Manhunt-The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson

They say history is dull. They say history is dry. They say history is dreary.

I say they’re nuts. And I point to this book as proof of my point.

Dramatic, lively, and gripping—these are the words that describe Swanson’s book on chasing Lincoln’s killer, one of the best historical works I’ve read in recent years.

The most outstanding feature of Manhunt is the writing, the author’s result. It’s a talented writer who makes the twelve days of Booth into a gift for his readers. This was the feeling I had throughout the book, the overwhelming appreciation of James Swanson’s skill in delivering the flow of an event as a complete story. I read each page and paragraph with fervor and yet at the same time stood back to marvel at his skill. He was a craftsman at work. I’ve seen blacksmiths who essentially had the same effect on me. I can’t think of a higher tribute to pay to Swanson as an author.

Take a glimpse into Swanson’s craftsmanship. He writes in clear and compact tones. The wording is spare and, I’m sure, carefully chosen. His sentences are illuminating and descriptive. They reflect the movement embedded in the twelve days. And in this case, unfolding the event from hour to hour and day to day, you know Swanson has the great good sense to realize that he’s found a tremendous story.

Swanson writes as a storyteller. By definition, a storyteller tells a story. But perhaps unknown to most audiences, a storyteller has two other duties. The first duty is to know the story to be told. The second is to get out of the way in the telling. Swanson knows, tells, and stands aside. You and I are the beneficiaries of his storytelling approach to writing history, one that is shamefully out of fashion in too many circles. There’s probably a connection between the unpopularity of history and the lack of storytelling by its practitioners.

The best storyteller knows how to hold a crucial balance. This is the balance between allowing just enough sideways detail without digressing overly far from the central line of the story. Swanson includes other information, such as Booth’s relationship with his sister, to help illuminate the path ahead. For the reader, the balance kept is the balance enjoyed—a fuller sense of the story and the tentacles that stretch into other parts and pieces of life.

I now disclose: I’m also a storyteller. Others can judge as to my effectiveness but I think of myself as a teller of stories whether I’m writing or speaking about history. So, yes, maybe that’s why Swanson’s style attracts me and why I’m urging you to read his book. We gravitate toward those people and those things that reflect our tastes and preferences. But there’s more than that to the compelling nature of Manhunt. And here we begin to explore other realms of this marvelous book.

To start, you as the reader see the wisp of tissue separating one thing that happens from another thing that doesn’t. Booth’s desire to outrun his pursuers could have been realized all too easily. Conversely, the problems faced by Booth’s pursuers feel insurmountable all too often. Only events, with an odd turn here or a strange combination there, prevented Booth’s successful escape. Success and failure are less than inches apart.

Swanson shows the points that made the difference. Booth’s leg injury, received in his leap from Lincoln’s box to center stage, dogged him every minute of his twelve-day flight. The injury produced pain that never left, stress that always worsened, and requirements for travel that became increasingly problematic. In addition, the Potomac River stood like a prison wall between Booth and his intended destination. The barriers in crossing the river defied removal. The random acts of ordinary people—folks for whom history seldom comes calling—finally added up to Booth’s demise. Without any one of these points and we might be reading the story of Booth growing old.

Swanson’s storytelling opens the window on fascinating historical times. Like me, you’ll see the daily challenge that everyday people faced in simply trying to get from one place to another. Finding a horse, renting a cart, locating a boat, hiring a guide and on and on, the headaches of transportation were nonstop. The alternative was to walk. More specific to Booth, you’ll go with Lincoln’s killer and accomplice in flight as they camp for five desperate days with no fire and no noise in a pine thicket. You’ll spend a night with an impoverished husband and wife—a black couple—on their front porch, scared by the two uninvited overnight guests that are staying in their modest cabin. The married couple senses that the two men spell trouble.

One of the most surprising aspects of this gripping story was Booth’s Christianity. He was a devout Christian who was willing to stand at the Judgment Seat of God to answer for his actions. Booth consistently spoke and wrote in Christian terms. His Christianity, ironically, expressed the point made by his victim—Lincoln said just weeks earlier that both Union and Confederate prayed to the same God and read the same Bible.

And so, I bring you to my basic criticism of the book. It relates to Christianity. For a purpose that’s not entirely clear to me, Swanson chose on a couple of occasions to refer to Booth, first, as a Judas figure and, second, as a Jesus figure thrice denied. Another disclosure: I’m a Christian. I try to live out my faith. Consequently, Swanson’s reference to Christian imagery struck me as horribly misplaced. Booth was neither a fallen disciple nor a symbol and substance of sacrifice. I realize a storyteller can be swept up in the motion of the moment. Maybe that explains the awkward device.

