The Civil War: “The Hour of Peril,” the first plot to kill Lincoln

Book Review: The Pinkerton Detective Agency thwarted the first attempt on Lincoln’s life. Photo: Allan Pinkerton with Pres. Lincoln (c) and Maj. Gen. McClernand (r) 1863

VIENNA, Va ., July 17, 2013While there are supposedly some 16,000 books published already on Abraham Lincoln, it is always good when an author finds a new treatment on the subject, a new aspect that deserves telling. Such is the case with “The Hour of Peril,” confusingly sub-titled “The First Time They Tried to Kill Lincoln” by Daniel Stashower.

There seems to be no real reason or rationale for the use of two titles and makes looking the book up a little curious, since the latter longer title usually appears first.

That ceases to be a problem when one begins reading the 340 page novel based on history, and the twists and turns in it are worthy of any good mystery or suspense novel. It would be a toss-up whether the main subject matter is Lincoln’s apparent close brush early on with assassination or the birth and development of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, so closely are the two intertwined. In that era, crime solving was basically left to sheriffs and other quasi-peace-keeping individuals, and the professional detectives as we know them today were just being born.

1861 Thomas Nast cartoon of crowds awaiting Lincoln’s arrival in Baltimore

When you see a nice endorsement on the back by no less than James M. McPherson, author preeminent who wrote “Battle Cry of Freedom,” you know you are in for a reading treat, and it is he who taunts the reader with his comment that “…Pinkerton’s tireless energy prevented a tragedy that might have destroyed the republic.” Allan Pinkerton would become a tour de force primarily as a result of his work in preserving the life of the President.

It was February of 1861 and the President was en route to an appearance in Baltimore; he would be bombarded by hundreds of people who wanted to see him, preferably touch his hand and hope for a word from the tall, gaunt leader of the nation. Lincoln had already been aware of the number of assassination threats received for his train trip, the culmination apparently slated for the appearance in Baltimore.  

This was no easy trip as it would be today, taking thirteen days on the cobbled collection of rail routes for the train to make the trip from Springfield, Ill. to Washington and then to Baltimore. Traveling with and around him was a put-together bunch of self-appointed “security agents,” who kept trying to outrun the train and keep track of the various rumors of impending attacks on Lincoln.

Kate Warne, first female detective, stands behind Allan Pinkerton at Antietam

Allan Pinkerton was the leader of this group, and the Pinkerton Agency would begin to make its mark at this time. Their well-known logo, a large all-seeing eye with the motto “We Never Sleep” would be tested as never before. Lincoln was  a man of the people, and he simply refused to believe that anyone was out to do him harm. 

Geography entered into it, since the train would have to cross the Mason-Dixon Line and enter northern territory. Rumors were rampant along, including one that claimed a large cash bounty stood waiting for “whomsoever” was able to kill the President before he actually took office. It was thought that Maryland would secede before Lincoln ever reached there, which would cut Washington City off from the North.

Baltimore’s Calvert Street depot was the supposed kill zone, since Lincoln would have to leave the train and get on to the narrow streets, making it a simple matter to kill him. One small group was to deflect attention away from him, while a second rushed in to do the deed.

Another group intended to rush his train and force it off the tracks so it would fall down a steep embankment and kill all on board. If Lincoln survived this attempt, then the last straw idea was to surround the carriage en route from one depot to another in Baltimore, using either a dagger or pistol to dispatch him forthwith.

Fortunately Pinkerton had with him a person who will go down as the first female detective in history, the not particularly attractive but enticing Kate Warne, who became head of an entire detective bureau in Chicago.

Pinkerton had hired her and she became an exceptional asset to the agency. 

Stashower tells these stories almost as one who observed them first hand. However, in truth the book is as much about Pinkerton and his company as it is about Lincoln and the threats, real or imaginary, against his life,

The author lays out his chapters well, making it eminently readable although in places it seems to drag through too many minute explanations. It would benefit by either footnotes or endnotes, and an index at the end would be a real worthy addition due to the number of individuals to which the reader is introduced. These may be included in the final printing since they are mentioned in the table of contents, but they were not present in the advance copy provided, something this reader certainly missed it.

Still “Hour of Peril” remains a welcome addition to the plethora of books about the 16th President, and a definite highlight to the Sesquicentennial Year of the Civil War.

It is published by  Minotaur Books, ISBN 978-0-312-60022-8.

Read more of Martha’s columns at The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times. Follow her on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email at   

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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