The White House Grounds & Entrance: Security

White House Gates
White House
Cassius M. Clay Battalion Defending White House

Cassius M. Clay Battalion Defending White House

Union Soldiers: Company D of the 149th Pennsylvania Infantry

Security concerns preceded Mr. Lincoln’s arrival in Washington in February 1861. His friends had consulted with the head of the Union army, General Winfield Scott, who had assured that he would prevent any attempt to disrupt the inauguration by pro-secession sympathizers. One Republican Inaugural visitor from Iowa, Charles Aldrich, recalled his perception of Scott’s security precautions on March 4, 1861: “I went across the street a distance of ten or twelve rods, and selected standing-room with my back against one of those tall boards. The area in front of this northeast corner of the Capitol was filled with spectators to the number of many thousands. Just before the appearance of Mr. Lincoln, a file of soldiers, doubtless regulars, came into the area, and marched along in front of the platform, slowly making their way through the crowd. From where I stood I could see their bayonets above the heads of the people. 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 quietly 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. It was a solemn and almost gloomy time, because there was a universal consciousness that we were just on the outbreak of war.”1

At the beginning of Mr. Lincoln’s administration, there were mounted and foot guards posted at the White House gates. At the President’s insistence, these precautions were discontinued. His staff remained worried. “The President was frequently alone in his room evening after evening – the whole East Wing unoccupied except by himself and a sleepy messenger in the ante-room, and ingress and egress entirely unobstructed,” wrote aide William O. Stoddard. “We never discussed the subject much for some reason, but I believe that both Mr. Nicolay and Col. Hay, as well as myself, thought more about it than we ever confessed. At least we spent many an evening in our offices, with a sharp eye and ear open for the footstep in the hall, when we would have been puzzled to give a good reason for our presence, other than that in some vague and unaccountable way we were ‘on guard.'”2

Despite the President’s aversion to military protection, concern over the President’s solitary rides to and from the Soldiers Home led to the insistence by Army officials that he be provided a cavalry escort. In late 1862, two companies were assigned to protect the President — the Union Light Guard of cavalry from Ohio and the 150th Pennsylvania Regiment of infantry. The later were called Bucktails because of the adornment to their caps — a “bucktail” was a condition for membership in the regiment and a symbol of their marksmanship.

The Ohio detail was organized, according to Sergeant Smith Stimmel, by Ohio Governor David Todd, who “applied to the Secretary of War for, and received, permission to organize a troop of cavalry of one hundred men, to be assigned to duty as the President’s Mounted Bodyguard.” One cavalryman was recruited from each of Ohio’s counties. “Our duties were to guard the front entrance to the White House grounds, and to act as an escort to the President, whenever he went out in his carriage or on horseback, as he often did during the summer, but not much during the winter months,” said Stimmel, who served in the new group. “Two mounted guards were stationed at each of these gates. These guards were always under the immediate command of a non-commissioned officer — a sergeant or a corporal — and his post, when on such duty, was dismounted at the front door of the White House. While dismounted, his horse was tied to a hitching place connected with the large portico over the front entrance.”3

The President disliked military escorts but liked the soldiers, who camped out near the White House, especially the Bucktail Brigade. In a letter on November 1, 1862, the President wrote: “Capt. Derrickson, with his company, has been, for some time keeping guard at my residence, now at the Soldiers’ Retreat. He, and his Company are very agreeable to me; and while it is deemed proper for any guard to remain, none would be more satisfactory to me than Capt. D. and his company.4 Sergeant Stimmel later wrote: “Often during the early part of the evening, after he had had his evening meal, he would take a stroll down along the edge of the grove where our tents were pitched, and have a little chat with the Lieutenant in command, and sometimes he would look into the men’s tents, and have a passing word with them, asking them if they were comfortably fixed, or something of that kind. We always felt that the President took a personal interest in us. He never spoke absent-mindedly, but talked to the men as if he were thinking of them.”5

The guard company also saw its duty to protect the White House from fire and obeyed orders forbidding anyone to approach a public building with a lighted cigar. One sentry – to Mr. Lincoln’s amusement – ordered Secretary of State William H. Seward and General Benjamin Butler to throw away their cigars before he would allow them to proceed to see the President. “Well, it’s a very good joke, but I guess it has gone far enough,” commented Mr. Lincoln.6

Butler himself accompanied President Lincoln ono a horseback ride to the Soldiers Home in the summer of 1863. He protested that it was unsafe for Mr. Lincoln to take such late night rides alone, saying, “We have passed a half dozen places where a well-directed bullet might have taken you off.” Mr. Lincoln replied that, “assassination of public officers is not an American crime. But perhaps it would relieve the anxiety of anxious friends which you express if I had a guard.”7

The soldiers on guard got along well with the President’s sons, who saw them as natural playmates. Sergeant Stimmel later wrote: “he often came down to our quarters to call on our officers, and they seemed to enjoy his visits very much. He lisped somewhat, and the boys used to enjoy hearing him talk. He would chatter away about something, and until you got used to him, it was hard to tell what he was talking about.”8 On election day, 1864, Tad asked his father to watch the Bucktails cast their ballots in the rain outside the White House.