Reading Manhunt left me with three leadership points. The first bends back to my comment on the microscopic difference between success and failure, one result from another. The twelve-day ordeal has two sides—the side pursuing and the side escaping. Both sides are entwined in these twelve days. They have exactly opposite goals and exactly opposite resources, strategies, and more. Leadership in one draws tightly around one person, Booth. Leadership in the other sprawls more broadly, crossing multiple spaces, entities, and organizations. Various police agents, military units, and governmental agencies and departments were all involved in pursuit of Booth. Incredibly, though, the gap between a range of outcomes was very, very small.

Secondly, an overlooked example of leadership in this story and in the broader Civil War was Edwin Stanton. Stanton was the Secretary of War and one of Lincoln’s most valued and trusted Cabinet members, colleagues, and impressive blend of leader and follower. With hardly any structural apparatus in place, Stanton stepped forward to take the mantle and responsibility of leadership in the solving of Lincoln’s murder and pursuit of Lincoln’s killer. And all the while, Stanton acted in a situation of national confusion and uncertainty. Stanton is worth knowing as a leader. Perhaps I should consider a module on him.

My third and final point on leadership-from-history is abstract. I admit it. Now, stay with me. I think your patience will pay off for you.

I crafted from Manhunt a very important concept about a particular aspect of leadership. I found it while reflecting on Booth’s murderous act. In the hours and days after Lincoln’s death, Booth encountered sets of sympathizers, Confederates like himself who wanted secession to succeed and worked toward that end. There doesn’t appear to have been a formal plan in place for escape and contact of these sympathizers; Booth just bumped from one sympathizer individual, family, or household to the next. Many times, these folks were informants, spies, and other types of risk-taking activists making every effort to win the war against the Union. Several of them had known Booth for months.

Thus, even if there was no formal operational and mechanistic conspiracy to protect Booth, there most certainly was an environmental and organic one that aided Booth’s escape. A set of actions (Booth’s) interacted with an environmental and organic field (the array of sympathizers who helped him until capture). A leader must lead in a particular way in such a reality. The choices, options, decisions, and all the rest look very different in this reality than they do in an operational and mechanistic version. These two realities function as almost parallel but separate universes in leadership.

I’d like to make an historical point before closing. It takes my operational-mechanistic and environmental-organic division in a significantly different direction. I must admit that as time goes by I am coming to the conclusion that Booth’s murder of Lincoln was in fact a chosen strategy that involved the Confederate government. If that’s true, and I strongly believe that it is, our understanding of the final year and aftermath of the Civil War shifts completely. American history changes.

Booth was listed on the payroll of the Confederate secret service in 1864. Agents working from the Confederate War Department—the overall supervising force of covert operations—met him in Canada and paid him money. Booth was involved in a plan to organize and foment an incursion from Canada into the northern United States. The incursion was expected to disrupt the U.S. conduct of the Civil War. In addition, and most damningly, Booth was a key planner and operative in designing a plot to kidnap Lincoln in late 1864 and early 1865, after his re-election as President. Note: the defeat of the Confederate-leaning George McClellan, Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 presidential election, triggered the effort to plan Lincoln’s capture. If McClellan had won the election there would have been no kidnapping plan. Booth’s kidnapping plan was timed and coordinated with Confederate military operations near Washington DC, mostly involving Confederate cavalry units. Finally, Booth’s decision in 1865 to organize the multiple murders of the American president, vice-president, secretary of state, and commanding military general reflected not the addled mind of a crazed killer but rather the more strategically based thinking of a semi-professional agent.

You can point to evidence undermining my view. Just days after Lincoln’s murder, more than a dozen Confederate generals signed a letter disavowing any knowledge of or involvement with Booth’s act. But both things can be true; it’s very likely that most military commanders were kept in the dark about Confederate secret service and covert operations. Thus, these generals told the truth but lied without knowing it.

Also, Booth kept a partial journal during his twelve days of flight. In no entries did he write about Confederate government contacts. He does, however, crave to scan newspapers on a regular basis. He wants to see if Confederate supporters had risen up as a result of Lincoln’s death and to learn of actions by the Confederate government and its military commanders still in the field.

Lincoln’s decision to fight the war with a strong sense of compassion and healing takes on a different light in this context. The softer approach to post-war policies are impossible if word leaks out that the president’s murder is the continuation of strategy by the opposing government. Indeed, it’s hard not to begin changing words–enemy seems more appropriate than opponent.

OK, I’m done. Agree or not with my position, grant me this—these are creative thoughts. I’ll attribute them to the effects of a story well told. It stimulates the imagination, the mind, the soul. Manhunt is every page a story well told.