Top positive review
A divided nation meets President-Elect Lincoln on his 13-day train journey to Washington
Reviewed in the United States on March 11, 2020
Abraham Lincoln was facing one of the biggest crises of his career and he had not even assumed the office of President. Before his inauguration, before setting into motion his plans for challenging the issues of slavery and Southern secession, he and his family had to physically reach Washington from Springfield, Illinois. This may not seem to be such a huge endeavor, as already the Iron Horse provided quick travel routes. The challenges were not the distance but what Lincoln needed to do to solidify support among the regular citizens. What Lincoln hoped to accomplish was a speaking tour where he could go through city and town and let the nation see him. His very legitimacy as President was in question from thousands of Southern sympathizers who were in the towns lining his route. These were enraged opponents many of whom had sent Lincoln death threats after the November election. Plans were underway for his assassination before he reached the capital.
To his advantage, Lincoln had a plainspoken honesty and directness that moved people. He was a sharp contrast to James Buchanan and his corrupt administration. He also had a deep reverence for the ideals of democracy and the United States. In a shrewd move, he chose to stop in small towns and meet local dignitaries spending time with regular people. Along the way he and his aides thwarted several attempts on his life, to reach a capital city where many of its residents had questionable loyalties.
Ted Widmer’s heavily-researched account of Lincoln’s journey incorporates perspectives of Henry Villard, a journalist, Lincoln’s secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay and wells as countless other notables. Widmer’s research also includes numerous anecdotes and recollections of many regular people who interacted with the President-Elect. One charming story includes the meeting of Grace Bedell, the twelve-year-old girl who had written Lincoln and promised she could deliver the five votes of her father and brothers if he would grow a beard. He had complied and Grace was there to meet him in Westville, New York. After gaining the attention of the whole crowd and meeting Lincoln, the shy Grace hid the rest of the day.
The route was by no means a straight shot to Washington. Lincoln needed to avoid Virginia as much as possible as the state was on the brink of seceding as South Carolina had already done. Lincoln’s train traveled through Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, New York City, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and dangerous Baltimore to reach Washington. His train slowed for him to make one and five-minute stops in smaller towns to allow people to see him. Widmer documents Lincoln’s inner moods and bouts of sadness, the personalities and events at each stop, the crush of crowds, and the wearying nights he had to endure standing and shaking hands. He gave over a hundred impromptu speeches.
The final dash through Baltimore was thrilling. Kate Warne, a female spy, had gathered information from talking to Southerners and identifying a specific plot to kill Lincoln in Baltimore. Lincoln switched trains to a low-profile rail car and traveled all through the night in a disguise to reach Washington unharmed.
Widmer’s book is a detailed and moving account of Lincoln’s first exposure as the President-Elect to a nation undergoing a crisis. Many famous names of those involved in this trip will stand out to readers such as Alan Pinkerton and Dorathea Dix. I had little knowledge about Lincoln’s trip to Washington before I read this and was engrossed with the danger of his journey and the utter dignity of the man. I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy learning more about Abraham Lincoln and this very chaotic time in American history.