'Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer' by James L. Swanson

A fresh account of the hunt for Lincoln's killer

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President Abraham Lincoln was one of the last victims of the Civil War, assassinated April 14, 1865, just days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

   
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

By James L. Swanson
Morrow, ($26.95)

   

The first thing that jumps out from James L. Swanson's detail-rich history of the event is just how easy it was for actor John Wilkes Booth, in a city packed with armed Union troops, to murder the most important man in America and get away.

Booth simply walked into Lincoln's box at Ford's Theater unchallenged and fired a single shot into the back of the president's head. Despite rumors of Confederates on the loose seeking revenge, no one thought to guard the president and his wife.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth easily fended off the only person to fight him, an Army major, slashing him with a knife.

Had he not been hampered by a leg broken in his jump to the stage below, his escape might have succeeded.

Booth, a Southern sympathizer, wanted desperately to play the hero for "the Lost Cause," but his deed and escape were distinguished by luck, official bungling and incompetence.

A lackadaisical guard at Washington's Navy Yard Bridge allowed Booth and accomplice David Herold to cross illegally into Maryland on horseback.

It took hours for the federal government to organize a response, giving Booth ample time to seek out Dr. Samuel Mudd's farm hours south of Washington for treatment of his leg and rest.

Swanson's book concentrates on the days following Lincoln's murder as Booth and Herold moved cautiously through Maryland and Virginia. Despite a well-publicized $100,000 bounty, the pair managed to hide in the countryside, including four days straight in a pine grove as federal troops closed in.

Herold botched one try at crossing the Potomac into Virginia in a rowboat, a crucial misstep that delayed their flight south. By the time they arrived at last in the former Confederacy, troops were close behind.

Their flight ended April 26 in a torched Virginia tobacco barn where they were surrounded by soldiers, one of whom fired without permission through the barn's siding, fatally wounding Booth. Herold surrendered.

Swanson, a lawyer, is a long-time student of Booth's days on the run, immersing himself in the vast material of diaries, newspapers and first-person accounts of the widely reported incident. He uses the material judiciously and effectively.

Without too much speculation, Swanson has drawn a vivid and compelling portrait of the assassin whose bravado and self-importance were eroded by his increasingly desperate condition.

While not the smoothest writer in the business, Swanson employs clear and straightforward prose, a good approach when sifting through such a welter of information and legend.

The capture of Booth, however, is a sidebar to the strange and troubling fate of his co-conspirators, tried, convicted and executed by the military.

It warrants the same clear and well-organized treatment Swanson brings to "Manhunt."


Post-Gazette Book Editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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