Flip to the Epilogue before reading this book, if you want to understand the perspective from which it is written:
The last days of Abraham Lincoln’s life included perhaps the most dramatic events in the nation’s history. It is eerie that Abraham Lincoln found much solace in the play Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, given that the two great men met their ends in the same way. Caesar was betrayed by his countrymen, as was Lincoln. Both men died within months of their fifty-sixth birthday, before they could complete their life’s work. Just as the story of Julius Caesar has been told and retold for centuries, the tragedy that befell Lincoln should be known by every American. His life and death continue to shape us as a people, even today. America is a great country, but like every other nation on earth it is influenced by evil. John Wilkes Booth epitomizes the evil that can harm us, even as President Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger.
About the only sentiment offered in the epilogue with which I agree is that every American should know something about Lincoln’s presidency; what transpired during its course, and how it ended. The rest represents exactly the wrong way to attempt to understand history. History has no unambiguously good actors or bad. There are just actors. In fact, good and evil should not factor in a historical analysis at all. Properly done, history must be examined and analyzed from a dispassionate, almost other-worldly, perspective.
Caesar was no more unambiguously good than was Lincoln. Caesar was killed by his countrymen—in his case, his fellow politicians in the senate—because he had crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome, turning the Roman republic into what became a permanently imperial one, in the process usurping senatorial prerogatives and power.
Lincoln fought a war to preserve the Union—a union that had been voluntarily, democratically entered by the various states and subsequent territories. Take away the repugnant institution of slavery, and the Confederacy had the better democratic claim for what they wished to do, if the critical ideal for a democratic republic is self-determination. Had Lincoln not been able to wrap his cause of preserving the Union in the flag of ending slavery, the 600,000 dead would have been an atrocious cost to pay in order to keep a voluntarily-entered union from being voluntarily and democratically dissolved.
Stripped of moral judgments, history abounds with irony. Lincoln had to subvert the democratic will of the Southern state legislatures in order to preserve democracy. He eventually used the greater evil of slavery as justification for his fight against Southern democracy, but it should never be forgotten that he didn’t issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863, well after hostilities had commenced. He pinned his cause on eliminating slavery only when it appeared his cause of preserving the Union was in jeopardy. One wonders, what rationale to hold together the Union would be available, if in the future some state democratically determined it wished to leave? Considering that even client states like Iraq and Afghanistan have no choice about their limited participation in the Union, it would be outlandish to imagine that something would not be contrived if, e.g., Texas figured it would be better off going it alone, again. Lincoln was lucky. He had the abolition of slavery to steel the people’s hearts and minds to battle against their own people, and in some measure, against their own ideals. Artfully leveraging slavery to his purposes was part of Lincoln’s genius. It would take an even more astute politician to conjure such a compelling purpose today, if one of the several states sought leave to end its association.
The book begins by detailing the sad waning days of the Army of Northern Virginia, culminating in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. It’s not clear why the authors selected the last few battles between Grant’s army and Lee’s for inclusion. The war had long since been lost by the time of Lee’s surrender, and the last days of the Confederacy had no direct bearing on Lincoln’s assassination, but the authors’ ahistorical coverage of Lee, praising his unwillingness to surrender until the very last, and his supposed military genius, presents a decent foreshadowing of how little this novel is concerned with history, and how much it is simply another addition, however unimportant, to American mythology concerning the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.
Yet Robert E Lee is perhaps the most mythologized and romanticized military leader in American history. His tactical brilliance is routinely praised, though there is precious little evidence supporting the view. In fact, Lee led tactical disaster after disaster, not least Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, which as any reasonably astute tactician understands, and all Lee’s generals at the time fully well knew, was nothing more or less than Confederate suicide. In many ways, Lee was the Union’s best general. History is always written by the victors, perhaps explaining the enduring myth of Lee’s tactical brilliance. The victors would not wish to imagine that Lee’s defeat was anything other than the product of their own valor and determination against a formidable foe.
