Monday, November 8, 2010

North And South

When I'm not listening to a book on tape or Led Zepplin during my morning commute to work, I have the radio tuned into a local talk show. Several weeks ago I was mentally arranging my work day and only half listening to the radio. But something the host said caught my immediate attention: James Swanson was in town and would be speaking that evening to promote his latest book, Bloody Crimes: The Chase For Jefferson Davis And The Death Pageant For Lincoln's Corpse.

I can't remember if I read Swanson's Manhunt last year or in 2008, but it was one of the best books I read that year. In fact, it remains one of the most interesting books I've read in recent memory. It recounts the twelve days spent by John Wilkes Booth from the assassination of Lincoln to his capture and death. Like the author, I have always been fascinated by The Civil War. It was probably that fascination which lead me to a life-long love of history in general and fostered my declaration of a major in college. Growing up as a child in Chicago, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was the most revered figure of all the American giants we learned about in school - as was befitting a state in the union which adopted the motto "Land of Lincoln." Few eighth grade field trips did not include a trip to Springfield to visit Lincoln's tomb. His birthday, February 12, was a holiday. Schools and many businesses were closed. Most families I knew had a portrait, bust or statue of Lincoln somewhere in their house. The most popular picture was the same one that graces our penny. Our house held a bronze bust of Lincoln which was given away as a promotional advertisement by Lincoln Savings and Loan. I would be willing to guess the bank is long gone or gobbled up by a conglomerate; but, the bronze bust of Lincoln is still sitting on one of Shorty's bookshelves. And, of course, he was particularly special since he and my sister shared a birth date. (She would wish me to point out, month and day only...not year.)

Despite my Yankee upbringing, and my inbred reverence for Lincoln, I also grew up with a romantic melancholy for the Old South, fostered no doubt by movies such as Jezebel and Gone With The Wind (both well before my time, I hasten to add, but still accessible to me). Those tales of the South painted pretty pictures of life in the great plantation houses made wealthy from cotton and tobacco crops. Looking through the prism of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, the films seldom exposed the evil upon which much of this wealth rested. But slavery was a fairly well-covered topic in school. Intellectually, I knew that a system which enslaved one human being to another was, at its soul, wicked. Such a society would, and should, fail. But there were other stories as well. Stories of privilege and plenty, of ideologies battling each other, of broken lives and devastated homes, and bodies lying in farm fields. Stories of a way of life coming to an abrupt end.

When I moved South over twenty years ago, I was surprised at how much The Civil War was still being fought in the minds of my new neighbors. Whereas, it was a topic covered in school and sometimes in film up North, it was always distant history. Down South, the war between the states was viewed through a different lens. I came to realize the memory of the war was kept fresher because most of the blood shed in that bloodiest of wars was shed on southern soil. The legends were kept alive by the proximity of the battlefields, the crumbling ruins, the monuments. Even today, you will raise the temperature of the room by recalling the memory of General William Tecumseh Sherman. To say he is still reviled around these parts is an understatement. One speaks his name with caution for there will be at least one denizen of the South present who will surely consign his soul to the devil. Speak it with a Yankee accent at your peril. Sherman is best known as a human juggernaut who burned as much of the south as he could on his March to the Sea, sparing nothing in his path until he reached Savannah. Savannah, I am most grateful to say, he gave to President Lincoln as a Christmas present instead of torching it to the ground. (But perhaps he was kind to small children and dogs.)

After learning James Swanson was to speak at one of the churches downtown, I decided I would go home after work, grab my copy of Manhunt, and head out to hear him. Swanson was a treasure trove of historical fact, but mostly I remember the anecdotes and odd tidbits. For instance, Swanson owns a locket containing a lock of Lincoln's hair which was cut as he lay dying. The locket is framed and hangs in his bedroom. Imagine walking past Lincoln's hair every morning and evening. I was stunned when he said Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States Of America, was a guest at the Savannah home of Hugh M. Comer, stood on the veranda and gave a speech to a cheering crowd of thousands of people who packed into Monterey Square. Stunned because at that very moment my car was parked outside the front door of that house. When I walked back to my car on that quiet evening I stood for a moment and tried to imagine how different it must have appeared on May 3, 1886. I tried to imagine a noisy throng gathered to hear Davis speak. I listened for ghosts. All long gone, I heard nothing but a whippoorwill calling.

I found Swanson to be a very engaging and friendly fellow. Being a Yankee, and great admirer of Lincoln, I told him I felt guilty that a small part of me was hoping John Wilkes Booth would make it through the dragnet. Swanson threw his head back and laughed. "You know, I was in Chicago when a woman came up to me and said, 'I hate you, James Swanson.' I was taken aback for awhile until she added, 'You made me like John Wilkes Booth.'" "Are you satisfied that you know him now?" I asked. He smiled and said, "Ahhh".

