Though we all know how the story turned out — Lincoln steered the country through four years of war and preserved the Union — that ultimate outcome was hardly assured. As Daniel Stashower recounts in his dramatic “Hour of Peril,” Lincoln’s presidency was very much in the balance as a private detective and his operatives raced to uncover a plot to kill the “Railsplitter” before he could reach Washington.
Stashower’s book revolves around the efforts of Allan Pinkerton, a legendary private detective who claimed to have uncovered a plot to kill Lincoln during his train tour’s last stop in Baltimore, a.k.a. “Mobtown.” This vital port city just a few dozen miles north of Washington had strong Southern leanings and a reputation for notoriously violent street gangs.
Pinkerton hadn’t set out to uncover a potential assassination plot but stumbled across it while investigating potential sabotage of a railroad. Soon Pinkerton and his operatives were navigating the dark streets and saloons of Baltimore, trying to pry clues from Southern sympathizers. They eventually determined that a mysterious group intended to kill Lincoln when he pulled into the city by distracting police and attacking the president-elect as he changed trains.
Stashower, a novelist, smartly uses the train’s journey as a narrative arc, allowing him to tell the broader story of prewar America and providing insight into the traits that would make Lincoln such a great leader — his sense of humor, calm demeanor and courage. The chugging train also injects the book with momentum and suspense as it nears Baltimore; readers will cringe as crowds surge past policemen protecting Lincoln, highlighting the president-elect’s lax security, which consisted of just a handful of aides acting as ad-hoc bodyguards.
A key goal for an author of history is to persuade his or her readers to forget what they know and to relive the world as it unfolded for characters of the time — with outcomes uncertain. For the most part, Stashower accomplishes that objective, and readers will be cheering for Pinkerton and pleading for Lincoln to heed the private eye’s advice to abandon his scheduled events in Baltimore and instead slip quietly through Charm City.
To the modern reader, this recommended diversion makes complete sense, particularly in light of the country’s history of presidential assassinations and near-assassinations — Lincoln would be slain at Ford’s Theatre in 1865. But to those living in that era, the decision is a far more difficult one — the country had not yet lost a president to violence, and Lincoln did not want to be seen as sneaking through Baltimore on the eve of war. And he would rather not have alienated the Southern-leaning residents of Maryland, a border state he desperately needed to preserve in the Union. In the end, Pinkerton succeeds, and Lincoln slips unnoticed through Baltimore ahead of schedule, averting danger.
The book unfortunately lacks endnotes or a discussion of sourcing methods, making it difficult to determine the objectivity of Stashower’s reconstruction and preventing this book from being a first-rate work of history. And there has been a long-running historical debate about the seriousness of the Baltimore plot; no schemers were ever arrested or charged with anything related to the conspiracy Pinkerton said he discovered. Ironically, some of the blame for that murkiness falls on Pinkerton himself, whose prickly personality and disputes with former Lincoln advisers have clouded the results of his investigation.
But does it matter if the plot was real? Or is it enough that the key players thought there was a serious threat and took actions that provide insights into characters that would shape the country? The answer, as Stashower ably demonstrates, is the latter: “Lincoln’s handling of the crisis and its fallout would mark a fateful early test of his presidency, with many dark consequences,” he writes, adding that “seen in the light of what was to come . . . the Baltimore episode stands as a defining moment, making a crucial transition from civilized debate to open hostilities, and presenting Lincoln with a grim preview of the challenges he would face as president.”
Del Quentin Wilber
is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of “Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.”