It was one of the saddest single events in American History: President Lincoln, just days after the close of the Civil War, was killed. Most Americans have at least a passing knowledge of what happened on the night of April 14th, 1865: Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln went to Ford's Theater to enjoy a play. Midway through the play, John Wilkes Booth broke into their theater box, shot Lincoln in the head, and jumped from the balcony to the stage. He broke his leg in the process, slowing his escape, but he was eventually caught.
That's the short version, and it's essentially true. The details of the story make it infinitely more interesting, and, if possible, even more tragic. The details of the assassination and the ensuing chase after Booth are well-told in James L. Swanson's 2006 book Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer. It's been out for several years now, but I finally got around to reading it last week.
The fast-paced read starts before the assassination, and continues through the killing, the chase, and even decades past it in an epilogue for key characters in the book.
Swanson does a wonderful job of setting the scene for the assassination, introducing us to John Wilkes Booth, his fellow conspirators, and then Lincoln and his situation. Many people don't realize that there were several attempts made on Lincoln's life before the assassination. Booth himself was involved in at least two plans to abduct Lincoln before he finally went through with the actual murder.
The author does a better job than most at explaining the play the Lincolns were attending, Our American Cousin. He lays out the plot and staging of the play, and explains that since Booth, as an actor, knew the play and Ford's Theater so well, that essentially the president was walking right into a trap. The buildup to the assassination is slow and methodical, and the parts of the various conspirators are well-explained. What I didn't realize until a few years ago is that the president was only one of three planned assassinations that night, the others being Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Swanson explains exactly why those attacks fell through, and in particular the attack on Seward is graphic enough to be frightening even when read.
I found myself on the edge of my seat as the evening of April 14th continued on, knowing that Abraham Lincoln's hours, and then minutes were numbered. Swanson is a master of building tension, and when the dreadful act finally happens, some of that tension is released. The author describes the actions of the others in the box, including Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris; in every detail, he took my prior understanding of the assassination and expanded it tenfold.
Swanson uses journals, letters, telegrams, photographs, maps, and other primary sources to illustrate and support the narrative. Some of the most interesting are the letters and short diary entries that Booth himself writes while on the run. He had a small date calendar with him, and used pages to scrawl short entries; he also makes an attempt to explain his actions, and justify the murder of the president. The author spends much of his time describing the methods that these early detectives and soldiers used to try and capture the assassins; he also points out missteps along the way that would have resulted in the live capture of Booth instead of ending twelve days later with his death.
Booth and his companion end up so ragged, so pitiable, that I almost felt sorry for them. Almost. The times their paths cross with the manhunters, you're simultaneously hoping they get caught and intrigued at how they might evade capture. Swanson's storytelling makes it more exciting, more vibrant, more real than I've seen in other narratives.
I did wish Swanson had gotten more into the characters of Mary Surratt (the first woman executed in U.S. History) and Mary Todd Lincoln...both are fascinating characters, but both are pushed to the sidelines and left out of the bigger story, even though both end up in key positions in the book. Swanson does explain more about Dr. Samuel Mudd and his real role in the conspiracy; something that I've wondered about over the years, and something that seems to change with each generation of historians.
This was a good book, with emotional highs and lows, and a good look at the process of making and interpreting history. James L. Swanson has become an expert on the assassination, and has written other books as well: Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution: An Illustrated History (2001), Chasing Lincoln's Killer (2009), Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse (2010) and Bloody Times: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jeffeson Davis (2011).
If you're interested in the topic, other books I enjoyed were Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth by James Cross Giblin and Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell. Both have a different take on the events of April 1865 than Swanson, but both are very illuminating.