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Manhunt, the Chase for Lincoln's Killer
A Story of Conspiracy, Murder and Mourning
Rarely in American history has a single act of violence cause such a unbridled sense of group emotion. Perhaps only the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attack on 9-11 rivals the horrendous nature of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Coming at the end of a bitter civil war that pitted brother against brother, this act of taking justice in ones own hand went against everything the country was trying to create. The book "Manhunt" tells the story of not only the assassination but the mobilization of a virtual army of police officers and volunteers to find the perpetrator, while at the same time trying to have a government in the midst of a war trying to recover for the loss of its leader. Manhunt is the incredibly riveting tale of intrigue, adventure and alas the loss of a great leader.
Image Credit: Amazon
April 14, 1865, Good Friday, is a day that will lay in infamy in American history just as December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2011 will forever be locked into our hearts. It is a day that Abraham Lincoln decided to attend the theater to help celebrate the end of the civil war and take a much-needed evening off. A terrible war that pitted families against each other and brought into question the very experiment of a union of states into a single entity. This war that cost so many lives and evoked such powerful emotions over the right to choose for one's self. It could either be considered the war over states right versus federal authority or the rights of Blacks in America. Yet in the end, the north won and Abraham Lincoln was elected for a second term to attempt to rebuild a country and the relationships between states that were enemies and now needed to go back to brothers. Unfortunately, not everyone was ready for the war to be over.
John Wilkes Booth had come to the conclusion that only he could defend the rights of the South and overturn what he felt was the incorrect outcome of the war. With a small number of co-conspirators including Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt he planned to not only kill Abraham Lincoln the President of the United States, but also Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Booth, who was a well-known stage actor, realized the perfect opportunity lay when Lincoln would be attending a theater he was quite familiar with. Through daring and brazen acts he stepped directly behind the president in his private box, barricade the door from the inside and then calmly shoot the president in the back of the head. Then, as if in a movie, he leaps from the box onto the stage and escapes backstage where he had an unwitting accomplice holding a horse in the ready. And into the night he fled.
"Assassination is not an American practice or habit..."
But the night was not over yet
Lewis Powell and David Herold went to the home of William H. Seward who was home with his daughter, son and butler with murderous intent. Seward was on bed rest after a horrific accident just a few days prior where both his jaw and his arm were broken. Through remarkable acts of courage on both the part of his butler and his children they were able to fight off Powell, although not without serious injuries. In fact Powell who used his gun as a bludgeon on Seward's son and thus damaged it, tried to use a knife on the bedridden Seward. Only the wooden splint on Seward's neck prevented the knife from cutting through his jugular vein. Thankfully the family was able to fight him off (while scaring off co-conspirator David with the commotion) and saved the live of Seward. George Atzerodt who was to kill the Vice-President lost his nerve before ever making an attempt and fled Washington, not before some drinks at a tavern, which might have sobered him from attempting to kill.
The heart wrenching story of Abraham Lincoln being carried across the street to a private boarding house owned by William Peterson instead of back to the white house evokes images of a martyr being carried in the street. Anguish was all around as realization set in that their hero and president had just been attacked and they feared killed. Quickly the Secretary of State Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, set up the government of the United States on the first floor of William Peterson's boarding house. They had the terrifying task of trying to investigate the crime, initiate a nation-wide manhunt for an unknown number of perpetrators, and run the country while at the same time maintain control and security of the area around Ford theater quickly filling with concerned and mourning citizens. One can imagine the panic, adrenalin and confusion in this situation where in a time of war, none knew if there was more coming or how expansive this attack would spread. Imagine the difficulty of trying to gain control of the situation in a time before phones, computers or nation wide connected police forces. Fast riding messengers were sent out in all directions to alert neighboring states to start to look for perpetrators, and only with the benefit of hindsight do we see in those early days how close they were to overtaking Booth. But with time, Booth was able to hide out before eventually being caught 12 days later. I do not want to give the details of the chase, for this high paced race of good versus evil is best left to James Swanson who wrote Manhunt.
Manhunt reads like a modern day crime novel filled with intrigue and adventure, yet of course has the saddened duty of sharing a sad chapter in the history of the United States. Who knows what might have happened to the history of the country if any one of a number of factors prevented Booth from murdering Lincoln. This unbelievable story is as remarkable as it is true and should take the average reader no more than a few days to get through. Strongly recommend to all those who want to add some color to their history lessons.
A few of my favorite quotes
"Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away...With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- Abraham Lincoln
"Assassination is not an American practice or habit, and one so vicious and desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system. This conviction of mine has steadily gained strength since the civil war began. Every day's experience confirms it." William Seward on political murders
"Had I for MONEY, betrayed the man whose hand I had taken, whose confidence I had won, and to whom I promised succor, I would have been, of all traitors, and most abject and despicable. Money won by such vile means would have been accursed and the pale face of the man whose life I had sold, would have haunted me to my grave. True, the hopes of the Confederacy WERE like autumn leaves when the blast has swept by. True, the little I had accumulated through twenty years of unremitting toil WAS irrevocably lost. Bu, thank God, there was something I still possessed--something I could still call my own, and its name was Honor." -- Thomas Jones, a co-conspirator of Booth.