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."