Had Lee, and by extension, the Confederacy, actually been interested in winning independence from the Union, they would have realized at the outset that the Confederacy could never match the Union in men and firepower; that if the war were fought conventionally, the South was doomed before it started. Rail mileage alone is enough to understand how desperate was the Southern cause—in 1861, the South had only 9,000 miles of track, to the Union’s 22,000. But it gets worse. The Union had 1.3 million industrial workers to the South’s 110,000; the Union had a 20:1 ratio in pig iron production to the South; its industrial production was valued at $1.5 billion to the South’s $155 million. (From America Past and Present, 7th edition, Divine, et al, page 293, 2007). Had the Southern generals been led by a better military tactician, say, one who had internalized the teachings of Sun Tzu, instead of being led by what amounted to the Romantic ideal of a European feudal lord, it would never have attempted to engage the Union in a conventional military conflict. The outcome of a conventional war was certain before the first shot was fired, which as Tzu taught, is exactly when war should be avoided. Lee led the South and its way of life to its ultimate, suicidal destruction. At the least, had Lee any compassion or concern for the lives of the soldiers who were fanatically willing to die in the service of a lost cause (thereby, in the Romantic ideal, validating its worth), he would have surrendered after Gettysburg. It would have made him unpopular, but popularity is never a proper concern for a leader when men’s lives are at stake. That Lee continued the fight points not to his gallantry and tactical genius, but his ineptitude and selfishness.
From this inauspicious beginning, the book carries forward into the deranged conspiracy of John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts to assassinate Lincoln and several others. Not only Lincoln was to be killed that fateful day in April of 1865, but also Secretary of State William H Seward and Vice-President Andrew Johnson, separately, and Ulysses S Grant along with Lincoln, who Booth had been informed would accompany Lincoln to the Ford Theater. Booth was taking to heart the Arab credo that to kill a snake, you must cut off its head. He wanted to throw the Union government in such disarray that the South, its defeat not but a few days old, would rise again. As it happened, only Lincoln was assassinated—Grant’s wife refused the Lincolns’ invitation; the assassin hired to kill Andrew Johnson instead got drunk and never lifted a finger in the exercise; only Seward’s assassin among Booth’s accomplices attempted to make good on his part of the plan, except his gun jammed, and the slashing knife wounds he inflicted instead were not sufficient to do the job.
Though the assassination had little to do with the events of the waning days of the military conflict, it was a plot fueled by support for the Confederacy, that was supported throughout by Confederate sympathizers, and perhaps had the support of some within Lincoln’s own Administration, possibly even Secretary of War Edwin M Stanton, the details of which I’ll leave to the reader. Lincoln had made some grave enemies in his prosecution of the war, as he well knew. In hindsight, it would have been quite remarkable, given Lincoln’s inattention to personal security concerns, that an assassination attempt weren’t made. With any polarizing political leader such as Lincoln, there is always motive for assassination. Lincoln provided ample opportunities for its expression.
The subtitle of the book, The shocking assassination that changed America forever, reveals the authors’ predilection for the Great Man view of history, a view which succinctly stated, attributes the events of history to the will and actions of its great leaders, ignoring for the most part that great leaders don’t command the tides of history, but are instead created by them. It is a corollary of the linear and progressive view of history in which mythological pasts are created to bind and sanctify a culture in the present, so that it can march progressively forward to some future manifestation of its greatness. The Old Testament, for example, in so far as it is concerned with history, takes a Great Man view in its history of the struggles of the ancient Hebrews. From Abraham to Noah to Moses to David and Solomon, Old Testament history was made by the Great Men of the Hebrews (i.e., the “Patriarchs”, et al), admittedly in the biblical context through their particular and special relationship with Yahweh, but still, it is a view of Hebrew society as being shaped and formed by the will of its great and godly leaders.
