Historians almost without number have documented the final days of the Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Lawyer/historian James Swanson, however, has taken a rather unusual approach to those tumultuous days in the spring of 1865. In 2006 he gained favorable notice with MANHUNT, his book detailing the 12-day chase that brought capture and death to Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. In this new effort, he sheds historical light on the flight and eventual capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the elaborate funeral train that took Lincoln’s body on a 13-day, 1,600-mile journey to its final burial site in Springfield, Illinois.
Swanson’s technique --- generally but not totally successful --- is to braid the two stories together, alternating back and forth, sometimes within the same paragraph, between Davis’s flight from his fallen capital in Richmond and the preparation and carrying out of Lincoln’s funeral rites. He has worked hard to give both equal treatment, but inevitably reader interest will be drawn to Davis’s story because it is the much lesser known of the two and because it has a strong element of suspense and melodrama as opposed to predictably grandiose funeral ritual.
The same can be said of Swanson’s treatment of the two men. Davis is much more obscure to most (non-Southern) readers, and his portrait actually betrays genuine admiration for the man. He comes off the page as a Southern patrician --- well-educated, sophisticated and courtly, as opposed to the well-known homespun simplicity and country manners of Lincoln. Swanson certainly does not denigrate Lincoln one bit, but his sympathetic treatment of Davis will give most readers a new and more generous appreciation of the man.
Davis and his government fled Richmond ahead of the advancing Union army, and after brief stops in Danville, Virginia and Charlotte, North Carolina, set off on a pathetically doomed journey south. He rejected the idea of an overseas escape attempt and also saw the futility of heading west to try a revival of the Confederate cause in Texas. Most of his followers deserted him as he traveled. He was captured on May 10th --- less than a month after Lincoln’s assassination --- in a rural area of southeastern Georgia, but only after a near debacle in which two regiments of his pursuers ended up firing at each other by mistake.
Press and public in the north, of course, were howling for Davis’s summary execution. They jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he had been involved somehow in the Lincoln murder plot. The Union government, however, had no wish to make Davis a martyr. He was imprisoned (but never tried) and eventually released. He lived out his days on an estate in southern Mississippi. In a stroke of classic historical irony, that property was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Swanson has done his research work with thoroughness and brilliance. However, he does tend to get bogged down in unnecessary detail sometimes. We get exhaustive catalogues of the fabrics, decorations and physical setups provided in just about every city where Lincoln’s body was put on public view. There are longish digressions describing other funerals that figure in Lincoln’s story, and much-quoted correspondence on both war tactics and funeral preparations that could have been easily summarized.
One thing that does come through loud and clear in Swanson’s telling is the veneration with which Jefferson Davis was regarded by his southern brethren and their visceral hatred for anyone and everything connected with his northern foes. Even in defeat, humiliation and imprisonment, they loved him. It makes a startling contrast to the sniping and personal invective so often hurled at Lincoln by many of his own subjects.
Of course, the numerous tribe of Civil War buffs will lap up BLOODY CRIMES. But it will also intrigue the general reader by casting fresh light on a period.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on December 22, 2010