Divided We Stand
This is the second in a series of posts on the memoirs of T.B.A. David, an unheralded man involved in many historic events. He introduced Pittsburgh to telephones, typewriters, and the word “hello.” In this segment, he tells of working in a divided nation, the look of the man elected President, and I venture down a few curious sidetracks. (This post stands on its own, but if you want to read others in the series, see menu at left.)
I had imbibed very early strong anti-slavery views and was accustomed to the discussion of the slavery question openly and freely, but not long after my arrival at Wheeling I found a different sentiment prevailing.
There were only a few slaves in Wheeling, and not many throughout Western Virginia . . . but notwithstanding this, the general sentiment was not unfavorable to slavery, and discussion was but seldom indulged in, and then only by those holding anti-slavery views.
I interrupt T.B.A. David here to note the mountainous counties of western Virginia had little use for agricultural slaves. And, the mountain folk didn’t want to leave the Union. They formed their own state when Virginia joined the Confederacy. It was admitted to the Union as West Virginia in the midst of the Civil War. In 1860, a third of Virginia’s 1.5 million people were owned by other humans.
Now, back to T.B.A. David, who had been transferred from Pittsburgh to run telegraph operations in Wheeling, VA.
There was an old trusty slave named Ben, a very religious man, who frequently brought messages to the Telegraph office. He was an interesting character, and there grew up between us quite a friendly intimacy. We did not often speak of slavery, but he understood my attitude and there was no room for doubting this.
He confided to me that he had on more than one occasion conducted a “runaway slave” across the Ohio River on his way to Canada, then the only safe refuge for an escaped slave. One day Ben came to my office wearing a perplexed countenance and cautiously asked, “Is da any one hea?”
It happened that I was alone. He must have seen the others leave the office, for it was unusual for me to be entirely alone. Being assured, he startled me by asking if I would ferry a “runaway” across the river that night.
He had had him in hiding for three days. He was now alarmed lest it be found out. Although holding, as I did, decided views against slavery, I was not prepared to violate the laws, and promptly refused.
He was so distressed over my decision. Out of sheer sympathy for him, I said I would think the matter over, and for him to return later in the day for my final answer. He did not return. Some days after, he informed me that the “runaway” had got safely over.
Years later, I met a man in a hotel in Rochester, N.Y., where he was porter, bootblack, etc. I got into conversation with him while he was polishing my shoes, and learned that he was an escaped slave from Virginia. I told him I had lived in Wheeling, Virginia, before the war. His face brightened and he asked if I had known old Ben, also a Mr. David.
I said yes, that my name was David. Whereupon he exclaimed, “Youse is de man dat boated me over de river!” I set him right about that. Ben had doubtless told him that I would be the ferryman, and had never corrected the statement.
In Between South & North
The political campaign of 1860 was one of unusual earnestness, unlike any that had preceded it, for the outcome presaged far-reaching consequences. In no part of the country was the seriousness of the situation felt more than in the so-called “Border States.”
In Wheeling, there were a goodly number of Republicans (the anti-slave party), as also throughout Western Virginia, but by far the greater number of citizens were favorable to the South, and as the campaign progressed, the denunciation of “Black Republicans,” as we were called, became more violent and offensive.
At the Democratic (pro-slavery party) meetings, this seemed to be the main theme, and our candidate for President was portrayed as almost a fiend incarnate, and while I remember many of the vile names applied to Mr. Lincoln, I cannot bring myself to repeat them now.
Roger A. Pryor, of Richmond, Va., was one of those erratic men who were spoken of in the North as “Fire-eaters.” He delivered one of his characteristic speeches at the old Athenaeum Building in Wheeling.
He had recently challenged Congressman Potter, of Wisconsin, to fight a duel. Potter accepted the challenge and chose “bowie knives.” Pryor objected, claiming that it was a weapon unknown to “the code.” Potter stood his ground, asserting that it was a southern invention, and its use confined to the South. Friends intervened and an amicable adjustment was made, but the general feeling was that it was a “back down” on the part of Pryor.
On the occasion of the speech, Pryor had his audience with him, and the applause encouraged him in his violent talk until at one point he declared:
“If Lincoln is elected, and there is none other, I will be the Brutus who stabs him on the steps of the Capitol!”
The words had scarcely passed his lips when a voice from the gallery said (derisively), “Potter.”
That caught Pryor off guard. He looked flustered.
. . . There were two well-known men sitting in the front row engaged in conversation, and who happened to laugh at that moment. Pryor thinking that they were amused at his situation, seized the occasion to recover himself, and coming to the front of the stage, pointed his finger at them and said, “Any man who would applaud such a sentiment is more despicable than the man who uttered it!”
One of the gentlemen, who was himself no stranger to the duello, drew a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and threw it upon the stage. Later in the evening the matter was explained, and nothing further came of the incident.
Anti-Slavery Ideas & Prison Time
There were laws in Virginia at this time which declared certain books on slavery, and certain newspapers, to be “incendiary documents,” and having them in one’s possession made the person liable to imprisonment for a term of years.
One of these coming through the mails, the postmaster, in the line of his duty as a government official, was bound to deliver it, but as a citizen of Virginia, he could have the party to whom he handed it arrested for having an “incendiary document.”
To make these laws more effective, and drive from the state persons inimical to slavery, voting was required to be viva voce (voiced aloud). The judges of the election stood at the window and announced your name, and then opening your ballott, one of them read it aloud for the clerk to record. It was under these circumstances that I cast my first Presidential vote: for Abraham Lincoln.
I shall never forget the expression on the countenance of one of the judges when he heard my vote. My political standing being thus proclaimed, I became an object of some interest, because of my position in the only Telegraph office, for there had already passed through my hands some information which would be very damaging testimony under certain conditions, and it practically gave notice to those who favored secession that one channel of communication was closed.
