Inauguration Day security: Tensions were high when Lincoln took office in 1861

Inauguration Day security: A brief history

As Joe Biden prepares for his inauguration on Jan. 20 as the nation’s 46th president, security measures will be ramped up in the wake of Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capitol.

As many as 15,000 members of the National Guard could be deployed in Washington, D.C., according to The Washington Post. The FBI already is warning of plans for armed protests in all 50 state capitals, in addition to Washington.

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It is not the first time an inauguration has had tight security. There were concerns when Donald Trump took the oath of office in 2017 that protesters would converge on the capital. According to MSA Security, law enforcement agencies counted 99 groups that planned activities during the inaugural period, including 63 on Inauguration Day.

The largest group was the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration. According to The New York Times, “hundreds of thousands” of protesters rallied near the Capitol before heading toward the White House.

In his book, “A Promised Land,” Barack Obama wrote that his transition team was informed by Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, that there was “credible intelligence” that four Somali men might be planning a terrorist attack on the 2009 inaugural ceremony. Obama instructed his senior adviser, David Axelrod, to draft “evacuation instructions” to give the crowd if an attack occurred during the new president’s address.

The modern-day concerns paled in comparison to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861.

On a cold, blustery day, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address and then was sworn in. The procedure at the time was the opposite of how the ceremony is handled today. Seven states already had seceded from the Union and more were expected to follow suit.

According to the Post, officials in Washington were “deeply concerned” that Confederates would attempt to kill Lincoln as he rode in an open carriage with outgoing President James Buchanan.

“Never since the formation of the government was an inauguration day invested with so much gloom,” the New York Daily Herald reported on Inauguration Day 1861.

Journalist Benjamin Perley Poore wrote that security preparations that day were “of an unusual character.”

According to an account in the Cincinnati Daily Press, soldiers were stationed on the roofs of houses on the route “to act as sharpshooters in case of riotous proceedings.”

Poore wrote that Col. Charles Pomeroy Stone had a battalion of the U.S. Engineer Corps directly behind the president’s carriage, and soldiers belonging to a German company handled the sharpshooting duties.

Security concerns has led the National Park Service to close the Washington Monument through Jan. 24.
Security concerns has led the National Park Service to close the Washington Monument through Jan. 24. (Saul Loeb via AP pool)

Sharpshooters were instructed to “keep a vigilant watch” on the presidential carriage and to fire at any person who aimed at it.

A large force of special police, “with conspicuous badges,” was sprinkled among the crowd lining the procession route, the Daily Press reported.

“Their mere presence was generally sufficient to ensure order,” the newspaper reported.

The large squad of police was organized by Gen. Winfield Scott, who made his headquarters at a restaurant near the War Department, the Post reported. Scott “rode around the city in a low coupe drawn by a powerful horse,” Poore wrote. Cavalry soldiers rode alongside the presidential carriage, “bucking their horses to make it difficult for snipers to get a lock.”

There was no Secret Service at the time, but Scott ordered the District of Columbia Militia to protect the President-elect from harm.

It was an open secret that the inauguration could be disrupted. Newspapers had been reporting about possible attacks for more than a month.

“It is true that serious fears have been entertained of an attempt to prevent the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, and perhaps to seize upon the federal capital, by armed bands from the border slave states of Virginia and Maryland, aided by volunteers from neighboring slave states,” the New York Daily Herald reported on Feb. 5, 1861.

Other newspapers, particularly in the South, downplayed the threats, even though a plot to kidnap the President-elect had been thwarted in Baltimore as Lincoln traveled from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington.

“Of course no demonstrations will be made, except it be by a few of (Lincoln’s) sycophantic partizans, who are scarce and will probably ‘fight shy.’” the Charleston Daily Courier reported on Feb. 13, 1861.

Few were made that day.

In his 1945 book, “Intimate Memories of Lincoln,” author Rufus Rockwell Wilson quotes the experience of Charles Aldrich, a Republican who traveled from Iowa to witness Lincoln’s inaugural.

“From where I stood I could see (the soldiers’) bayonets above the heads of the people,” Aldrich remembered. “There was at that time serious apprehension that the President might be shot when he appeared to make his address, but this small company of men was all that was in sight in the way of defense.

“It was understood, however, that several hundred men were scattered through the crowd armed with revolvers. Had any hostile hand been raised against the President, its owner would very speedily have bitten the dust.”

Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, sat behind Lincoln during his speech, the Post reported. Greeley later wrote that he expected to hear Lincoln’s delivery “arrested by the crack of a rifle aimed at his heart.

“But it pleased God to postpone the deed,” Greeley wrote.

According to Secret Service officials, preparations for Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20 are being made “to anticipate and prepare” for all possible scenarios to ensure safety.

“The inauguration of the President of the United States is a foundational element of our democracy,” the Secret Service stated in a news release Friday. “The safety and security of all those participating in the 59th Presidential Inauguration is of the utmost importance.”