I wasn’t planning on focusing on Lincoln when I began my summer reading, but I did intend to read about his assassination. How fitting, is it then, to end my unexpected foray into Lincoln’s life with James L. Swanson’s book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.
The book reads a lot like Black Hawk Down in that it is written in a gripping narrative style drawn from eye witness accounts, newspaper clippings, and trial transcripts. To be sure, some of it is embellished as Swanson speculates about what the assassin was thinking at certain moments during his escape, but it paints a vivid picture of the tragedy of a nation, the restless pursuit of a killer, and the portrait of one of America’s most notorious villains. Here are some tidbits:
-John Wilkes Booth was originally in on a plot to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for diplomatic reasons. But after Lee surrendered and Richmond fell to Union forces Booth fell into despair over the lost cause. After hearing Lincoln’s victory speech, which expressed the desire for voting rights to be given to the colored soldiers, Booth snarled, “That’s the last speech he will ever give.” So committed to white supremacy was Booth, he could not imagine a living in world where there was “nigger citizenship” and held to the death that “this country was formed for the white, not black man.”
-The famous stage actor had easy access to Ford’s theater, and the little security the President’s presence commanded was nothing to be reckoned with. All he had to do was give his name and he could get an audience with the leader of the Union. After shooting Lincoln and wounding Sgt. Rathbone he leapt from the stage and broke his leg. The audience was so stunned by the bizarre events, many thought that it was part of the show. Only one man heeded the cry “Stop that man!” but was eluded by Booth’s quick riding.
-One of the most fortunate moments in the chase was Booth’s crossing of a guarded bridge outside of Washington DC. News had not traveled fast enough yet for the guards to ID him, but they were under orders not to let anyone pass. Lackluster and lenient the commander in charge let him by.
-The original plan was to decapitate the government. Booth had accomplices that were to hit Secretary Seward, and Vice President Johnson. Johnson’s hit man chickened out and spent the night drinking whiskey. Powell, who was assigned to knock off Seward was almost successful. Overpowering one of Seward’s sons, he made three stabbing attempts that all missed, though one permanently scarred the Secretary’s cheek. If it were not for the efforts of Sgt. George Robinson who was sitting providentially by Seward’s bed, Powell would have surely been successful. If there was ever a hero that came out of the whole nightmare, Robinson was it.
-Booth’s acting skills helped him fool people into buying his covers. When in need of medical attention for his swelling leg he passed for a wounded Confederate. However, history would reveal that the examiner, Dr. Mudd, recognized Booth immediately, though Booth did not tell him about his deed. Later, when in town to get supplies, Mudd found out about the assassination and excised him from his home. Mudd’s decision to rid himself of the assassin probably saved his life at the tribunals where he was found guilty of aiding and abetting the assassin and got a life sentence.
-Booth and his companion spent five days in a Maryland pine thicket evading the manhunters. He found a Confederate spy named Thomas Jones who had the reputation of ferreting people through the “Confederate railroad” to the deep South. In the pine thicket Booth had Jones bring him newspapers to read about his terrible deed. Much to his dismay Booth read not his manifesto that he wanted mailed to the papers (it was burned by the fearful messenger who thought he would be implicated), but articles lionizing President Lincoln and elevating him to a martyr’s status.
-The biggest challenge Booth faced was getting across the Potomac River. He and Herold had tried and failed one evening, rowing all night in the opposite direction. The next night they made it across, but failed to reach their destination. The sluggishness and botched landing cost Booth his life as he provided ample time for the manhunters to catch up and interview unfriendly witnesses.
-Booth laid up in the Garrett farm and took his time to relax, but again he took too long to get moving. He eventually wore out his welcome as his hosts became suspicious of the temperamental actor’s jumpy reactions to anything that passed by. Much to Booth’s consternation, the Garrett’s exiled him to the barn. Thinking they were horse thieves the Garretts locked in Booth and Herold without their knowledge.
-When the manhunters finally caught up to Booth and Herold at the farm, they deliberated for hours trying to negotiate some sort of deal. It was a completely ridiculous scene with over 20 armed men on horseback bowing to requests from two lightly armed, worn out, and injured civilians. Finally the barn was lit on fire, Booth made his last stand and the rest is history.
-And a bunch of people got hanged.
The thing that most struck me about this book was how loathsome Booth was to me. I literally rejoiced at each of his failures, and was frustrated when he succeeded. When he was dying his terribly painful death, I felt very little pity. Though there was a sense of common humanity that I was able to see in the killer and his captors, I could not help but think that the outcome of the miserable was assassin was deserved. I don’t claim to have an infallible moral compass, but the contrast between Lincoln’s virtue and Booth’s vice could not be more clear, and that is not simply drawn from the luxury of hindsight.
Many Confederates found Booth’s actions reprehensible too. He quickly found that not many Southerners reacted the way he thought they would. There was no elation, no hero’s greeting, no shared sense of justice the killer was hoping to receive. He believed strongly that the purity of his act would revive the South, push on the Civil War, and demoralize the Union. If there was ever a theme to the whole mess it is the timely, well-rehearsed lesson of history that assassination simply does not work. Precisely the opposite usually happens with the enemy emboldened, the slain made a hero-martyr, and the assassin a fiend that not only invites, but demands vengeance.
Swanson was surely correct to see the spirit of Both in every American assassination since, especially Marin Luther King’s, but also highlights the ambiguity we sometimes have with him. Ford’s theater has been restored and made into a popular museum that in a way enshrines the killers deed. Banners of his menacing face even line the light poles of the street outside the theater. This simply would not fly if it were Lee Harvey Oswald’s in Dallas. In a sense we have forgiven him and allowed his Good Friday performance to live on in infamous memory.