As I told a lady standing next to us who had not read Manhunt, it is a marvelous historical work that reads like a thriller. Even though I knew how it ended, I thought just maybe he'd get away this time. Of course, things worked out the way they should have. Artfully, without turning Booth into an heroic or sympathetic figure, Swanson succeeded in making him human. I broke a promise to myself not to buy Bloody Crimes at the lecture, but in the end I figured...what the hell...and picked up a copy.

Swanson appeared to have a good time working the room. Savannah is an easy place and I think he felt that ease. He seemed in no hurry for the evening to end. I handed my two volumes over to him for his signature, thanked him, and walked out into the quiet night. I got into my car and tossed the books on the passenger seat. When I got home, I put the books on my night stand. It was only later, just before I turned out the light, that I flipped open one of the covers and read, "To Linda _____, my fellow traveller - North and South - on the journey to discover John Wilkes Booth."


  1. LOVE the whippoorwill; maybe that was a ghost. I've been wanting to read Manhunt for a while now, and you've made me determine to get it. Lovely post, Grad.

  2. Enchanting, intriguing post, Graddikins. You know, I share your romantic nostalgia for the South - and I'm all the way Down Under! Despite not having yet seen it for myself, and despite the absolutely abhorrent reality of slavery, something about it does capture the imagination so. The book and the author sound great too.

  3. YOu know, I had you down as a born and bred southerner, although I don't know why. But well done you for keeping your cool when meeting an author you admire - I have always fallen to pieces under the pressure! I don't know the book Manhunt at all, but will certainly look it up now.

  4. Sounds like a wonderful evening. I have a friend who is a Civil War afficionado and amateur Lincoln expert. I think she has visited every single important Lincoln landmark by now and if she hasn't she is pretty close. Your evening sounds like it was a great time and Swanson seems a very nice fellow. And what an inscription to have in your book!

  5. Tinky, You know, it is said that a whippoorwill can sense when a soul is departing this earth and will try to catch it. So it may not be so far-fetched that it really was a ghost.

    Di, I think the romance is enhanced by physical characteristics of the place (moss hanging from Oak trees like pirates beards), lots of mist, and the slow, refined accent of a person from the deep south. Upper southern accents tend to be a little harsh, almost twangy. But South Carolina and Georgia accents are like melted caramel. My children have them.

  6. Litlove, I've become a Southerner about as thoroughly as a Northerner is allowed. But if you can't trace your people back for at least two hundred years, forget about it. James Swanson wasn't very intimidating to me - probably because I'm old enough to be his mother - but he was very "real" as well.

    Stef, it was a wonderful evening. I had such a good time that I signed up to volunteer for the Savannah Book Festival that will be held in February 2011. Lisa Genova will be the keynote speaker, Sandra Brown will speak as well. A bunch of authors, really. Haven't read any of them but probably should before then.

  7. You're right--though my work is set in the thirties, one of the very few things I don't respect about that decade is that it was socially acceptable to be smugly dismissive of races, cultures, religions.

  8. Whippoorwill - what a beautiful name!

    Being Australian and therefore reared on Gallipoli rather than the civil war, most of my knowledge of this time comes from films and novels like Cold Mountain and March. Manhunt sounds a really interesting book - will have to track it down.

  9. Shelley, there was a wholly different way of viewing the races two hundred years or so ago and I suppose slaveholders tried to justify the practice of slavery to themselves by the way they defined personhood and humanity. Sad state of affairs.

    Bakersdaughter, my neighbor and I have a continuing over-the-fence debate over whether we are hearing Whippoorwill or Chuck-will's-widow in the autumn evenings. Whippoorwills migrate here in the fall but they are very hard to spot because they blend in with the brown leaves. We can usually tell they've arrived by their distinctive sound. But Chuck-will's-widow sound extremely similar. But he's also the neighbor who ran over to my backyard one summer and said, "I saw a hummingbird!!" I pointed to my hummingbird feeder and said, "I know. That's the point!" He went out and got him one as well. Good thing, too, since hummingbirds are very territorial about their feeders!

  10. I love history and love finding a post about history that can be read with so much pleasure--thank you!

    Maybe because I was raised in Texas, I don't recall the Civil War looming large in anybody's mind.

    If anybody hasn't read Lincoln's Second Inaugural lately, it will take your breath away. Of all our Presidents, he was the best writer.

  11. Shelley, I agree about Lincoln's writing abilities. He was amazing. Speaking of writing, I left a new comment on your blog about Rain. Just wondering if you ever thought of taking it further.