Allan Pinkerton’s Civil War reputation

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 10, 2013

Front cover of The Hour of PerilI recently finished reading Daniel Stashower’s recent work The Hour of Peril, about Allan Pinkerton and the “Baltimore Plot” against Lincoln. I quite enjoyed his examination of the murder of Mary Rogers in The Beautiful Cigar Girl, and was naturally intrigued by this new title; I’m happy to report that The Hour of Peril exceeded my expectations. Having gone over much of the same territory in my own research, I wasn’t certain how much I would be able to get out of the book but Stashower included an impressive amount of new detail, and not only on the Baltimore Plot. I was surprised and fascinated at how much was new to me about Pinkerton’s early life and first cases; admittedly it’s been a couple of years since I read them, but I made notes on the major studies of Allan Pinkerton and I’m certain that a number of points in The Hour of Peril were absent from all three. On that basis, alone, I can heartily recommend this new volume to anyone interested in learning more about the Pinkertons’ founder.

It’s also, as advertised, a tightly paced but very detailed examination of “The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War,” i.e. the Baltimore Plot.

The general outline of events in The Hour of Peril does, I found with some relief, essentially match up with the very condensed version in Brilliant Deduction. But this expanded account was well worth reading (and not only for Stashower’s effort at restoring a little bit of life to the figure of Kate Warne, commendable as that was). It provides much food for thought about how to interpret the much-debated questions of both the Plot, itself, and Allan Pinkerton’s service to his adopted country in the Civil War.

The entire question of whether a genuine threat to Lincoln’s life existed in Baltimore was hotly contested, both before and after his cloak-and-dagger nighttime dash through the city in February 1861. The authorities I consulted about Pinkerton, however, even when sharply critical of his conduct in other matters, generally offered a qualified endorsement of his claims. I passed this along in my own book, and conclude now that this was the right call; if anything I would probably offer slightly more support for Pinkerton’s work, here, were I to rewrite my book today.

Questions about the Baltimore Plot remain and presumably will remain unanswered, largely because no grand inquiry like that made into the Booth conspiracy followed. But the evidence presented by Stashower points convincingly to a genuine plan to murder Lincoln, years before Ford’s Theatre, that existed entirely independent of Allan Pinkerton’s imagination. Equally persuasive in evaluating Pinkerton’s detractors, meanwhile, are the multiple personalities and political agendas that favored belittling the notion of a threat to Lincoln in Baltimore. On balance, I believe The Hour of Peril makes an effective case that regardless of what might have happened otherwise: 1) Pinkerton (and others) were right to warn of danger, 2) Lincoln was right to listen to them, and 3) most of those who later scorned those choices were acting much more out of  petty motivations than out of concern for the president, presidency or union.

It also, I think, advances a case for re-evaluating Pinkerton’s judgment and effectiveness in the Civil War years as a whole. Among the few things Pinkerton is remembered for outside of detective history is his command of a union “secret service” supplying intelligence to George McClellan—and for badly and consistently overestimating the strength of opposing forces. As with the Baltimore Plot, I’m willing to accept an apparent (though in this case not universal) consensus among studies of Pinkerton that, yeah, at a minimum he was fairly awful as an evaluator of military intelligence. But I also believe that there are arguments for giving him a bit of a break, or at least placing this within the larger context of much other, much more effective, wartime work.

In The Hour of Peril, Stashower makes some decent contributions to these arguments. Aside from a convincing presentation of the case that Pinkerton did identify and circumvent a plot against the key figure of the war, Stashower also notes that contrary to other sources claiming a vast conspiracy in Baltimore, Pinkerton maintained consistently that evidence indicated only a small group of plotters; a dangerous group, nonetheless, but not the secret army that other influential voices perceived. This of course does not disprove repeated instances of overestimating Confederate forces, later, but it does at least imply they were more the result of reasonable fallibility rather than a wild-eyed paranoiac disposed to seeing massed enemies everywhere.

