Lincoln Visits Cleveland

By Dale Thomas
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the spring of 2002.

On the way to Washington, three days after his 53rd birthday, President-elect Abraham Lincoln stopped overnight in Cleveland for his only visit to the city. (Three days later in Montgomery, Alabama, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederacy.) To feel the immediacy of the times, the story is best told directly from the pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which was then an evening newspaper. These accounts are quoted over a two-day period beginning on Friday evening, February 15, 1861.

Abraham Lincoln at about the time of his trip to Cleveland

Here lies a people, who, in attempting to liberate the Negro, lost his or her own freedom.

As we go to press the city is astir in anticipation of the arrival of the President elect. Thousands of strangers are in from the country to greet him. He will leave the Pittsburgh train at Euclid depot, and will travel through the ‘Street of Palaces’ to the Public Square…

We are sorry that mud paves our streets and mutiny dwells in the camp of the Republicans on this occasion. The mud can be endured…but mutiny, which has been the death of the old Whig party, divided the Democratic Party, and now threatens the existence of the dominant party… Peace be with thee, Whigs and Wide Awakes! Let the President leave town and then– (!)

As the reader has already suspected, the Plain Dealer had little sympathy with the Republican Party in those bygone days.

“Flags are flying from the many liberty poles about the city. Numerous buildings are decorated with the stars and stripes and the streets look quite gay. The mud, however, is awful. The rain last night softened it up and some of the streets through which the procession will pass are a perfect mush. Some forty young Republicans are prepared to form an escort on horseback to Mr. Robert Lincoln, the ‘Prince of rails,’ in case the clouds are not too threatening.” The weather did not cooperate, but Lincoln’s eldest son still rode with them.

“A very flattering reception was given to the President-elect in this city, and we are happy to state by citizens, without respect of party… Euclid Street was alive with teams and people…and during a portion of the afternoon it alternately rained and snowed. Artillery and Dragoon [troops] were drawn up in line…The Grays were stationed to keep the platform and station house clear of the crowd. Mr. Lincoln alighted from the train… A smile illuminated his countenance as he passed through the crowd (a friend insists on calling it a disagreeable smirk) and he bowed stiffly and angularly as he passed along.”

Despite the weather, Lincoln rode with his wife and sons in an open carriage pulled by four white horses. The parade started at the railroad station where today East 55th Street crosses Euclid Avenue. Wagons carried workmen from local industries, “one of which bore a portrait of the President, and another this inscription, ‘We forge bonds for the Union.’ As the procession moved down Euclid Street, the throng was immense.”

Along the way, Lincoln stopped his carriage and climbed out to hear music performed by a brass band, and then, carried by her father, a little girl “presented Mr. Lincoln with a handsome bouquet for which he rewarded her with a kiss…”

The Weddell House Hotel where Lincoln spent his night in Cleveland. He addressed the crowd the next day from its second floor balcony.

When the procession arrived at the Weddell House both Bank and Superior streets were “densely thronged with people.” Lincoln, along with his family and entourage, spent the night in the Weddell House, the best hotel in Cleveland. Among those going to Washington, John Milton Hay, Lincoln’s assistant private secretary, later married a Clevelander and spent some time in the city before becoming Ambassador to Great Britain and then Secretary of State under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Coming up from his wholesale business in the Flats, John D. Rockefeller probably stood in the rain like the others to hear Lincoln address the crowd. The Rockefeller Building, constructed by the Oil Tycoon in 1903, stands at the corner of Superior Avenue and West 6th Street where Lincoln spoke from a balcony in 1861. A plaque marks the historic spot of Lincoln’s speech, ignored by most pedestrians on their way to work or a football game.

“Fellow-citizens of Cleveland and Ohio,” Lincoln said, looking down at the crowd. “We have come here upon a very inclement afternoon. We have marched for two miles through the rain and mud. Your large numbers testify that you are in earnest about something. Do I desire that you should think this extreme earnestness is about me? I should be exceedingly sorry to see such devotion, if that were the case. But I know it is paid to something worth more than any one man, or any thousand, or ten thousand men—devotion to the Constitution; to the Union and the Laws; to the perpetual liberty of the people of this country… There is one feature that gives me great pleasure; and that is to learn that this reception is given, not alone by those with whom I chance to agree, politically, but by all parties… If Judge Douglas had been elected President of the United States, and had this evening been passing through your city, the Republicans ought, in the same manner, to have come out to receive him. If we don’t make common cause and save the good old ship, nobody will pilot hereafter.”

Lincoln finished his brief speech and then mingled with well-wishers. “The workmen at the Newburgh Rolling Mill presented Mr. Lincoln with a T-rail of their manufacture, which was courteously received.” Stepping forward, Mr. McIlrath turned around and “backed up to Lincoln’s back, and reaching over patted the President elect on the head, saying ‘I am taller than the President.’”

Besides reporting on the celebrations, the Plain Dealer made note of other occurrences at the corner of Bank and Superior.

“The ardent and admiring devotees of ‘Old Abe’ gave him more attention than they did their pockets last night…” Among those who were robbed was “E. F. Gaylord, gold watch ($125) and cash ($50)… We will report the rest when they come in. No Democrats in the above list.”

“Saturday was as fine a day as could be desired for the trip of the Presidential party to Buffalo and formed a delightful contrast to the previous day… There was a very large crowd at the depot when the train started, to whom Mr. Lincoln waived an adieu from the rear platform.”

A band played “Hail Columbia” amidst shouts of “Goodbye Uncle Abe” and “God bless you.” When the train pulled out of the station, like an omen of things to come, “Wm. Hazen had his hand shot off whilst firing a salute.”