James Swanson loves him some Abraham Lincoln. Not only was he born on Lincoln’s birthday (coincidence?), but he’s been collecting Lincoln memorabilia since he was ten years old. He brought his love for Lincoln to the page with his fantastic book Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer a few years back, which documented the national manhunt to track down John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in 1865. In his latest book, Bloody Crimes, rather than chasing after Booth, we remain behind at Ford’s Theater to witness Lincoln’s last living moments, and also to see the unfolding of the improbable journey his corpse would take following his death on its way back to Springfield, IL, where he was to be buried.
Once Lincoln passed away in Washington, it was decided that he would be buried in Illinois, and would travel there with his dead son Willie by train. Once word of the travel plans leaked out, towns along the train route began vying for the chance for Lincoln’s body to stop in their town so that they could pay tribute to him and America could see the face of their fallen leader. What began as a direct train route soon became a meandering journey through the major towns of the North, such as New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Elaborate parades, tributes and viewings were planned in each town he would stop in, with people standing in line for hours and in all weather just for the chance to walk by Lincoln’s body and say goodbye. People whose towns Lincoln did not stop in crowded along the tracks for a glimpse of the train as it rolled by. Signs, banners and arches, homemade or extravagant, lined the route as well. The passing of Lincoln’s corpse throughout our war-torn country brought its people together both in mourning and in determination to help their country to rise again as he had envisioned it.
What sounded great on paper presented a logistical challenge. Lincoln died on April 15, his funeral train trip did not even begin until April 21, and he was not buried until May 3 in Springfield. That’s 18 days his dead body remained above ground. Back during the Civil War, refrigeration in any form did not exist. Embalming techniques were rustic at best. And Lincoln was shot in April, so springtime with its warmer weather and rains were in full swing. The embalmers who would accompany Lincoln on his final journey were in a race against decomposition and decay, and they had the formidable task of keeping the corpse intact (and viewable) for the entire trip. They would utilize techniques such as low lighting, white makeup, and tons and tons of flowers (to mask the smell) in order to get him through the trip.
It wouldn’t be a Swanson book if we weren’t off chasing someone, so Swanson also tells the story of the hunt for Jefferson Davis, the ousted President of the Confederacy. It was mistakenly believed in the early hours of Lincoln’s assassination, when details about Booth’s conspiracy were just coming to light, that Davis had a hand in the dastardly deed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Following the Confederate defeat and fall of Richmond on April 2, 1865, Davis and his cabinet fled into the South, ostensibly with the millions in Confederate gold that comprised the Southern treasury. Like Booth experienced in Manhunt, not everyone in the South greeted Davis with open arms. Many were afraid to help him for fear of Union retaliation. Like Booth, Davis spent several days and nights hiding in the woods, with only a few friends to rely on, and a price on his head ($100,000 was offered for anyone who turned him in) . And like Booth, both were captured by coincidence. Davis was captured by Union troops on May 2, 1865 in Irwinsville, GA, with his family and several of his cabinet members. Although Booth was shot on sight and his conspirators hanged, Davis was jailed for two years and then released. Even though he had led the secessionist Confederacy and ordered the killing of Union soldiers, he was never tried for treason, but was symbolically released in order to help the country move on from the war and its horrors.
This was a really fascinating book, and unlike Manhunt, did not slow down towards the end. I was thrilled earlier this month to visit Gettysburg, PA, and had my picture taken with good old Abe. I have really come to respect our 16th President and the revolutionary ideas he had to rid our country of slavery and help bring our divided country together. He changed our country forever, and gave his life because of those beliefs. Swanson’s books have only improved that respect. Even cooler, Swanson also rewrote this book for teens. Its title is Bloody Times: The Funeral for Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jefferson Davis.