On the eve of his fifty-second birthday, on February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln prepared to board a train in Springfield, Illinois.
As the president-elect, Mr. Lincoln faced a daunting future. As he took his first steps onto the train waiting at a small station in his hometown,
Lincoln must have felt the great weight that was already settling on his shoulders. With a number of southern states already having seceded from the union, and other states’ loyalty hanging by the slimmest of threads, Lincoln knew that his first term in office would be fraught with perils.
With all these harsh realities tucked away in his mind, Lincoln set out to share a few words with the crowd of people who gathered to bid him farewell.
Lincoln’s moving speech to his fellow Springfield residents closed in a way that bespoke the difficulties he knew awaited him in Washington.
To meet these challenges, Lincoln realized he could not simply rely on his own talents or the best wishes of his supporters, “I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Finishing these thoughts, Lincoln waved goodbye to a city where he had lived for a quarter century, established himself as a leader, married, raised a family, and buried one beloved son. What then ensued is a part of American history that shaped all that was to follow.
In Lincoln on the Verge historian Ted Widmer traces the thirteen-day railway journey that Abraham Lincoln undertook to sojourn from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C in order to take office.
That journey would encompass almost 2,000 miles of circuitous travel filled with speeches, danger, and drama.
In telling this overlooked story in a full-length and amply researched study, Widmer allows readers to take a detailed look at a journey that helped shape the course of the Civil War.
For thirteen days, Lincoln wended his way toward Washington on a train ride that was more than just a business trip.
Along the way Lincoln delivered over 100 speeches, utilized eighteen different railroad lines, crossed eight states, and shored up the morale of the northern people.
By his words and physical presence, Lincoln touched the lives of millions of Americans who heard him, caught a glimpse of his train, or read about his journey.
By journey’s end, Lincoln had grown as an orator.
Despite exhaustion at the end of his trip, Lincoln learned from missteps he encountered along the route and honed his writing craft.
In some of his planned and impromptu talks, Lincoln began to mine the ore of his talents in ways that were precursors to the mystical power of speeches he would make in the future.
En route to Washington, Lincoln began to cache away gems of thought that would later emerge at Gettysburg and in his second inaugural address.
Lincoln’s rail journey to Washington was not without difficulties.
As Widmer repeatedly details, Abraham Lincoln was the focus of a great deal of animus. Discontented southerners who fostered secession saw Lincoln as an embodiment of evil.
Northern opponents of Lincoln had no use for him and pledged their undying hatred against him. Numerous rumors were afloat of plots aimed at assassinating the president-elect before he could take office.
Police officials, the intelligence operatives of the War Department, and employees of the Pinkerton Agency all were convinced that assassination attempts were not only planned, but would occur, during Lincoln’s trip.
Against this backdrop of danger, Lincoln put his very life at risk when he boarded the train in Springfield and set out to assume office.
Time and again, Widmer tackles these plots and comes to the conclusion that Lincoln was, in fact, in great danger every step of the way. Widmer does an excellent job of describing active plots, attempts to derail Lincoln’s train, documented threats, and suspicious characters.
Nowhere was Lincoln in greater danger than in Baltimore where, as Widmer describes, Lincoln-haters were numerous and encompassed plug-uglies who had a very real history of violence in the extreme.
Despite the dangers Lincoln faced, and the sheer exhaustion the nearly 2,000-mile trip generated, the heart of Widmer’s story resides in the tone of the president-elect’s efforts to reach out to everyday Americans he encountered.
Time and again, Widmer recounts whistle-stop speeches, impromptu comments, and prepared orations that Lincoln made. While some of these remarks, especially those dealing with economics, fell flat, generally Lincoln was able to make connections with listeners.
By being approachable and authentic, Lincoln calmed the fears of many Americans who had never seen or heard him and who feared the turmoil that was descending upon their nation. In many ways, Lincoln’s roundabout journey to Washington served as a sedative for the nation as he soothed the spirits of Americans he engaged with along the way.
In the end, Lincoln safely arrived in Washington, delivered his classic first inaugural address, and began his tenure as America’s only wartime president who faced a nation violently divided by armed conflict.
Strangely enough, four years later, Lincoln would virtually repeat this journey when his remains were transported by rail back to Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln’s funeral train used two of the same locomotives used to carry him in 1861 and followed essentially the same route in reverse.
Of course, as Widmer points out in this informative work, Lincoln’s second epic journey by rail was one of national mourning rather than the blending of hope and fear that clouded his first. In many ways Widmer’s work is not unlike Lincoln’s initial travels.
This is a book that takes a footnote aspect of Lincoln’s presidency and examines it in great detail. In telling this story, Widmer demonstrates his deep knowledge of his subject as well as he strong capacities to tell a story.
Widmer is a talented writer whose prose paints a vivid picture of the many stops Lincoln took along his pathway to Washington. At times, Widmer’s writing reflects the Lincoln journey which was a long journey on a slow-moving train. At points in the book the repetition of one more speech delivered at one more stop does bog down a bit.
However, some issues of pace are made up for by the way in which Widmer brings the fledgling Lincoln presidency to life. Lincoln was a man of humble origins who worked his way up the ladder of success to the Whitehouse.
Once ensconced as president, Lincoln came to understand the enormous weight of responsibility that his new position held. But before all of his wartime actions took place, he had to simply get from Illinois to Washington.
That journey was long, perilous, and life-changing. It was also worthy of deeper study and that is what readers will receive in this comprehensive look at Abraham Lincoln’s first steps as leader of the United States during the bloodiest portion of its entire history.
Widmer, Ted. Lincoln on the Verge. (2020), New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 583 pp,
$35.00, ISBN: 978-19821-3695-6