carelessly [65] entered the saloon, and were gratified to perceive that Fernandina was also there, accompanied by several members of the military company which he commanded. Walking directly up to these gentlemen, Howard introduced me as a resident of Georgia, who was an earnest worker in the cause of secession, and whose sympathy and discretion could be implicitly relied upon.

Fernandina cordially grasped my hand, and we all retired to a private saloon, where, after ordering the necessary drinks and cigars, the conversation became general, and to me, absorbingly interesting.

The question of assassinating the President was freely discussed, and Captain Fernandina expressed himself vehemently in its favor.

Some one in the party remarked:

Are there no other means of saving the South except by assassination?

“ No,” replied Fernandina; “as well might you attempt to move the Washington Monument yonder with your breath, as to change our purpose. He must die-and die he shall. And,” he continued, turning to Captain Trichot, a fellow-conspirator who stood near, “if necessary, we will die together.”

“ There seems to be no other way,” interposed Howard, “and while bloodshed is to be regretted, it will be done in a noble cause.”

Fernandina gazed approvingly at Howard, and then added: [66]

“Yes, the cause is a noble one, and on that day every captain will prove himself a hero. With the first shot the chief traitor, Lincoln, will die, then all Maryland will be with us, and the South will be forever free.”

“ But,” said I, “have all the plans been matured, and are there no fears of failure? A misstep in so important a direction would be fatal to the South and ought to be well considered.”

“Our plans are fully arranged,” answered the Captain, “and they cannot fail; and,” he added, with a wicked gleam in his eyes-“if I alone must strike the blow, I shall not hesitate or shrink from the task. Lincoln shall certainly not depart from this city alive.”

“Yes,” added Captain Trichot, “it is determined that this G-d d-d Lincoln shall never pass through here alive, and no d-d abolitionist shall ever set foot upon Southern soil except to find a grave.”

“ But about the authorities” --I asked-“is there no danger to be apprehended from them?”

“Oh, no,” said the Captain, assuringly, “they are all with us. I have seen Col. Kane, the Chief Marshal of Police, and he is all right. In a week from to-day the North shall want another President, for Lincoln will be a corpse.”

All the company gave approving responses to these threats, with but one exception, and he remained silent, with a doubtful, troubled expression [67] upon his face. This young man was one of the fast “bloods” of the city, who proudly wore upon his breast a gold Palmetto badge, and who was a Lieutenant in the Palmetto Guards, a secret military organization of Baltimore, and I determined to select this man for the purpose of obtaining the information I so much desired; and as the company shortly afterwards broke up, Howard and myself accompanied Lieutenant Hill from the saloon.

Hill soon proved a pliant tool in our hands. Being of a weak nature and having been reared in the lap of luxury, he had entered into this movement more from a temporary burst of enthusiasm and because it was fashionable, than from any other cause. Now that matters began to assume such a warlike attitude, he was inclined to hesitate before the affair had gone too far, but still he seemed to be enamored with the glory of the undertaking.

By my directions Howard, the ardent secessionist from Louisiana, and Hill, of the Palmetto Guards, became bosom friends and inseparable companions. They drank together, and visited theaters and places of amusement in each other's company.

By reason of his high social position Hill was enabled to introduce his friend to the leading families and into the most aristocratic clubs and societies of which the city boasted, and Howard made many valuable acquaintances through the influence of this rebellious scion of Baltimore aristocracy. [68]

Finally the young man was induced to open to his companion the secrets of the plot to assassinate the President. It was evident, however, that Hill was playing his part in the conspiracy with great reluctance, and one day he said to Howard:

What a pity it is that this glorious Union must be destroyed all on account of that monster Lincoln.

From Hill it was learned that the plans of the conspirators were first to excite and exasperate the popular feeling against Mr. Lincoln to the utmost, and thus far this had been successfully accompanied. From the published programme Mr. Lincoln was to reach Baltimore from Harrisburg by the Northern Central Railroad on the twenty-third day of February, now but a few days distant. He would, therefore, reach the city about the middle of the day. A vast crowd would meet him at the Calvert street depot, at which point it was expected that he would enter an open carriage and ride nearly half a mile to the Washington depot. Here it was arranged that but a small force of policemen should be stationed, and as the President arrived a disturbance would be created which would attract the attention of these guardians of the peace, and this accomplished, it would be an easy task for a determined man to shoot the President, and, aided by his companions, succeed in making his escape.