Although they liked the President, his guards thought they would be better used in the line of battle. In the early summer of 1864 when the Army of the Potomac was heavily engaged with General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army, one soldier approached the President at the Soldiers Home and asked for a transfer. “You boys remind me of a farmer friend of mine in Illinois, who said he could never understand why the Lord put the curl in a pig’s tail. It never seemed to him to be either useful or ornamental, but he reckoned that the Almighty knew what he was doing when he put it there…I don’t think I need guards, but Mr. Stanton…thinks I do, and it is in his Department, if you go to the front he will insist upon others coming from the front to take your place. It is a soldier’s duty to obey orders without question, and in doing that you can serve your country as faithfully here as at the front, and I reckon it is pleasanter and safer here than there.'”9

Other kinds of security were provided as well — largely because of the concern of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon, and Mary Todd Lincoln. “Mother has got a notion into her head that I shall be assassinated, and to please her I take a cane when I go over to the War Department at nights – when I don’t forget it.” Employees in the War Department’s telegraph office were under instruction that Mr. Lincoln was not to return alone to the White House late at night. One rainy night, Mr. Lincoln ordered them to remain dry in the office, but they protested that they would get in trouble if they did not accompany him. The President relented, saying: “If Stanton should learn that you had let me return home alone, would have you court-martialed and shot inside of twenty-four hours.”10 At times of particular stress, Lamon personally watched over the President. He was usually present at the Lincolns’ Tuesday and Saturday receptions.

At the end of the war, a detail from the Metropolitan Police was assigned to Mr. Lincoln. The President was to be guarded by one of them upstairs each night and to be accompanied by one such agent whenever the President went to the theater. Guard William Crook recalled:

It was in November, 1864, that four police officers were detailed by Mr. William B. Webb, who was then chief of police in the District of Columbia, to be a special guard for President. They were to act on instructions from headquarters, and were also to be subject to any orders the President might give. The men were Elphonso Dunn, John Parker, Alexander Smith, and Thomas Pendel. All have since died. They reported immediately to the White House. Not long after the appointment a vacancy in the position of doorkeeper occurred, and the place was given to Pendel. On the 4th of January I was sent to the White House to act as the fourth guard.

There was rotation in the service, although the hours were not invariable. The general plan was thin: Two men were on duty from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon. These officers guarded the approach to the President in his office or elsewhere in the building, accompanied him on any walks he might take — in general, stood between him and possible danger. At four another man went on duty and remained until midnight, or later if Mr. Lincoln had gone outside the White House and had not returned by that time. At twelve the second night-guard went on duty, and remained until he was relieved, at eight in the morning. The night-guards were expected to protect the President on his expeditions to and from the War Department, or while he was at any place of amusement, and to patrol the corridor outside his room while he slept. We were all armed with revolvers.

The reasons why the friends of Mr. Lincoln insisted on this precaution were almost as evident then as they became later. Marshal Ward Lamon and Secretary Stanton had been begging him, it is reported, since 1862 not to go abroad without protection of some kind. Mr. Lamon is on record as having said that he was especially fearful of the President’s showing himself at the theatre. He considered that a public place of amusement offered an opportunity for assassination even more favorable than Mr. Lincoln’s solitary walks or the occasional drive or horseback ride he took to the Soldiers’ Home. Mr. Stanton is known to have been angered by a lack of caution which, on the part of a man so indispensable to the welfare of the nation as its President, he regarded as foolhardiness. For the President has always been inclined, in his interest in the thing that absorbed him, to forget that he was vulnerable. Every one remembers how, when he was watching Early’s threatened attack on the fortifications north of Washington, he exposed himself recklessly to chance bullets. He hated being on his guard, and the fact that it was necessary to distrust his fellow-Americans saddened him. He refused to be guarded as long as it was possible for a sane man to persist.

But toward the end of 1864 so much pressure was brought to bear on him, particularly by Marshal Lamon and Secretary Stanton, that he finally yielded. He had admitted to Ward Lamon before this that he knew there was danger from a Pole named Garowski [Gurowski], who had been seen skulking about the White House grounds. He told Lamon of a short that had barely missed him one day when he was riding to the Soldiers’ Home. Conspiracies to abduct or assassinate the President were constantly being rumored. At first he contended that if any one wanted to murder him no precaution would avail. Finally, although he was always more or less of this opinion, the President gave way to the anxieties of those near to him. He consented to the daily guard of police officers, and longer journeys, to a cavalry guard.

