By James L. Swanson
In April and May of 1865 four events demanded the attention of the American public: the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia by Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the hunt for his killer, John Wilkes Booth; the search for Jefferson Davis, the fleeing president of the Confederate States of America; and the journey of the funeral train bearing Lincoln’s body to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
Many library shelves have already been filled by books written on these topics alone. James L. Swanson himself has already written about the hunt for John Wilkes Booth in his book, “Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer.” Now with the release of his latest book, “Bloody Crimes: The Chase For Jefferson Davis And The Death Pageant For Lincoln’s Corpse,” he has written about two more. It is a book for which he surely must win the award for the most dramatic book title of 2010.
History books are often monographs, written on a singular topic, isolating their subjects from other events that may have been simultaneously happening, and thereby giving a slightly distorted historical narrative. By juxtaposing the search for Jefferson Davis against the national mourning over the death of Abraham Lincoln, Swanson gives his readers a more intricate interpretation about what it must have been like to live through those tumultuous months in the spring of 1865.
Lincoln and Davis, are themselves, parallel personalities, both were born in the wilds of Kentucky, eight months and one hundred sixteen miles apart, both had risen from obscure and humble backgrounds to become presidents of their warring countries, both lost children during their presidencies, and both their presidencies ultimately met untimely ends.
Despite his attempt to set his twin subjects, Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, and his counterpoint, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States on an equal historical footing, as so often has happened over the last century and a half, Lincoln overshadows Davis in Mr. Swanson’s narrative. Lincoln’s assassination and its result, the overwhelming outpouring of national emotion, not only represented the nation’s grief over its dead president, but also served as the central point of a national catharsis, and thus mourning Lincoln became a national mourning, not only for Lincoln himself, but for the 620,000 American’s who gave their lives for the causes in which they believed.
With the capture of Jefferson Davis in May of 1865 and his two year imprisonment, Davis’ image over time transformed, from an often disliked politician and war-time president into that of a martyr who sacrificed himself for the cause of Southern independence, and he, himself, became a tangible symbol of “The Lost Cause.”
Interestingly enough, though Jefferson Davis outlived Abraham Lincoln by twenty-four years, Davis’ funeral was one of the largest in the South, and in 1893 Mrs. Davis decided to move his remains then in New Orleans, to Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery, and the train bearing Davis’ body made a similar journey through the South as Lincoln’s did through the north. Likewise Davis’ funeral train received many of the same honors by Southern citizens, as Lincoln’s did in the North.
Mr. Swanson’s book is thoroughly researched, and well written. His narrative is easily read and in combination with his subject matter makes his book a hard one to put down once you have picked it up and began to read through its pages.
ISBN 978-0061233784, William Morrow, © 2010, Hardcover, 480 pages, Photographs, Maps, Illustrations, Endnotes, Bibliography & Index. $27.99