Agents of the conspirators had been dispatched to all the principal Northern cities, to watch the [69] movements of the presidential party, and ready to telegraph to Baltimore any change of route or delay in arrival. A cipher had been agreed upon between them, so that the conspirators could communicate with each other without the possibility of detection, and everything seemed to be satisfactorily arranged except to depute one of their number to commit the fatal deed. This was to be determined by ballot, and as yet no one knew upon whom might devolve the bloody task.

Meanwhile, the idea of assassination was preying heavily upon the mind of the Lieutenant of the Palmetto Guards; he grew sad and melancholy, and plunged still deeper into dissipation. Howard had now become a necessity to him and they were scarcely ever separated. Under the influence of the master spirit, the disposition of Hill underwent wonderful changes. At times, he would be thoughtful and morose, and then would suddenly break out into enthusiastic rhapsodies. His sleep became tormented with dreams in which he saw himself the martyr to a glorious cause and the savior of his country.

At such times he would address himself to Howard, in the most extravagant language.

“I am destined to die,” said he one day, “shrouded with glory. I shall immortalize myself by plunging a knife into Lincoln's heart.”

Howard endeavored to calm his transports, but without avail. Raising himself to his full height, he [70] exclaimed: “Rome had her Brutus, why should not we? I swear to you, Howard, if it falls to me I will kill Lincoln before he reaches the Washington depot, not that I love Lincoln less, but my country more.”

As the day drew nearer for the arrival of the President, he became more nervous and excited, and would more frequently indulge in extravagant expressions, which would have been regarded as absurd, but for the fact that he was but one of a large number of fanatics, who seriously entertained the same ideas of murder, and his expressions but the reflex of others, more determined.

Timothy Webster was still at Perrymansville, and by this time had fully identified himself with the rebel cause, and the company of cavalry of which he was a member. On several occasions he had given undoubted indications of his loyalty and devotion to the South, and was generally looked upon as a man who could be trusted. He became quite intimate with the officers of the company, and succeeded in gaining their entire confidence. As yet, however, he had learned but little of the important movement which we believed was in contemplation, as all conversations upon that subject appeared to be between the officers of the company, at their secret meetings, to which he had not been able as yet to gain an entrance.

At length one morning, after the usual daily drill, [71] and when the company had been dismissed, the Captain addressed Webster and requested him to be present at his house that evening, as he desired to consult with him upon important affairs, at the same time cautioning him to say nothing to any one concerning the matter.

Promptly at the time appointed Webster presented himself at the residence of the Captain, and was ushered into a room upon the upper floor, where there were several men already assembled. The curtains had been drawn close, and heavy quilts had been hung over the windows, which effectually prevented any one from the outside from discovering a light in the room. On his entrance he was introduced to the gentlemen present, three of whom were unknown to him, who were members of the secret league from Baltimore, and who were evidently impressed with the solemnity and importance of their undertaking. They greeted Webster cordially, however, and made room for him at the table around which they were sitting.

A few minutes satisfied Webster as to the nature of the meeting, and that it was a conclave of the conspirators, who had met to discuss a plan of action. Intensely eager as he was to acquire all possible information, he was obliged to restrain his impetuosity and to listen calmly to the developments that were made. From what transpired that evening there could be no doubt of the desperation of the men engaged [72] in the conspiracy, or of the widespread interest which was taken in their movements.

The plans for the assassination of the President had been fully matured, and only needed the selection of the person to perform the deed, in order to carry them into effect. In the meantime, however, other important measures required attention and consideration. If the affair stopped simply with the assassination of the President, but little, if any, good would be accomplished. The North would rise as one man to avenge the death of their leader, and they would only hasten a disaster they were anxious to avoid. It was necessary, therefore, that the work should be thoroughly done, and the plan suggested was as follows:

As soon as the deed had been accomplished in Baltimore, the news was to be telegraphed along the line of the road, and immediately upon the reception of this intelligence the telegraph wires were to be cut, the railroad bridges destroyed and the tracks torn up, in order to prevent for some time any information being conveyed to the cities of the North, or the passage of any Northern men towards the capital.

Wild as the scheme was, it found instant favor with the reckless men assembled together, and all signified their hearty assent to the propositions and offered their aid in successfully carrying them out. Among the most earnest in their protestations was Timothy Webster, and as he announced his intention [73] to perform his duty in the affair he was warmly congratulated.

Matters were evidently getting warm, and but little time was left for action.

“Warming up” .

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