The Hour of Peril
by Daniel Stashower
This nonfiction account of an assassination plot against President-elect Abraham Lincoln required extensive research as much was written about the plot at the time, but many of the primary source documents present conflicting perspectives. I don’t think the author of The Hour of Peril, Daniel Stashower, had any intention of creating a tome that parallels current events, but it is hard not to make comparisons as we watch history repeat itself.
The politics of the elite to gain money and power is certainly a theme as well as inciting ordinary people to take extra-legal actions. Good and bad, ethical and immoral, slave vs. free, states’ rights or federal control—they all play a role in the politics of that time.
The rights of men to live freely and the rights of states to determine their own laws clash as the Union begins to disintegrate. Lincoln’s position is that new territories being added must be free, but that he would not advocate changing the slavery laws as they currently existed in the various states in the Union. This position incited those who felt Lincoln went too far and those who decided he had not gone far enough. There were just too many people unwilling to compromise.
As Lincoln headed to Washington, he wanted to greet as many people as possible and was not concerned about his safety. When Allan Pinkerton, a detective with a reputation for being “fierce and incorruptible,” was hired to secure the rail lines the president would be traveling on through Maryland, he discovered that there was a plot to assassinate Lincoln. At that time the focus of his investigation changed. He used the same techniques he had used for years to infiltrate groups planning railway robberies, but his operatives had to intensify their efforts because the time frame for discovery was very short. Pinkerton devised an extremely complicated plot that was successful but did require some last minute changes.
A lot of The Hour of Peril was about Pinkerton and included some discussion of Kate Warne, the first female detective in the United States. Pinkerton requested absolute secrecy of the very few people who were informed of the plot and countermeasures. He was dismayed when he discovered that Lincoln and several people close to the president-elect had, in fact, disclosed information about the travel plans, possibly endangering Lincoln’s life.
The Hour of Peril is not a quick or easy read, but well-worth the time invested. There is much information about and insight into the Civil War era and politics in general to be gained.
Category: History, Nonfiction
Publication: 2013—Minotaur Books
Among those attempting to defuse the crisis was the recently defeated candidate, Stephen Douglas, who selflessly carried a message of unity to hostile audiences in the South, attempting to calm the secessionist fervor and broker a compromise.
He would have been wary of revealing too much in a letter, especially one sent to a politician. As Pinkerton had told Samuel Felton at the start of the operation, “on no conditions would I consider it safe for myself or my operatives were the fact of my operating known to any Politician—no matter of what school, or what position.”
As far as Pinkerton was concerned, there would be no future disclosures. He had sworn the main participants to secrecy, and arranged matters so that the minor players had no sense of the larger plan. In many cases, even those directly involved in carrying out crucial elements of the detective’s design were ignorant of the roles they had played. Once again, secrecy had been the lever of his success.