Review: The Hour of Peril

The Hour of Peril shines a light on a key moment in the run-up to the U.S. Civil War.

As northern and southern states divided over the abolition movement (among other issues), the election of Abraham Lincoln threatened a permanent rift between the two regions. In early 1861, as Lincoln undertook a slow train tour to bring him from Illinois to Washington, DC for his inauguration, the U.S. teetered on the brink of the Civil War, with southern states seceding and tension running high.

Lincoln received outrageous death threats as a matter of course, but declined a military escort for his tour, wary of inciting southern anger with a show of force. A railroad president, fearful of attacks on the tracks that would carry the President-elect to the nation’s capital, engaged famed detective Allan Pinkerton to safeguard his line. Pinkerton and his team deployed to the Baltimore area, in the key border state of Maryland. The key access point to Washington, DC, Maryland expressed strong southern sympathies and was distinctly anti-Lincoln. Pinkerton’s team uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln as he traveled through the city. The detective set in motion a plan to outmaneuver the conspirators and deliver Lincoln to the capital.

Author Daniel Stashower incorporates a wealth of historical detail that gives The Hour of Peril a lot of narrative momentum. The ability to create suspense around events when most readers already know the outcome is the hallmark of well-written non-fiction and Stashower maintains that pace very nicely. His extensive research and keen eye for telling personal details about the historical figures dramatized in this work add a lot of depth, bringing out the drama and humanity of the story.

Stashower provides enough context to set the stage, including background on Pinkerton’s colorful history and the turbulent events of the pre-Civil War period, without overloading readers. His accounts of the Pinkerton team’s work in Baltimore has the dramatic heft of first rate crime fiction. He effectively captures the virtues and flaws of his cast of historical personages, adding a real human element to the tense events. Lincoln and Pinkerton are the central figures of the account and unsurprisingly emerge as the most compelling and sympathetic presence in the narrative. Modern readers used to the extensive security arrangements for politicians will goggle at how very exposed to the public that Lincoln was in the era before the creation of the Secret Service.

Stashower does a solid job of demonstrating the fallout from this early event and its influence on the lead up to the war. He presents a balanced, even-handed account of the ups and downs of the affair, calling out poor decisions without being unduly harsh on his subjects.

The Hour of Peril is an absorbing look at an important chapter of the American story. It’s a tale worth experiencing, with themes that still resonate in the present day.

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