It was March 8, 1860. The train from New Haven had stopped at the New London station.1 Julius W. Eggleston, the Republican Town Committee chairman, had been waiting eagerly for a certain passenger, but somehow he’d missed him. Eggleston was walking away from the station when he spotted a man walking up State Street. He was very tall and thin and had a distinctive pigeon-toed stride. His black clothes were “so much too small as to give the impression of a standing controversy between his trousers and his limbs.” Eggleston had found his passenger. The lawyer and former congressional representative from Illinois had lost a Senate race, but recently attained national recognition as an impressive, intelligent debater and opponent of expanding slavery. Now he was touring Connecticut on the heels of a celebrated speech at Cooper Union in New York City, and Eggleston wanted to get New London in on the action.
Unfortunately, very few other people in the city cared. Eggleston hadn't had much notice of the visitor’s unexpected arrival - the telegraph had come just that morning – and he hadn’t been able to drum up anything approaching the crowds that had turned out in New Haven and Hartford. And no one on State Street that afternoon seemed to notice that Abraham Lincoln was walking in their midst.2
At the City Hotel3, Lincoln ate lunch while Eggleston attempted to corral the leaders of New London’s Republican Party. When Eggleston returned to the hotel, he was accompanied by the few Republicans he’d managed to convince of the significance of the moment. The others didn’t think the Western politician had much of a future here. “Who was Lincoln, anyway?” they said. And, “No, they hadn’t any time to meet him.”
Lincoln may have been glad to get a moment’s peace. His past few days in Connecticut had been non-stop train rides, speeches to packed halls, and conversations with prominent citizens, newspaper editors, and strangers in shops. In Hartford, “The hall was filled before the appointed time” and Lincoln was “greeted with applause which was almost deafening.” The next night, his speech inspired “the wildest scene of enthusiasm and excitement that has been seen in New Haven for years.” They'd had to run an extra train to Meriden to accommodate the thousands who wanted to see his address at Town Hall there. When he wasn’t speaking he was being escorted by “bands of music” and “marching clubs of ‘Wide-Awakes’ and ‘chapultapers,’ who made more noise than staid old Connecticut had heard since [Andrew] Jackson’s day.”4
Norwich still commemorates the speeches Lincoln gave there, at City Hall and the Wauregan House. In Bridgeport there is a plaque at the site where he spoke. But though New London can boast that George Washington slept here and Patrick Henry argued here, the city can only look back with embarrassment on those three hours when it was too cool for Abraham Lincoln.5
There’s a coda to the Lincoln in New London story, related by Percy Coe Eggleston, son of the Committee chairman who escorted Lincoln to the City Hotel. The next day or the day after that, Lincoln’s train passed through new London station again. While Lincoln waited there a “respected citizen of New London” appeared and proffered his daughter’s autograph book. “In his goodhumored and clumsy way, Lincoln took the album, and securing a pen, laid the book against the side walls of the waiting room and, with his long legs stretched in an ungainly angle, and feet braced far apart on the floor, taking infinite pains that the book should not slip, he inscribed in now familiar characters the name ‘A. Lincoln.’”
1 This was not the , which was built over 25 years after Lincoln’s visit, but the original one, which burned down in 1885.
2 The USS Abraham Lincoln got more attention; two dependents’ cruises were held on the submarine during a month-long stop at the Naval Submarine Base New London in 1972.
3 The City Hotel was the place to be in the 1800s. Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren had stayed there. It suffered three fires; the last, in 1891, destroyed it. The Cronin Building was constructed in 1892.
4 The Wide-Awakes were groups of young men who sometimes functioned in a paramilitary capacity but who in this case marched beside campaigning Republican politicians wearing capes and black glazed hats and carrying enormous torches. Chapultapers were sometimes called chapultepecs or chepultepecs, which makes me think they had something to do with the Mexican-American War, but I have no idea.
5 Lincoln does have his own lore, however: they say that “Daniel Webster spoke in praise of the Constitution, General Lafayette paid a visit, and Horace Greeley campaigned for Abraham Lincoln” in the building.