Before the Civil War

Book chronicles early threats to Lincoln's life

Tish Wells / McClatchy Newspapers

“The Hour of Peril” by Daniel Stashower (Minotaur Books, 368 pgs., $26.99)

Today’s political conflicts pale when compared with the danger faced by Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington, D.C., for his first inauguration in 1861.

He had to travel through Baltimore.

The city was filled with Southern sympathizers who plotted, secretly and in the open, against Lincoln. In some cases, they called for his assassination.

You can read all about it in Daniel Stashower’s “The Hour of Peril,” an in-depth look at the short period between the election and the March inauguration.

The well-researched book covers the obstacles that Lincoln faced on that journey, and Allan Pinkerton, the Chicago detective whose job was to keep him safe.

At a book reception, Stashower said of Pinkerton, “He was no saint. This, at the heart, is the story of a barefoot cooper who comes to America, becomes a world famous detective and makes his bones protecting America’s railroads.”

When Samuel Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad “whose track formed a crucial link between Washington and the North,” hears rumors of potential danger to the president-elect, by the destruction of bridges or rails, he asked Pinkerton to find out whether the threats are real.

Stashower makes a solid case that there were real threats to Lincoln’s safety on the planned Inaugural Train trip between Springfield, Illinois and Washington, D.C. In meticulous detail, he shows that there were multiple warnings about the potential for an attack, or attacks, coming from many sources along with Pinkerton’s own investigations.

Lincoln had known Pinkerton when Lincoln was a lawyer for the Illinois Central railroad, so when Pinkerton told him that “if he kept to the published itinerary, ‘an assault of some kind would be made upon his person with a view to taking his life,’” Lincoln took him seriously.

Pinkerton safely escorts the disguised Lincoln through Baltimore before the inauguration, thwarting the threatened plans.

“The Hour of Peril” takes a while to get to that evening but the build-up is worth it. No matter that you know it ends, the tension is palpable.

Winner of the Edgar and Agatha awards for his mysteries, and the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction, Stashower is also a journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine and The New York Times.

It’s easy to sense that he could turn this into a well-written mystery or novel. As proven with the movie “Argo,” even knowing the ending, viewers, or readers, can be caught up in the story.

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