Just when I had my feelings for ol’ Abe Lincoln sorted out, James Swanson comes along with Manhunt and scrambles them up again. Of course, this is precisely what Booth’s assassination did for most of a nation: took an extremely controversial President and turned him into the saintly martyr that he remains today. How fucking “meta” is that? An author, through a re-telling of events, takes the reader through the same complex swings of emotion that the contemporaries of the story endured?
I grew up idolizing Lincoln. Why? Because everyone else did. I also had to overcome a belief in the Easter Bunny and Baby Jesus. Besides, when you get the rare President that is worshiped by both political parties, how in the hell are you supposed to overcome the peer pressure? It helps to pick up Thomas Dilorenzo‘s The Real Lincoln.
Dilorenzo shows us Lincoln sans assassination. We get the controversial figure, whose inauguration began the Civil War. The man that jailed dissenters, suspended habeas corpus, and locked out the free press. The President that ordered a blockade-busting supply run to Sumter while peace-seeking ambassadors from the South were ignored in waiting rooms in D.C.
Of course, the pro-South try to paint Lincoln as a war-monger, while the pro-North pretend that Lincoln set out to free blacks. Neither story is true, and my journey to the center on Lincoln has left me severely jaded because he is not the man that revisionists want him to be. Manhunt resolves a lot of these problems, even if the result is a loss of intellectual focus via the warped lens of emotion. I will never fully respect all of Lincoln’s decisions as President, but thanks to my reading of Manhunt, I can now love him again, as I did when I was a child.
Manhunt details James Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865 and the subsequent chase for Booth as he attempted to flee to the bosom of the South. Ostensibly a history book, “Manhunt” reads like pure thriller. Grissom couldn’t create this much tension, not with the handicap of “fiction” working against him. The reader hangs on every page, willing the story forward with every page-turn, and if you think you know how it all turns out, you probably don’t.
There was so much more to the plotting of Lincoln’s death, and the subsequent chase, than even I was aware of. I had no idea how close the Vice President came to meeting his end that day, or that General Grant was almost in that theater box with Lincoln. I had no idea just how famous and charismatic Booth was, and how this both helped and hurt him. I was most shocked to learn that the same cast of characters had, a month earlier, attempted to kidnap the President to turn the tide of war!
When you read this book, these new facts will jar you, but not as much as the entire emotional fabric of the book. The month prior to these events, Richmond fell to the Union. Lee surrendered. Lincoln was inaugurated for the second time. Most of the country was jubilant, even many in the long-suffering South. The air was festive, and those who loved Lincoln looked forward to seeing him lead in times of peace, for he had only known war. It was during these hot times that Booth’s temper flared, and the unthinkable occurred. Keep in mind, before this attempt on a President’s life, the leader of our country was fully accessible to the American public. There was no fence around the White House. Ordinary citizens could come in and have time with the President. Lincoln, like those in office before him, mingled with the masses, shaking hands, unguarded. That there was no protection at the box door that night has been portrayed as a failure of the moment when, in reality, it was a systemic problem.
Swanson relays this well. His ability to take us back, so we smell the muddy streets of D.C., feel the press of unclean hoards, and understand the daily struggles which are alien to us today, makes this history worth reading. He also excels at taking us inside the mind of our leading man. Booth’s hubris, his ability to commit the vilest of deeds (shooting an unarmed man in the back, with his wife and friends as audience) while considering himself a hero to a nation of racist slave-owners is difficult to fully grasp. But James Swanson gets us most of the way there in Manhunt.
This psychological ride, for me, was the facet that made the jewel sparkle. If you just gave the facts of the events, you would have dry history. But Swanson does much more than that. He overlays the mental sickness of Booth with the change in public perception that I mentioned at the outset. And those two forces, colliding in Booth’s fragile psyche, makes this tragedy more gut-wrenching for the reader, and just barely misses in making Booth a pitiable villain. Lying in the woods, while a nation hunts for him, he pleads not for food and water, but for newspapers. Convinced he is a hero, Booth has to deal with the disgusting fact that he has made Lincoln a martyr. Yes, he killed the vile enemy of the South. However, he replaced that man with a noble emancipator, a hero that held the Union together, the savior of the United States of America. Understanding Booth’s grief and frustration, the reader fully grasps how unnecessary the loss our country suffered turned out to be. The act harmed both sides and everyone in-between. And it partly creates in Booth, not a vile man of subterfuge, but a misguided, over-zealous, hot-head. A man that played every leading role in Shakespeare’s canon could not, perhaps, keep in touch with the true humility of his station. Thinking he, naught but a bit player, was performing an act of greatness in the shining spotlight of history, he instead murdered the leading man from the dark shadows of the wings. Back-stage.
Please pick up a copy of this book. If you enjoy history, it is a no-brainer (pun, while fully aware of, unintended). And if you hate history, but you love a good thriller, crime drama, or true-crime novel, you will be extremely pleased. Making the reading all the better is our current events. With a black president-elect, and a lot of the racism which fueled Booth now coursing through Lincoln’s Republican party, this book will shape your thinking for the years ahead of us. My personal reading was a didactic experience, and you can not hope for anything more from a book.