Cecil County, Maryland
February 23, 1861
There’s a secret on this train.
In the northeastern corner of Maryland, roughly ten miles south of the Pennsylvania state line and ﬁve miles west of Delaware, it travels through the darkness.
The land here is mostly rural, a mix of ﬂat farmland and rolling hills. It’s after midnight, and the cold night air is silent except for the sound of the engine and wheels.
By outward appearance, there’s nothing unusual about this train: a steam engine, tender, cargo car, and several passenger cars moving swiftly along the rails. Inside, there’s also nothing out of the ordinary. The passenger cars are dotted with travelers, most with closed eyes. In the rear sleeper car, a handful of passengers occupy the berths on either side of the aisle. By appearances, they’re also relatively typical: two middle-aged businessmen, a young woman, and her invalid brother.
Yet much about this seemingly ordinary train is not as it seems.
Before its departure from Philadelphia a few hours earlier, the railroad’s staﬀ received special instructions to delay the train’s journey until a mysterious package could be delivered to it, transported aboard under strict secrecy. The package remains tightly sealed, supposedly containing government documents of urgent importance. In fact, the box contains something else entirely. None of the train’s staﬀ knows this. Only one passenger on the train is aware of the package’s true contents.
In the sleeper car, the two middle-aged businessmen, sitting on diﬀerent berths, are not who they’d claimed to be when they handed tickets to the conductor. The names written on their tickets are not real. One of the men, with wide girth and thick whiskers, carries hidden underneath his coat two loaded pistols, a loaded revolver, and two sharpened bowie knives. The other businessman, who is short and well built with a close-shaven beard and piercing eyes, silently gazes around the interior of the car, studying every person and movement carefully. Every several minutes, he stands up and walks to the rear platform, where he stares intently into the passing darkness like he’s searching for a secret signal.
Across the aisle in the sleeper car from the businessmen, the young woman is also not who she seems. The name on her ticket is actually her code name; she must conceal her true identity under all circumstances, for she’s an undercover agent, aboard this train as part of a secret mission.
Yet the most unusual passenger is the young woman’s invalid “brother,” with whom she boarded in Philadelphia. When he ﬁrst entered the passenger car and she guided him to his seat, he pulled the brim of his low felt hat down over his face so that no one could see it. He wore a loose overcoat over his shoulders, concealing his clothes and torso. Now, he lies behind a curtain in one of the sleeper berths, hidden from view. Because of his unusual height, he cannot stretch out his legs, so he keeps them bent.
This man is not, in fact, an invalid. Nor is he the young woman’s brother. His low felt hat and overcoat are simply a disguise so that no one on the train will recognize him.
The engineer, conductor, staﬀ, and other passengers have no idea he’s aboard. But there he is—hiding in their midst.
His real name? Abraham Lincoln. President-elect of the United States.
In only nine days, a crowd of tens of thousands will gather in the nation’s capital, preparing to witness Lincoln’s ﬁrst inauguration as President. When he’s up on that platform, his every word and gesture will be observed and recorded by reporters for newspapers from every city in the country. He enters the oﬃce at a time of great peril, with a growing threat of war that could destroy the nation. Not since the founding of these United States has an incoming President been so deeply scrutinized or faced with such momentous pressure. The world is tracking his every move.
Tonight, however, he is vulnerable and nearly alone. Tonight, his life is in danger.
And tonight, the President-elect is the target of a sinister plot calling for his murder.
This scheme, hatched by conspirators in secret rooms and underground saloons in the city of Baltimore, will try something never before attempted in the history of the country at the time: the assassination of the man elected President of the United States. If successful, they will accomplish something never accomplished since: the murder of an incoming President before taking oﬃce.
This is the story of an early conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln— before he served a single day as President, and on the eve of the terrible war that would deﬁne his place in history. It is a story that is not well-known by most people today. Even now, some aspects of the scheme remain mysterious. Yet this story and its strange plot, in its motives and conception, provides a gripping window into the most seismic events of the day, at a moment of great national turmoil. It’s the story of a new leader, thrust from near obscurity into a position that will bring the most crushing responsibilities in our history. It’s the story of a moral crisis in America so profound our nation was almost destroyed by it—and its aftermath is still being grappled with today.
On this dark night, on this dark train, more than just the life and future of a President is at risk. This is about the destiny of a country. Forget the fate of Abraham Lincoln—this is about the fates of four million enslaved men, women, and children now held in bondage, and whose best hope for liberty may be aboard this train.
From this moment, just after midnight, as the steam engine and passenger cars move through the darkness, the plot to kill President- elect Abraham Lincoln is set to trigger within a matter of hours.
The nation’s future is at stake.