Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Review, Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever

It's my opinion that history tends to be unpopular in school because of the way it's usually taught--dry and detached. Which is not how Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever, Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's new book about the collapse of the Confederacy and the assassination of our 16th president, is presented. It reads like a Tom Clancy novel--only we know how the story ends.

O'Reilly of course is the host of his highly-rated Fox News prime time show, Dugard is a noted author of historical novels and running books. Which might explain the book's consistent but fast pace.

Gen. Phil Sheridan at Five Forks,
Fort Sheridan, IL
The bulk of Killing Lincoln centers on the the fateful month of April, 1865--when the Confederacy collapsed and of when Lincoln was shot. The Battle of Five Forks, which blocked the rebels easiest escape route from the Petersburg trenches and the overwhelming of the Confederates in those trenches the next day, is an often overlooked chapter of the Civil War, but it is given its deserved attention here. On a personal note, one of my great-great grandfathers, Patrick Curran (5th Pennsylvania Cavalry) fought at Five Forks and one of my great-grandfathers, Joseph Ruberry (23rd Illinois), served in the Petersburg campaign.

While Grant is chasing Lee to across western Virginia and eventually to Appomattox Court House, the authors trace the development of John Wilkes Booth's plot to kidnap Lincoln, which evolved into an assassination plot of not only the president, but Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth comes across in this telling as fanatical, but also as someone who couldn't quite ascertain the difference between the stage and the real world.

O'Reilly and Dugard write:

Chicago Lincoln
Ave. statue
The cast and crew at Ford's treat Booth like family. His eccentricities are chalked up to him being a famous actor. The theatrical world is full of a hundred guys just as unpredictable and passionate, so nobody dreams that he has a burning desire to kill the president. So it is, as Booth rises to his feet and wanders back into the theater to plan the attack, that it never crosses anyone's mind to ask what he's doing. It's just John being John.
Later that evening, the assassin asks a hotel clerk if he's going to see Our American Cousin at Ford's. He replies, "No."
"You ought to go," Booth says with a wink on his way out the door. "There is going to be some splendid acting."
Shortly afterwards Booth remarks to another man, "When I leave the stage I will be the most talked about man in America."

Then, as Carl Sandburg wrote about his fellow Illinoisan, "The prairie years, the war years, were over."

The shooting of Lincoln and his death the following morning doesn't slow the action. Eventually all of the conspirators, real and imagined, are arrested, except for Booth, who was killed after being surrounded by Union soldiers in Virginia. John Surratt, whose mother was found guilty on rather flimsy evidence for participating in the plot, fled to Canada, then to Rome, where he became a Papal Zouave, and finally to Egypt, where was arrested a year after Lincoln's assassination.

Tampico, IL
"Mrs. Surratt is innocent," Lewis Powell, who came very close assassinating Seward, yelled out shortly before they were hanged. Her son's trial ended in a hung jury--he was not retried.

There are a few flaws in this otherwise entertaining and informing book. The authors note that after Lee's surrender, the Virginian and Grant never met again. But the commander of the Unions armies visited Lee the next morning, which Grant recounted in his Memoirs. That's odd, since dialogue between the generals from the Memoirs are included in O'Reilly and Dugard's book. And shortly before his death, Lee visited Grant, who was by then president, in the White House. Also, there was no Oval Office during Lincoln's time--the West Wing wasn't constructed until the early 1900s, Lincoln usually worked in a second floor White House office.

U.S. Grant home, Galena, IL
The authors cast suspicion on Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, claiming that he may have known about Booth's plot against Lincoln beforehand. That's a stretch, to say the least. Although Stanton and Lincoln's relationship got off to a very bad start when they were working as attorneys on patent case in the 1850s, the Ohioan came to greatly admire the 16th president after his appointment to the cabinet. Besides, what would be Stanton's motive in having Lincoln killed? Or even kidnapped, as was Booth's original plan.

The book's release is timed for Christmas--and it will be a welcome gift for history buffs as well as those who simply enjoy great narratives. And finally, you don't have to be a viewer of the O'Reilly Factor--or a marathon runner--to appreciate this book.

If you are an author, publishing house, or a literary agent and you would like for me to review a book, please contact me at john "dot" ruberry "at" sbcglobal.net.

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1 comment:

Espana said...

I like Bill O'Reilly very much. He has done the people a great service by having many who know little or nothing at all about the subject of this book induced to learn about it and perhaps to become interested in that subject in a way that never would have been possible had not HE been its author. But those folks deserved better.