Saturday Book Report

Taking some time off from obsessing about the national security, political, and policy problems we face as we careen towards the abyss, I have a book review that might be helpful as you browse garage sales and bookstores this weekend.

The book is Killing Lincoln, 2011, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugas. Unlike many marketing descriptions, O’Reilly’s blurbs this time are very accurate–“With an unforgettable cast of characters, vivid historical detail, and page-turning action, Killing Lincoln is history that reads like a thriller. ”

Nothing like his recent best seller Pinheads and Patriots in either style or  substance, Killing Lincoln is truly a well-written, interesting and informative book. Although I can’t say that I couldn’t put it down, I can say that when I did I looked forward to picking it up again later. It’s told in an episodic style; the sixty-two chapters average less than five pages long, each one covering anywhere from a few hours to a few of the days between April 1 and July 7, 1865. In effect, it’s quite a bit like a written version of the old Walter Cronkite TV show, You Are There.

To be clear, it’s not a novel or a fictionalized account “based on history;” it’s a straight description of the events, pieced together from contemporary articles and personal eyewitness accounts, and “books, websites and other archived information,” supplemented by visits to the actual locations of the historic events. Although it isn’t footnoted, its sources are listed in “Notes” at the end of the book, and they seem to be extensive and detailed enough to satisfy even people who might be tempted to dismiss the book as a lightweight effort by a TV guy. An Index is also provided.

It’s not an exaggeration to say this book is entertaining and informative. The Prologue sets the stage by describing events of March 4: President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address (with John Wilkes Booth in attendance), and the simultaneously occurring siege of Petersburg, Virginia.

The body of the book is divided into four parts. Part One, Total War,  starts on April 1, the night of the final assault on Petersburg. From there, it counts down the days to the the end of the war at Appomattox Court House on Palm Sunday, April 9, describing the details of battles and pursuits, and even more interestingly, the consideration of the commanders for both the necessity of winning these battles and for the welfare of the men that were going to have to fight them.

The Ides of Death picks up on Monday, April 10, with post-war festivities, official meetings and speeches by Lincoln, and his belief in the need to begin the national healing immediately, starting with effectively no recriminations against Southern combatants. “Post-war” does not describe the mood of Booth and his co-conspirators. What had been a plan to kidnap Lincoln during the war becomes a plot to murder the President now that a kidnapping would serve no purpose. Booth decides, like a modern terrorist, that he will make a statement and in the process go down in history as “the man who will end Abraham Lincoln’s life.” Preparations are made by President Lincoln for him to attend Ford’s theater on Friday with wife Mary and General and Mrs. Grant.

The Long Good Friday covers the day of April 14, Good Friday. Lincoln’s final day in office is described, and the plans and the activities of the conspirators are laid out in detail. Presidential plans are altered for the night’s entertainment–the Grants will not accompany the Lincolns, but another couple will. During a burst of laughter in the performance, Booth carries out his attack and escapes. A simultaneous attempt is made on the life of Secretary of State William Seward, an attempt that doesn’t succeed (because of a jammed revolver) but results in extremely serious injuries to four people. And there is more, including a planned attack against Vice President Andrew Johnson.

The Chase is as it sounds, ending with the trial and execution of Booth’s co-conspirators and facilitator Mary Surratt. Her July 7 hanging made Surratt “the first and only woman ever hanged by the United States government.”

The book has “extras,” starting with an Afterword with tidbits about the later lives of survivors, including son Robert Todd Lincoln. Notably, it was during the Johnson administration that Seward achieved the purchase of Alaska. Had the plot fully succeeded, who knows how that would have affected twentieth century history? A “re-creation” of the April 29, 1865, Harper’s Weekly article, “The Murder of the President,” wraps it up.

For anybody who, like me, suffers from a poor knowledge of history, Killing Lincoln could be especially informative.  I was only vaguely aware of the attack on Seward.  Booth’s motivation was obvious, but the depth and intensity of his obsession with Lincoln was unknown to me, as was the fact that he had essentially acted as a spy for the South during the war.  I highly recommend the book to everyone with any interest at all in American history.


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