The subtitle is The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, and that describes it very well. There is a little background early on, but for the most part this book starts the morning of April 14, 1865 and ends with Booth’s capture and death 12 days later. It contains the kind of detail you don’t get in history class. The minutia that Swanson dives into probably wouldn’t serve a history major well, but it’s truly fascinating and does a great job of transporting you to the time and place of one of this country’s most harrowing moments.
What I never realized was how perfectly Booth executed his portion of plan. He entered the box during the play and took one shot and killed the President. He was able to jump out of the box onto the stage and proclaim his assassination with gun and dagger raised. After that he scooted out the back and was miles outside of D.C. before anyone could start the chase. Pretty unbelievable when you consider it.
You learn how meticulously he planned this thing; how he traveled to Montreal, Quebec to meet fellow Southern sympathizers, how he scoured the countryside to plan his escape route, and how he situated his fellow conspirators for maximum effect. The amount of hatred and guile within Boothe was pretty chilling. And had he not basically broken his leg, he may have been able to make it to the Deep South and escape. But as it went, he ended up locked in a tobacco barn in Northern Virginia surrounded by 25 Union cavalrymen. In the end he was gunned down by an especially eccentric cavalry member named Boston Corbett.
His plan was much grander than just the assassination of Lincoln. Booth organized co-conspirators to kill Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson on the same night. Both of those other attacks failed; the former because of gallant efforts by bodyguards and family members and the latter because of the cowardice of the perpetrator.
This isn’t the type of history book you read to understand Lincoln. And you don’t read it to gain some insight the people and policies that were integral to changing the course of this country. But it does help you understand just how divided this country was. Just how mainstream it was at the time to have outright hatred for the President and how many people were available to hide Booth from Union soldiers.
Most every one was caught and brought to justice. His main four co-conspirators were hanged in Washington a few months after Booth’s death.
Andrew Johnson ended up being a poor successor to Lincoln and he was succeeded by Grant, who wasn’t much of an upgrade. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War who was integral in the manhunt, was fired by Johnson and died an early death. William Seward recovered but his family was never the same and his wife and daughter died shortly thereafter. I’m not sure which of these players were in the “team of rivals” that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wrote about, but I’ll eventually read her book.
This was a fine book.