And this fallibility becomes all the more reasonable, in my view, when one considers Pinkerton’s many other efforts during the war. Stashower mentions his exemplary work in breaking up Rose Greenhow’s spy ring; multiple other sources report commendable effectiveness investigating fraud among supply contractors, unglamorous work nonetheless of no mean value in what was probably the first major industrial-age war. And, of course, throughout all of this he was also responsible for running a nationwide private detective agency…

I suspect that it’s nonetheless tempting to subtract points from Pinkerton given that his first big war-related project—thwart assassins targeting Lincoln—seems ultimately a miserably failed effort. Indulging this temptation is, though, rather unfair. The Hour of Peril invites various comparisons with another nonfiction thriller about a plot to assassinate Lincoln, James Swanson’s Manhunt; though the latter is one of my favorite books I believe it fares poorly in one, minor comparison with the former. Both quote a telegram from Pinkerton to Edwin Stanton, following Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth, which Swanson uses as an occasion for sneering mockery of the detective:

Pinkerton’s self-promotion and obsequious flattery fell flat. And New Orleans [where the news reached the detective] was a long ways from Washington. Booth had already been on the run for five days, and it would take Pinkerton several days to travel to Washington. Stanton already had a few thousand manhunters in the field. He did not need Pinkerton or his vaunted, all-seeing eye. The detective whose motto was “we never sleep” had managed to sleep five nights before informing himself of the most important news of the war.

Every time I read this passage, it strikes me as a more and more unworthy bit of sniping. What, I’m forced to wonder, would Swanson have had Pinkerton do? The author himself notes that “News had failed to reach the city until five days after the shooting;” were the relative geographic positions of New Orleans and Washington somehow Pinkerton’s fault? Or the delay in communications just perhaps owing to a still-active open rebellion in between? Presumably Swanson can make some allowance for grandiosity in advertising for business purposes, particularly in the mid-19th century, in which case it seems a bit much to expect true omniscience from Pinkerton regardless of his company logo; even if one of Pinkerton’s network of agents had been explicitly tasked with alerting him to the news, and had realized that telecommunications channels would be delayed, and therefore attempted to transmit the intelligence in person, Swanson again has poked a hole in his own case by noting that the trip would take “several days.”

With what, then, are we left to find fault? Is Pinkerton to be blamed simply for having been in New Orleans in the first place, “a long ways from Washington” where the real danger was lurking? How should Allan Pinkerton have known this? Swanson’s own account details how Booth’s conspiracy, though organized some time in advance, had been not only extremely tight but also abandoned for some time until chance opportunity galvanized the assassin to revive it the very morning of April 14. Again, do we fault Pinkerton for having failed to hover around Lincoln throughout the entire war? I submit not. Pinkerton got the president safely to Washington four years earlier, upon which most observers might have reasonably assumed that he would be secure; Pinkerton was not one of them, as it happened, and had made free offer of his services to Lincoln long before the telegram which Swanson dismisses for its tardiness, but his direct efforts were largely rebuffed and with plentiful other opportunities beckoning it seems reasonable enough that he pursued them rather than appointing himself personal guard to the president, wanted or no.

Particularly given that Allan Pinkerton, far from being the self-advancing clown that Swanson paints him, believed fervently in the same cause in which Lincoln ultimately fell. He had also known Lincoln personally years before the latter’s election, and had the greatest respect for him. Pinkerton was not without his faults, but it’s a low insult to imagine that his reaction to Lincoln’s assassination was “self-promotion and obsequious flattery.” The confederacy’s execution of some of Pinkerton’s agents earlier in the war had devastated the man; it’s inconceivable that news of Lincoln’s own murder by a vengeful partisan of the same confederacy affected Pinkerton any less.

Just perhaps, then, it seems he might simply have been sincere in his grief and desire to help.

And, on that, rant over; at the risk of obsequious flattery I will note again that Swanson’s criticism constitutes a few paragraphs out of a 388-page book, which I otherwise regard as magnificent, as well as an inspiration (both of my own book and, a few years before that, even an unofficial web site). It would be more than a bit silly to bemoan unfairness to Pinkerton so much that I’m being even more unfair, myself.

In fact, while on the whole Stashower is much fairer to Pinkerton both in his book overall, and his consideration of the telegram to Stanton, even he suggests that the “message, however well intentioned, carried a note of ill-timed posturing.”

So I suppose I’m going to remain in the minority here. Very well; I note that my own opinion notwithstanding multiple other studies regard Pinkerton’s offer of service in pursuit of Lincoln’s assassin as ill-timed and brash. Agree if you will. But, please, from now on at least give the man his full due for tireless, and despite exceptions mostly valuable, service to the union in the Civil War.

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