James Swanson's "Bloody Crimes," reviewed by John Waugh

By John C. Waugh
Sunday, October 3, 2010; B07


The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse

By James L. Swanson


462 pp. $27.99

In mid-April 1865, the Civil War was over, but the drama wasn't. The nature of the drama, however, had radically changed. No longer was it the clash of great armies. It centered instead on the separate journeys of two men -- one dead, the other whose cause had died -- to their destinies.

This marvelous book is the story of President Abraham Lincoln's long journey home to Illinois following his assassination at Ford's Theater. And it is the parallel story of Confederate President Jefferson Davis's sorrowful journey into captivity after the war.

James Swanson, who enthralled us with "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer," has enthralled us again. In his skilled hands, these two journeys are rivetingly told, in absorbing, meticulous detail. "Bloody Crimes" is a book about death, but it exudes life. Drawing liberally on firsthand accounts, Swanson covers these dramatic parallel journeys day by day, shifting from one to the other in gripping counterpoint.

Swanson places us at the scene after John Wilkes Booth fires the fatal shot into Lincoln's brain. We are there in the chaos in the Peterson house across from the theater, where Lincoln was carried, where stunned Cabinet members congregated in the cramped little room around his death bed, where Mary Lincoln shrieked "wails of a broken heart" for her dying husband and where a team of surgeons labored fruitlessly over him as his life ebbed away. Swanson makes us up-close witnesses to what the poet Walt Whitman called "that moody, tearful night."

We are made witnesses, too, to the grisly details of the autopsy and the embalming in the White House. We relive Lincoln's funeral and his lying in state in Washington. We are taken with his corpse on its 13-day journey over 1,645 miles of track through 10 cities across the North, home to Springfield. We are present among the 1 million grieving Americans who viewed the body in its casket on its catafalques at the major stops on the railroad line. We see the weeping of the 7 million who lined the tracks as the train sped past.

It was a journey dark with sorrow, but brilliantly lit all along the line. Swanson writes that it constituted "a ribbon of flame unspooling across the land as torches and bonfires marked . . . his way home." It was a journey unprecedented in our history.

Davis's way to his destiny, with a huge $100,000 bounty on his head (more than $2 million today), was by contrast an unlit, slow, month-long manhunt through four states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and finally Georgia, where he was cornered and captured on the Abbeyville Road a mile and a half from Itwinville on May 10, 1865, 38 days after he had fled the fallen and captured city of Richmond.

Swanson describes this journey with the same immediacy, authenticity and detail that he relies on to recount Lincoln's. Davis's unhurried retreat, as he still harbored a hopeless hope for his dying cause, was the Confederate leader at his dignified best. With his life ever in danger, his aides urging him to go on alone, escape, save himself, he refused. "He gave me to understand," a member of his staff wrote, "that he would not take any step which might be construed into inglorious flight. The mere idea that he might be looked upon as fleeing seemed to arouse him." Davis said he simply would "never abandon his people" -- never desert his beloved South in its agony of defeat. Swanson puts to rest -- again -- the myth that Davis was captured in his wife's dress. He had simply thrown a waterproof belonging to her across his shoulders, and she had thrown a black shawl over his head at the last minute as he stepped into the gray May morning.

The reward for his capture was split by the men of the 4th Michigan and 1st Wisconsin cavalry regiments, which had participated jointly. The price Davis paid was an undignified two-year captivity in Fort Monroe, Va., with the threat of execution hanging over him. It was a fate that the ever-forgiving Lincoln would not have countenanced for Davis. But unlike Lincoln, Davis had life, which he lived out to 81 years, the final few in relative contentment in his home on the gulf near Biloxi, Miss. And when he died, he did so as revered and as celebrated in the South as Lincoln in death had been in the North.

John C. Waugh writes books on the Civil War era. His latest is "Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership Between a President and His General."

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