Manhunt by James L Swanson

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The Independent Culture

On 14 April, 1865, Abraham Lincoln sat down at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, to watch a performance of Our American Cousin, a popular comedy. The Civil War was almost won, Robert E Lee, the head of the Confederate army, had surrendered, and all of Washington was ablaze with celebratory candles fireworks. Halfway through the play, John Wilkes Booth - a handsome and charismatic actor, famous and well-known for his opposition to the president - crept into the presidential box and assassinated Lincoln with a single shot to the back of the head. And Bush supporters moan about George Clooney.

James Swanson's vivid, well-researched book is a record of Booth's attempt to evade capture following this daring killing, and his journey - at first well-planned, later desperate - out of the packed theatre and through Maryland and Virginia towards the safe country of the anti-Lincoln Deep South. Booth managed 12 days on the run as the most wanted man in America, aided by an oddball collection of Confederate sympathisers, before coming face-to-face with Union soldiers in a tobacco barn about 40 miles from Richmond, the fallen capital of his beaten Confederacy.

The popular image of Lincoln today is that of the secular saint who went to war against slavery, although at the time the president made it clear that his primary motivation was to prevent the break-up of the country. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that," he wrote in 1862. Swanson's portrayal of Lincoln colludes in this sanctification, emphasising the essential goodness, modesty and even the intimidating physical strength of the president.

But he does acknowledge that, before his death, Lincoln was "a controversial and unpopular war leader"; it was Booth's act, meant to undermine Lincoln's policies, which ended up strengthening the Republican administration and establishing the president as an American folk hero. Swanson gives us some evidence of this more divisive Lincoln in the Sunday sermons that admonished the president for being in a theatre when he died, and on Good Friday, too.

Booth's image was also transformed in the wake of the killing. Already known as "the handsomest, best-dressed man in Washington", the 26-year-old firmly caught the public imagination during his getaway and was immortalised in widely distributed photographs, paintings and songs throughout the country. Booth - supposedly a distant relative of Cherie Blair - was ardently pro-slavery, and a firm supporter of states' rights and the South's attempt to secede. The year before the Lincoln killing, he had secretly masterminded an aborted plan to kidnap the president and hold him hostage in the South, thus turning the tide of the war. Lincoln's murder on April 14, 1865, was part of a wider plot which also involved killing Andrew Johnson, the vice president, and William Seward, the secretary of state. Seward was seriously injured by Lewis Powell, one of Booth's conspirators, that night, although a more reluctant associate, George Atzerodt, bottled out of attacking Johnson.

Although he condemns Booth's racism, Swanson displays some sympathy for the assassin and his audacious cross-country escape, which took place despite an intensely painful injury to his leg, fractured when he jumped from the presidential box, and huge government efforts to track him down. Swanson frequently compares those who betray or abandon Booth to Judas, and lauds the "honour" of the loyal Confederate sympathisers, such as Thomas Jones and Elizabeth Quesenberry, who assist him on his journey south.

The book delights in strange characters such as Jones, an ingenious "river ghost" who helps Booth cross the Potomac, and Boston Corbett, an eccentric English immigrant and devoted reader of Matthew 18 ("if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off"), who castrated himself after being "tempted by fallen women" and played a key role in the final, mishandled attempt to capture Booth. In the years after the killing, many of those connected to the case became "post-assassination entrepreneurs", giving lectures, hawking memorabilia, or collecting strange and often morbid mementos such as "a lock of [Lincoln's] hair... neatly framed" or "a piece of linen with a portion of his brain". Swanson notes with a shudder that some of Booth's vertebrae "repose today in a little-known medical museum, one attraction among thousands in a hideous collection devoted to documenting the wounds of the American Civil War".

Swanson, a lawyer and historian from Washington, DC, is rather too fond of applying theatrical metaphors to his subject - "Booth broke the fourth wall between artist and audience by creating a new, dark art - performance assassination," he notes at one point, and he occasionally indulges in speculation of the "Did Booth reminisce about happier days?" type. But for the most part the narrative - which relies on numerous first-hand and contemporary accounts, as well as Swanson's own retracing of Booth's steps - has a convincing feel, full of detail and dialogue. Manhunt is an enjoyable, and often exciting, portrayal of what must have been twelve of the most turbulent days in American history.