Ok, before I start, two confessions.
First, while I am a student of history, I never looked too hard at the Lincoln assassination. Lincoln the lawyer? Yes. But because it was such a difficult time in our history, I think I never focused on it because I didn’t want to dwell too long on one of the most tragic periods our nation has ever endured.
Second, while I had heard about this book, and mentally put it on my “read sometime” list, I wouldn’t have read it this soon had I not been offered the opportunity to read and review it.
Now, with that out of the way…
As history books go, this one was one of the better ones I’ve read, if only because the story was presented as a story, and not just a dry recitation of facts. I’m sure that it helped to have an epic story, and a fantastic cast of characters. But the way that it is told treats those characters as persons, with real-life motivations, and quirks, just like the people we interact with every day. It is these motivations, and quirks that make many of the true elements of this story so interesting to begin with.
The first part of the book focuses on the last days of the war, and the dogged determination of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, which has been surrounded and slowly starved by a Union Army that could not accept failure as an option. When Lee’s force makes a dramatic breakout, on a forced march to resupply its starving troops, the authors make the suffering and the wonder at men who have nothing left being hurried along by sheer force of will, and a dedication to their genteel commander that prevents him from losing more than half his force on the march. The description was graphic enough that I felt their despair when they reached the resupply hub only to find that there was no food waiting for their rumbling bellies, and the bitterness that would leave so many of them despondent and beaten for the rest of their lives.
I was surprised at the accounts of the horrors that the people of Richmond inflicted on themselves, in anticipation of the Union arrival and occupation, and touched by the descriptions of the final conflicts which found West Point classmates and old friends on opposite sides, a fact somehow made more poignant by the description of the Union general staff members waiting until Lee accepted the overly generous terms of surrender before they asked his permission to cross the lines, and seek out their friends and classmates among his own officer corps. I was genuinely touched at his own bravery in seeking to surrender before an unstoppable onslaught was set loose upon what remained of men who had given the last full measure of what the living could offer solely out of personal loyalty to him.
In truth, this emphasis on the last days of the war, and how in them leaders such as Lee and Lincoln both repeatedly exposed themselves to danger, in ways that seem unthinkable today, put a different spin on the subject matter for me. Where my casual familiarity with the assassination plot that I had from my public school education left me with the impression that Booth’s act was simply one of revenge, O’Reilly and Dugard provide a detailed glimpse into the world of Booth, who was an actor, southern sympathizer, and at one time, Confederate operative. As the reader is immersed in Booth’s world of hate and schemes, you realize that Lincoln was only the most audacious piece of a much more ambitious scheme to strike down the heart of Union leadership at a time when it was most critical to not just bring together one nation that had become two, but to actually heal it. While the act still retains the character revenge for me, it now strikes me as the final act of the war, and one that showed hope for a nation still divided in its heart when it refused to lionize the assassin, and chose instead to condemn him for the cold blooded murder he committed.
Along the way, we are treated to the unfolding of fortuitous circumstances, scoundrels, villany, honor, friendship, life and death, and a genuine tenderness for the subject. It is easy to think of Lincoln the President, but part of his enduring legacy is an undeniable humanity that finds easy humor, grace in the face of a world not generous with it, and an ability to overcome many obstacles and setbacks that might have made a lesser man give up. The reader is given a taste of the cares and concerns that so aged this man in such a short period…so much so that I confess to choking back tears when reading the account of the hours just after he was shot to when he died the next morning. Lincoln endures because we didn’t just lose a President with his murder. Lincoln endures because we lost a person who truly exemplified the best of us. The scene of his last hours was simply unthinkable by today’s standards, with all manner of absurdities, injustices, flickers of insight from those put in his company at that time, and the helplessness and compassion of the physicians attending the striken President as his time on Earth slipped away.
If you like a story with intrigue, loyalty, lingering questions, and compelling characters, I recommend “Killing Lincoln”. If you like true stories, I can recommend it on that basis as well.