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The contextualization goes far beyond character sketches, however. Swanson ably illustrates the very real, pervasive fear in the aftermath of Booth’s act that without Lincoln to oversee the final days of a still smoldering Civil War — not every Confederate Army unit disbanded at Lee’s surrender — the “conflict might degenerate into a brutal guerrilla war that might take years to win.” The worry was real enough to prompt Ulysses S. Grant to order the arrest of all paroled Confederate officers and surgeons, only to back down when one of his aides pointed out that such a move might re-open hostilities. Likewise, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was relieved when the assassination was not followed by a Confederate Army marching on Washington, D.C.
That probably disappointed Booth as much as it relieved Stanton. Instead of the South rising again, Swanson writes, “Booth witnessed the first draft of history transform Abraham Lincoln from a controversial and often unpopular war leader into America’s secular saint.” Suspected Booth sympathizers were murdered in the street by roving mobs. No one seemed to shed any tears as the Old Capitol Prison filled to the brim with a few real but mostly imagined co-conspirators. Wesley Severs, a U.S. Marine stationed in Illinois, reflected the sentiments of many when he wrote to his mother that he would like to “take a pair of shears” to Booth “and cut him in pieces as you would cut a piece of cloth.” Lest Severs’s mother believe he had gone soft, the Marine added, “Then I would dig out his eyes and then pour in boiling hot oil,” before signing off, “your affectionate son.”
OF COURSE, THE CHARACTER who maintains center stage throughout Manhunt is Booth. The portrait that emerges is of a man who treated his last days on earth as the last act of a great dramatic tragedy, going so far as to invoke Richard III and Macbeth in his descriptions of his predicament. From the moment of the assassination, he was playing the part, leaping to the stage, breaking his leg in an unscripted moment, and shouting to the baffled audience, “Sic simper tyrannis [Thus always to tyrants]. The South is avenged!” Booth could not for the life of him understand why the rest of the world failed to see it that same way. Hiding in a pine thicket reading newspapers Jones smuggles him, Booth whines with dismay at the insistence of newspaper columnists from both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line on seeing the assassination as something less than a grandiose act. “I think I have done well, though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me,” Booth woefully scribbles in his makeshift diary when life on the lam and a lack of critical acclaim begin to depress him. “When if the world knew my heart, one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness.”
That last is a crock, obviously. Those who do not seek greatness would not care what the world outside thought. On this point it’s particularly instructive to note Booth’s last words as he lay dying: Booth asked to see his hands and whispered, “Useless, useless.” How outsized must your sense of personal greatness be to strike down a President of the United States at the apex of his power and determine the impact and implications of such a dastardly deed were inconsequential?
If the actor-turned-assassin is watching this world from somewhere out there in perdition, however, he must take some small consolation that in the already planned film version of this book starring Harrison Ford, James Swanson is on record saying he believes Johnny Depp would make a great John Wilkes Booth. The drama has outlived him. What else could a self-absorbed, preening actor ask for?
Shawn Macomber, a Boston-based writer, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator. This article appeared in the April 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.
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