Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Booth Cell

To Americans living in 1865, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a seismic event, a shock like that of 9-11-01. That fact gets lost when we look back after a century and a half. Time may not heal all wounds, but it certainly obscures the damage from later generations.

Manhunt does a pretty good job recapturing the shock, horror, and anger that gripped Washington in April 1865.

More books have been written on Lincoln than any other American. It is a marvel that writers find new things to say. Yet, Manhunt is fresh and exciting: it covers a well-known story but manages to read like a piece of investigative journalism. In part, that is because it devotes most of its attention to the aftermath of the murder at Ford’s Theater. The hunt for Booth and his conspirators makes for a gripping, less familiar tale.

Another factor, i think, is that each generation reads history in light of their own experiences. In a post-9/11 world, certain aspects of this story stand out in ways they did not in 1999 or 1962.

If J.W. Booth had died 1 April 1865 no one except historians specializing in American theater would know his name. If some diligent Civil War scholar managed to piece together Booth’s attempts to aid the South, the conspiracy would sound like a joke. Unsuccessful terrorists look fairly stupid and Booth & Co. are no exception. A vain actor, a crazy ex-soldier, a drunk, a matron, and a few hangers-on -- how could such people think they could change the course of history?

Yet, the Booth cell did just that. They murdered a president, nearly murdered the Secretary of State, and intended to kill the vice-president. All the attackers escaped from the scene of their crimes. Booth and Herold remained at large for twelve days.

What is striking is that the whole plan was a marvel of improvisation. Booth had only eight hours to make his preparations, hand out assignments, and carry out the deed. (Booth even took time to write a letter to the newspapers claiming credit for the act.) He did all this without cell phones or email; everything was done through face to face meetings.

That may have worked to his advantage. The conspirators shared pro-Southern sympathies and they hated Lincoln and the Republicans. It was Booth’s charisma, however, that held them together and turned malcontents and bigots into accomplices to political murder.

Swanson’s book also does a great deal to rehabilitate the dour Edwin Stanton. The Secretary of War comes off as the Rudy Giuliani of the story. He is the man who holds shock and grief at bay while he sets the manhunt in motion and takes steps to ensure that Confederate die-hards do not exploit the assassination. Stanton’s actions were also improvised and show why Lincoln held him in high esteem.

Manhunt delineates the help that Booth received from Confederate sympathizers during his twelve days of “freedom”. These accessories after the fact kept their secrets for decades. While the government suspected much, they never turned up hard evidence against most of these accomplices. Like Oscar Collazo even those who were caught kept their secrets.

(Swanson discussed his book with Instapundit here.)

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