Civil WAR

Writing in Lincoln's footsteps

inspired: Swanson feels Lincoln's presence at son Willie Lincoln's tomb at Oak Hill Cemetery.
inspired: Swanson feels Lincoln's presence at son Willie Lincoln's tomb at Oak Hill Cemetery. (Evy Mages)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010

He pictures the tall man in the stovepipe hat walking at dusk through the fallen leaves, coming slowly down the winding path, past those two stone mausoleums, pausing before the one with the dark iron gate.

The grieving man would doff his hat, duck his head, and enter alone, to stand for a moment by the child he'd lost in the White House in the winter of 1862.

Here, more than any other place in Washington, by this secluded tomb carved into a hillside in Georgetown's Oak Hill Cemetery, historian James L. Swanson feels the mournful essence of Abraham Lincoln.

Here stands Lincoln, weighed down by the agony of the Civil War, the deaths of two of his children, and the loneliness of a president seeking to preserve a nation ripping itself apart.

And here Swanson, 51, a pale man with dark hair and eyebrows - a voyager into the past - gets closest to the center of his journeys.

But this is a sunny autumn day almost 150 years removed from the war, and the best-selling Washington author is standing outside the mausoleum, recounting the burial of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln. He is wearing dark-rimmed eyeglasses, a dark raincoat, dark pants and dark shoes, and looks more like a cop than a scholar.

"Lincoln didn't want to bury Willie in Washington permanently," Swanson is saying, "because he expected to go home to Illinois in March 1869 at the end of his second term."

What Lincoln did not expect was that he would be assassinated in 1865, and that his body and Willie's would be taken home together in a funeral that Swanson argues was "the most extraordinary public event in American history."

Imagine what it felt like after Sept. 11, 2001, he says, and after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, "and multiply those emotions several fold. . . .That's how intense it was."

That 1,600-mile, 18-day journey from Lincoln's deathbed in a boardinghouse across the street from Ford's Theatre to Springfield, Ill., is but one part of Swanson's new book, "Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse."

But it makes up the better-known and more wrenching segment of his portrait of Lincoln and the Confederate president amid the closing scenes of the Civil War and its aftermath.

Davis's flight from Richmond as the Southern rebellion crumbled, his defiant postwar life and his subsequent disappearance from the war's modern iconography make for a good yarn. Yet it is the nation's tortured farewell to its fallen "Father Abraham" that is the most gripping part of Swanson's account.


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