There were many reasons why this fact was not known at the time and has not been generally understood since. In the first place, the President’s bravery (rashness, some called it), was so universally recognized, he had refused for so long to take any precautions, that people were not looking for him to change. In the second place, both from his own feelings and as a matter of policy, he did not want it blazoned over the country that it had been found necessary to guard the life of the President of the United States from assassination. It was not wise — especially at this critical time — to admit so great a lack of confidence in the people. He was sensitive about it, too. It hurt him to admit it. But realizing that he had been chosen to save the country from threatened destruction, he forced himself, during the last months of his life, to be somewhat more cautious. When he had yielded, however, because of all these reasons, he wished as little show as possible of precaution. We wore citizens clothes; there was no mention of the appointment in the papers or in official records; we walked with him, not behind him. The President was simple in his manners; he was in the habit of talking freely with any one who wished to speak to him. So it happened that a passer-by had no way of knowing that the man in plain clothes who helped to fill up every minute of the President’s waking time.11

The Polish nobleman of whom Mr. Lincoln was scared was a former translator at the State Department, Count Adam Gurowski. “So far as my personal safety is concerned, Gurowski is the only man who has given me a serious thought of a personal nature,” President Lincoln had told Lamon. “From the known disposition of this man, he is dangerous wherever he may be. I have sometimes thought he might try to take my life. It would be just like him to do such a thing.”12

There is little evidence of conversation between the Polish radical and the American president but there is ample evidence of the count’s caustic comments about the Lincoln Administration’s policies. His criticisms of the Administration — and his intent to publish those contained in his diaries — had resulted in his termination from his State Department post. Gurowski was also a prolific letter writer and some of his advice was delivered in letters to Mr. Lincoln. According to Gurowski’s biographer, LeRoy H. Fischer, “During these years of letter-writing the Count frequently saw Lincoln, but his contacts seldom were personal. When the two met on the streets, as they often did, he observed that the President looked spiritless, exhausted, careworn, as if his nights were sleepless and his days without comfort.” Fischer noted about Gurowski that the “unpredictable European’s background, nature, and behavior seemed to cast him perfectly in the murderer’s role,”13 Ironically, Mr. Lincoln’s eventual assassin possessed political views diametrically opposite to Gurowski’s.

On another occasion, California Congressman Cornelius Cole walked into the President’s office unannounced and expressed his concern about the ease with which anyone could enter his office: Mr. Lincoln “listened silently, as he always did, but did not seem to be impressed with my plea. When I had finished he said: ‘When I first came here, I made up my mind that I would not be dying all the while.’ He was thoughtful for a moment, then continued: ‘I have observed that one man’s life is as dear to him as another’s and he could not expect to take my life without losing his own.’ Then, as an afterthought: ‘Besides, if anyone wanted to, he could shoot me from some window as I ride by daily to the Soldiers Home. But I do not believe it is my fate to die in this way.'”14

“From the very beginning of his presidency, Mr. Lincoln had been constantly subject to the threats of his enemies,” wrote John Nicolay, his secretary and later biographer. “His mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, and warnings of all sorts came to him from zealous or nervous friends. Most of these communications received no notice. In cases where there seemed a ground for inquiry, it was made, as carefully as possible, by the President’s private secretary, or by the War Department; but always without substantial result. Warnings that appeared most definite, when examined, proved too vague and confused for further attention. The President was too intelligent not to know that he was in some danger. Madmen frequently made their way to the very door of the executed office, and sometimes into Mr. Lincoln’s presence. But he had himself so sane a mind, and a heart so kindly, even to his enemies, that it was hard for him to believe in political hatred so deadly as to lead to murder.”15
Another presidential aide, Edward Duffield Neil, recalled “Threatening letters had come to the President through the mails, which did not, however, except in one instance, seem worthy of notice or preservation. That letter was postmarked Gloversville, New York, about forth miles northwest of Albany, during the latter part of February. The handwriting was not at all disguised, but clear and bold. The sentences were brief and those of a person terribly in earnest, and to this effect: ‘God knows I have hated you, but God knows I cannot be a murderer. Beware of the ides of March. Do not, like Julius Caesar, go to the Senate unarmed. If I did not love my life, I would sign my name.’ The words made such an impression that I consulted with Major John Hay, the unmarried secretary, who slept at the mansion and whose chamber adjoined my room. He remarked: ‘What can we do to prevent assassination? The President is so accessible that any villain can feign business, and, while talking to him, draw a razor and cut his throat, and some minutes might elapse after the murderer’s escape before we could discover what had been done.'”16


  1. Charles Aldrich of Iowa in Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 365.
  2. Michael Burlingame, editor,Inside the White House in War Times, p. 168 from William Stoddard, White House Sketches, No. 6.”
  3. Smith Stimmel,Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 15-17.
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor,Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V., p. 484-485.
  5. Stimmel,Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 19-20
  6. Michael Burlingame, editor,Inside the White House in War Times, p. 168-169 from William Stoddard, White House Sketches, No. 6.”
  7. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor,Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 144 (Benjamin Butler)
  8. Stimmell,Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 35-36
  9. Stimmel,Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 26-27.
  10. Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman,Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, p. 394-395.
  11. Margarita Spalding Gerry, editor,Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, p. 1-4
  12. Ward Hill Lamon,Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1861, p. 274.
  13. LeRoy H . Fischer,Lincoln’s Gadfly, Adam Gurowski, p. 116, 117.
  14. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor,Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 475.
  15. John Nicolay,Abraham Lincoln, p. 533.
  16. Edward Duffield Neil in Wilson,Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 611.


Ward Hill Lamon
Edwin M. Stanton
The War Department
Soldiers’ Home
Edward Duffield Neill