For Great Man historians, Abraham Lincoln shaped and formed American society through his extraordinary talents and powerful will. His death was tragic because it changed the trajectory of history, elevating a lesser man, Andrew Johnson, to political leadership, explaining much of the desultory events that followed the War. But is it correct? It is widely considered that Lincoln would have been more lenient with the South after the war, facilitating a more rapid healing of the wounds inflicted by the struggle. But Lincoln was only one man, and he, like Andrew Johnson, would have had to deal with the impulse for revenge and oppression that a large contingent of the victorious Union wished to inflict on its Southern cousins for the carnage. Johnson was ultimately impeached, but not because he was too harsh on the South. He was impeached because he was too lenient. In this particular aspect, the authors simply get their analysis wrong. Johnson and his own Republicans controlled Congress, and it was his Republicans that impeached him. The Republicans in Congress sought a radical restructuring of Southern society after the war. Johnson was a gradualist, and tried to hold the Northern impulse for revenge at bay. He failed to hold back the tides of vengeance, but to assume Lincoln would have otherwise succeeded is conjecture at best, further mythologizing of Lincoln’s reputation at worst. The idea that post-war reunification of the country would have proceeded better under Lincoln is tantamount to the similar idea that had Kennedy lived, America would not have been pulled into the quagmire of Vietnam escalation. There is little proof to support either claim.
It could even be argued that Lincoln’s assassination prevented the ascendancy of an imperial presidency. Lincoln was wildly popular in the North after the war; Johnson was practically unknown. It is not beyond the pale that Lincoln might have turned that popularity into a vast expansion of executive power relative to Congress, even as he would have faced profound challenges in reunifying the country. Lincoln had no qualms about suspending the writ of habeas corpus—one of the most powerful of all civil liberty protections—during the War. Who’s to say he wouldn’t have crossed the Rubicon, and turned his post-war political popularity into raw executive power? Alas, had he done so, his assassination might have been delayed a few years, but he surely would have met the same fate as had Caesar before him.
Killing Lincoln reads more like historical fiction, which in many ways it is, especially when it tries to convey the moods and feelings of the protagonists. There is no way to know for sure what a person is thinking or feeling—not even their words and actions, so far as they are ascertainable a hundred and fifty years after the fact, are stalwart clues. Only through the contrivance of fictional characters and omniscient authors can human thoughts and feelings be made resolutely clear, so the attempt by O’Reilly and Dugard to do so here pushes the book closer to the fictional, rather than historical, genre. The authors tacitly admit the difficulty of their task when relating the last words of Booth as the barn in which he is hiding bursts into flames:
“’One more stain on the old banner!’” he [Booth] yells, doing his best to sound fearless. No one quite knows what that statement means.”
Indeed, no one, except perhaps the speaker, and even then not always, can ever quite know what a person means by what they say.
All that, yet the book capably relates the events of Lincoln’s assassination in great and meticulous detail, drawing on the wealth of available contemporaneous accounts. In this regard, the book is passable. Unimportant, but passable. In understanding the broad sweep of history, the details of Lincoln’s assassination are far less important than understanding why he was assassinated. John Wilkes Booth was not some crazed lunatic trying to make his mark on history by assassinating a famous man, like, for example, it might be assumed was John Hinkley’s motivation for attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Booth was a bit crazy, as anyone willing to carry through with such a daring and outrageous plan of action necessarily must be, but Lincoln’s assassination, and Booth’s involvement in it, had a political motivation at its base.
Lincoln’s assassination seems analogous to that suffered by Archduke Ferdinand of Austria that ignited the First World War. Both assassinations came at tumultuous times—America was rushing headlong into industrial and imperial expansion—the underlying cause of the Civil War was whether slavery would extend to the new territories being rapidly acquired; Europe was bristling with the results attendant to more than a century of similar expansion and economic development among its great powers. Both assassinations were initiated by forces concerned with the course those developments might take, yet neither made much difference in altering the course. War in Europe was as inevitable by 1914 as was westward expansion in the US in 1865. In both cases, the assassins were considered heroes to their people. Had Booth’s actions stirred the South, however unlikely, to resurgence and ultimate victory, the history books Confederate historians would have written would undoubtedly have pointed to his heroism and valor, instead of proclaiming, as did the authors, that Booth “epitomizes the evil that can harm us.” Considerations of good and evil are always a matter of perspective, and a sly trap for unwary historians.