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Abraham Lincoln’s Harrowing 13-Day Mission to Secure the Presidency

It’s the story of a man dodging death threats on a cross-country mission to save America. But this is no Hollywood thriller. It’s a new book about Abraham Lincoln’s harrowing yet triumphant train trip from Illinois, to Washington, D.C., to be sworn in as president. The book, by Professor Ted Widmer (Macaulay Honors College), is called Lincoln on the Verge: 13 Days to Washington.

Lincoln’s anti-slavery positions made him deeply unpopular in the South and among those who wanted to expand slavery to the West. Seven states had already seceded from the Union by the time Lincoln headed by train to his inauguration in February 1861. The first shots in the Civil War were fired just two months later.

“He’s going through a very divided country, even in the North, and there’s a lot of anger against him,” Widmer said in a podcast interview with CUNY Book Beat. “He’s got to try to make it to the capitol. He’s not sure he will. He’s got to elude all these assassins who are trying to kill him. Then he’s going to try to put the country back together again. It’s amazing that he succeeded.”

His departure from Springfield, Illinois, for the 13-day trip “was an incredibly emotional scene,” Widmer said. “Many people there felt, as it turned out correctly, that they would never see him again.” In Buffalo, he was nearly crushed by a crowd. In Illinois, an obstacle on the tracks that could have derailed the train was removed at the last minute. An explosive device was discovered in his car in Cincinnati. And in Baltimore, undercover agents infiltrated a massive conspiracy to murder him as he changed trains. To save his life, he was secreted through the city in the middle of the night.

His route zigzagged 1,900 miles across the country on 18 different trains, slowing down through small towns where he waved from a rear platform, and stopping in big cities where crowds of up to 250,000 gathered. He “gave a huge number of speeches … and really introduced himself to the American people almost for the first time,” Widmer said.

Despite the dangers, the odyssey “improved his political position,” allowing him to bond with Americans by “speaking honestly about the crisis. … By getting onto this train and surviving the trip, he showed himself to be a man of action. And he gave these beautiful speeches that tied him much closer to the American people.”

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Lincoln on the Verge: 13 Days to Washington
Simon and Schuster, 2020

Work By

Ted Widmer (Distinguished Lecturer, Humanities Lab Director, History) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

Macaulay Honors College