The alerts and precautions concerning possible saboteurs, now a prominent feature of life in Washington and elsewhere in the United States, have a precedent.

In November 1864, only five months before the end of the Civil War, Southern agents devised a plan to use arson to spread panic throughout Northern cities. Like the present administration, the Lincoln administration knew that these terrorists were planning attacks but didn't have specifics.

Accordingly, on Nov. 2, Secretary of State William H. Seward released an official warning to the nation in the form of a letter to the mayor of Buffalo, which was released to the press. It read, "This department has received information from the British Provinces to the effect that there is a conspiracy on foot to set fire to the principal cities in the Northern States."

Curiously, although the New York Times printed Seward's warning on Nov. 3, the Washington papers did not. The Evening Star, the Daily National Intelligencer, the National Republican, the Daily Morning Chronicle and the National Era remained mute on the arson threat, although the Star reported that day on a fire drill at the Navy yard. "The commodore and officers of the yard were perfectly satisfied with this test," the paper reported, "and complimented the firemen for the promptness and activity they manifested."

For whatever reason -- luck or Washington's adequate security -- when the expected attacks occurred, they occurred elsewhere. The big assault was in New York on the night of Nov. 25, when Southern arsonists tried to burn down several hotels as well as Barnum's Museum. Damage was minor, and no one was hurt. Some fires failed, and others were put out.

After the news was received from New York, security in Washington was tightened in ways similar to our modern experience. The Star of Nov. 29 ran a brief news item beginning, "There being reason to apprehend that the rebel emissaries who recently attempted to fire the city of New York might attempt a similar game here, the authorities very judiciously took such precautionary measures on Saturday night to render any such scheme impracticable."

Soldiers patrolled Washington's streets. More guards were added at government offices and installations. On Nov. 26 at Ford's Theatre, one H.B. Phillips came on stage and requested that any War Department employees in the audience report in at once.

Such precautions were certainly called for. On Nov. 30 in New York, arsonists managed to destroy a lumberyard and some adjacent houses, leaving several families homeless.

Not surprisingly, the nation's firefighters became public heroes, as exemplified in a political cartoon in the Dec. 17 issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. It showed a New York firefighter resolutely defying a torch-bearing Jefferson Davis, with the caption, "Dry up, old hoss; you see we can put you out with a pail of water."

With such an example of attempted terrorism, it seems incredible that President Lincoln settled for only one police guard on the night of April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre -- a guard who left his post. Seward's house had no guards that night, and he nearly perished too from an assault by one of John Wilkes Booth's gang.

Those were perilous days for the Union, but in these dangerous times, it is encouraging to know that this nation has endured such troubles before and survived them.

-- John Lockwood