Tale of 2 presidents: One exited in glory, the other in disgrace

Book review: "Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse," by James Swanson. Morrow, $27.99.


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Most of us know the basic details of the first presidential assassination in U.S. history -- John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in a box at Ford's Theater the night of April 14, 1865.

The closing event of the Civil War, it's been re-examined so many times that it's almost as familiar as the Gettysburg Address.

What's forgotten is the aftermath -- Lincoln's 13-day open-casket tour. After his embalmed body was displayed at the White House and Capitol for two days, it was loaded onto a special funeral train for the 1,600 mile journey to his tomb in Springfield, Ill., passing millions along the route.

The extended, extravagant funeral pageant released a groundswell of emotion from everyday citizens, and as the train moved from city to city, civic leaders tried to outdo each other with elaborate ceremonies. The funeral train -- the largest funeral pageant in American history -- turned a controversial politician into a martyr and a saint in the eyes of many.

At the same time, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was on the run, a wanted man with a $100,000 bounty on his head.

In "Bloody Crimes," James L. Swanson weaves together the two expeditions across America in the end days of its deadliest conflict. As Lincoln's body was making its way across the North through the major cities that had helped him get elected (Pittsburgh, unfortunately, was not one of them), Davis was retreating south, followed by Union troops, getting dispatches from generals in the field as his 11-state empire crumbled. Should he flee west of the Mississippi and make a last stand, or simply leave the country altogether?

As he did with his 2006 best-seller "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer," Mr. Swanson has a way of retelling historical events in a very immediate -- and entertaining -- fashion.

Some details, such as Lincoln's autopsy in an upstairs bedroom of the White House, are riveting in their own right. Yet readers also learn about the work of the undertakers, who were in charge of keeping Lincoln's body from decaying.

By the time it arrived in Springfield May 3, early embalming fluids had turned his body to stone and his darkened face had to be lightened with pancake makeup. Huge floral displays at each stop helped mask the odor.

Pulling from a wide array of sources, the author also manages to put readers alongside Davis as he made his poorly planned retreat from Richmond to his capture in Irwinville, Ga.

He does a fine job of showing how these events changed the country. In the space of a few weeks, America went from a nation split by civil war to a country attempting to piece itself back together.

Mr. Swanson spends a good deal of the book contrasting and comparing Lincoln and Davis. Both were tall, thin, almost cadaverous outdoorsmen who stood out from their peers. Both lost loves earlier in life and carried the pain with them. As for differences, Lincoln was a ramshackle, wry, and casual man, while Davis took his position -- and himself -- very seriously.

Mr. Swanson tries to look beyond the Honest Abe legend to show the real man, and he also paints a rounded portrait of Davis, a revered leader in the South, and a snake of a man who tried to make his final escape disguised in his wife's dress in Northern accounts.

Or so people think. Mr. Swanson dissects the exact sequence of events that led to the overblown "Jeff in Petticoats" story that spread across the country.

The author, somewhat surprisingly, reserves his real scorn for Lincoln's widow, criticizing her selfish histrionics, in particular her lack of support for her young son Tad Lincoln. Given that the woman already suffered from mental problems and her husband had been murdered in front of her, his judgment seems a little harsh.

Mr. Swanson is more evenhanded in his intertwined stories of Lincoln and Davis. You don't have to be a history buff to find their sad, final journeys a page-turner.


Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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