I received a number of anonymous letters of warning. On the other hand, the leaders among the Union men magnified my importance, and took more comfort from my position than the facts warranted, and frequently communicated with me. I invented a cypher to be used by them, but I am not sure that much use was made of it.
Men who lived in the Border States knew well the temper of the South, and were conscious of the seriousness of the situation after Mr. Lincoln’s election. Sharing this feeling, and having voted for Mr. Lincoln, I was desirous of seeing him, and when it was known that he would make a brief stop at Steubenville, Ohio, en route for Washington, I went up to see him and hear him speak.
First Look at Lincoln
Looking at him as he stood on the temporary platform listening to an address of welcome, with his hands clasped before him, and his eyes cast down, a feeling of disappointment came over me.
I felt that he would not measure up to the great work, but, when he raised his eyes and began to speak, my opinion changed instantly, for there stood another man.
I likened the change in him to a darkened house having the lights suddenly turned on. It was the most marvelous change that I ever beheld in a man.
I can now almost hear the tone of his voice as he uttered this modest sentence: “I greatly fear I shall not be equal to the trust of which you have made me the repository.” The word “greatly,” as he used it, sounded about three feet long, and was very impressive.
I saw Mr. Lincoln months after, when trying experience had really changed the man.
How bad was it?
Well, for starters, Lincoln was on his way to Washington in the South to be sworn into office as President. At the same time, Jefferson Davis was touring the South about to be sworn into office as President — President of the Confederate States of America.
After giving speeches to perhaps a million well-wishers, Lincoln concluded his two-week tour of the North with a glorious entrance into the nation’s capitol.
He snuck in. That’s how North Americans say “sneaked.”
Death threats were part of Lincoln’s daily life, but the Pinkerton Detective Agency uncovered an assassination plot in Baltimore while working for a railroad concerned about secessionist sabotage.
The plan was to mob him at a security weak point at the Baltimore station and stab him to death. Hmmm.
Death by stabbing? Sound familiar? In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar is attacked by a group of assassins, including the Brutus that Pryor mentioned in his Wheeling speech. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.
Lincoln normally was cavalier about his safety, but a second report seemed to confirm Pinkerton’s. Lincoln agreed to secretly get off the Presidential train at Harrisburg, and double back to Philadelphia in disguise.
Lincoln in Disguise
Honest Abe, his campaign name, put on something similar to a Navy pea coat, a soft felt cap, and a shawl to help him play the part of an invalid. He could put it around his face, if necessary.
By the way, he only recently started wearing a beard.
He did so partly at the suggestion of a young girl from outside Erie who wrote to him with her facial advice. They had just met on the train tour. At a stop near her home, he asked if she was in the crowd. She was. He sat on the platform and chatted with her. She apparently approved of his new look, the iconic face we all know now. To each his own.
Lincoln’s friend Ward Hill Lamon was with him on the trip back to Philadelphia. So was Kate Warne, the Pinkerton secret agent who uncovered much of the assassination conspiracy while playing a southern belle in Maryland. Now, she was to play the sister of an invalid.
Lincoln’s family remained overnight in Harrisburg. They would continue to Washington the next day on the Presidential Special.
Telegraph wires in and around Harrisburg were cut to thwart plotters, or to prevent leaks.
Sleeps With Another Woman
The President-elect arrived in Philadelphia about 10 p.m. and took the overnight train to Baltimore. Warne shared a sleeping car with him.
That, in itself, was rather dangerous. Lincoln’s wife, Mary, was said to be insanely jealous (perhaps literally) of any woman who got too close to her homely hubby. Obviously, she thought he didn’t love her — enough. She was pregnant when they married. “I guess I’m going to Hell,” Abe joked, as he left for his wedding ceremony.
Warne did not sleep a wink, watching over him. That supposedly inspired Allan Pinkerton to adopt his agency’s motto: “We Never Sleep.”
The President-elect’s sleeper car was transferred in Baltimore to a Washington bound train without incident. He arrived at the capital about 6 a.m., still playing invalid.
The 6-foot, 3-inch Lincoln donned the coat, pulled the felt cap over his scruffy hair, draped the shawl around his hunched frame, and ventured out and into the station.
Amid hissing steam and clanging metal, came a shout. “Abe! You can’t fool me!”
Hunched Abe turned with a raised eyebrow. He straightened to his full height. It was his old friend, Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois.
The bodyguards moved toward Washburne, but Lincoln stopped them. After a brief explanation, he was hustled away.
Newspapers were not impressed with Lincoln’s entry. Northerners apparently were looking for strength in the new President. This looked like weakness. Some even said he dressed as a woman.
That idea had appeal. As the war ended, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was reported to have dressed in drag to avoid capture. Also not true.
What does that tell you? Doubt the truth of any story that sounds too . . . well, you know. . ., too much like a good story.
Exposed to such ridicule and looking weak as he took office, it’s no wonder military violence quickly became the go-to solution for preserving the so-called Union.
Abe in Pittsburgh
Lincoln’s only visit visit to Pittsburgh — at least that we know about — occurred in sleet right after T.B.A. David saw him in Steubenville.
He was late, delayed by a freight train issue, but despite the miserable weather, thousands welcomed him. He stayed at the Monongahela House, overlooking the Smithfield Street Bridge and Monongahela wharf.
The bed reputed to be the one he used is now at the Heinz History Center. It may not be the same bed, and it is not currently on display, but it has an interesting history nonetheless.
NEXT: T.B.A. David takes telegraphy to war; treated by Dr. Jekyll(?) for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(?); he’s with Edison to hear world’s first recorded voice; his house gets first Pittsburgh telephone.