Politics & Policy

The Booth Chase

The twelve days after Lincoln was shot.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson (William Morrow, 464 pp., $26.95)

James L. Swanson is an unabashed sucker for two things: Abraham Lincoln and a good story. In Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, Swanson, a legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has written a well-researched history of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination that reads like the script of an action drama.

#ad#“This story is true,” Swanson assures the reader in the author’s note. “All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic. . . . What happened in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1865, and in the swamps and rivers, and the forests and fields, of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have ever been made up.”

The key event–Booth’s stealing into Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre, firing his pistol at point-blank range, and leaping onto the stage yelling “Sic Semper Tyrannis!”–is a familiar one. But few people know about the events leading up to the fateful night of April 14, 1865, and the ensuing twelve-day wild-goose chase on which Booth led the nation. Using original sources such as letters, newspapers, memoirs, government reports, and trial transcripts, Swanson presents the full story, in thrilling vignettes worthy of the drama of the actual events.

John Wilkes Booth certainly knew how to thrill an audience. A son of the famed actor Junius Brutus Booth, John shared his father’s knack for the stage. Handsome, vain, charming, and “emotionally flamboyant,” Booth was a celebrated actor and playboy: not a likely mastermind of a presidential-assassination conspiracy. But Booth’s pride had been injured when, on April 13, Washington, D.C. held a torch-lit celebration of the fall of the Confederacy. He enlisted an entourage of friends and fellow emancipation-haters to participate in a plot that envisioned the murder not only of Abraham Lincoln but of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. In the paper trail he left behind–including a letter to the National Intelligencer in which he attempted to justify his crime–Booth revealed his desire for his name to be remembered, not merely in the theater circuits of the East Coast, but in the annals of history as well. Unfortunately, he got his wish.

But Booth’s assassination of the nation’s commander-in-chief appears less remarkable once Swanson explains the circumstances. Despite the Civil War, Washington in the 1860s was not like the post-9/11 capital of today. During his presidency, the reader learns, Lincoln frequently met with the casual White House visitor. Not a figure limited to barricades and podiums, the president had personal relationships and kept social engagements in Washington. Lincoln had no security detail with him on the night he was assassinated. And he arrived at Ford’s that night, a theatre Booth acted in frequently and knew intimately, announced and unsuspecting.

The assassin, writes Swanson, “didn’t even really have to aim–aiming suggests a marksman’s skill–he was so close to the president that all he had to do was point the Deringer [pistol]” and shoot. Swanson loves to hate his arrogant assassin, referencing Booth’s hatred of the Union and of the “insolent, free black man,” and he enjoys belittling Booth whenever the opportunity presents itself–which, owing to Booth’s ego, occurs often in the narrative. The author is, however, fair to his villain: He discloses to us Booth’s affectionate letters to his mother and sister and as well as Booth’s private despair at learning that he was loved neither by the press nor by the leaders of the defeated Confederacy.

What is remarkable is the ease with which Booth fled the city and baffled the secretary of war, Union soldiers, policemen, detectives, and even fellow Confederates, for nearly two weeks. Swanson ably describes how the death of the president so shook the country that an actor–accompanied only by one companion, unprepared for the wilderness, lame with a broken leg from his theatrical exit from Ford’s, and armed only with two pistols and a dagger–outwitted the best intelligence the Union army could muster. Swanson argues that the secret to Booth’s successful disappearance and safe conduct through roughly 75 miles of Maryland and Virginia terrain was the aid of rebel sympathizers living in the region. Without the help of individuals like Thomas A. Jones, a Confederate agent and ferryman who sneaked Booth across the Potomac, Dr. Samuel Mudd, an acquaintance and abettor to the assassin who treated his broken leg, and Mary Surratt, a mother figure to Booth who gave false information to investigators, the greatest manhunt in American history would’ve lasted perhaps two of its twelve days.

In the epilogue, Swanson cautions us not to turn the “evil murderer of a president into a fascinating antihero,” but he can’t deny the fact that he devotes almost 400 pages to him. And that’s not a bad thing. James L. Swanson’s well-documented and vivid account allows its readers to retain Abraham Lincoln as the object of our admiration, and John Wilkes Booth as an object of intense curiosity.

Elizabeth Fisher is an NR editorial associate.

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