In Bloody Crimes, James Swanson returns to the historical vicinity of his 2006 bestseller Manhunt. That book offered a gripping, swift-moving account of the pursuit of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and his accomplices. Bloody Crimes tells the story of two different journeys that unfolded at nearly the same time as the hunt for Booth.
The first journey is the flight of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Richmond, Virginia, after General Robert E. Lee informed him on April 2, 1865, that his army could no longer protect the South’s capital. Part of Swanson’s subtitle calls this “the chase for Jefferson Davis.” But one of the more interesting elements of his account is the sense that a good many Union commanders (including Lincoln himself) seemed to hope that Davis would escape and not leave them with the thorny task of deciding whether or not to execute him. In addition, Davis’ flight was strangely indecisive. A man of old-school dignity and honor, he delayed and delayed, hoping to rally supporters and carry on the good fight while his armies surrendered and his allies drifted away. In this account at least, his capture feels almost like an afterthought.
The second journey is the extraordinary train trip of Lincoln’s corpse across the country for burial in Springfield, Illinois, during which time his body was displayed to hundreds of thousands of mourners in cities along the route. Swanson’s account shows just how amazing and emotional this journey was and provides context for understanding how this “death pageant for Lincoln’s corpse” (as the engagingly lurid subtitle calls it) shaped our notions of national mourning.
Swanson quotes liberally from period memoirs and documents. This lends a you-are-there feel to the book, but these passages also clearly show that Jefferson Davis simply was not as eloquent nor as reflective as Lincoln. Davis outlived Lincoln by many years, publishing memoirs, relying on support from friends and a loyal wife and garnering resounding adulation near the end of his life from Confederate veterans. But in some small part because of his body’s long trip home, Abraham Lincoln seems have garnered something different and larger: Call it immortality.