Book Review: Killing Lincoln

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever, by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard

As the second book I have read from the authors [1], this was a worthy book to pick up at the airport for extra reading, given the fact that I read a bit more than I expected to on the flights to Pittsburgh. At 300 pages, give or take, including some very intriguing endnotes and appendix material that is well worth reading, this is a popular history that reads like a mystery or a thriller novel. It manages to toe a fine line between getting lost in conspiracy theories about John Wilkes Booth surviving to live in India, but while recognizing the troubling aspects of Secretary of War Stanton and his seeming awareness about the conspiracy, along with his reliance on a discredited and certainly suspicious spymaster named Lafayette Baker. One does not need to believe in fantastic stories about European royal and noble houses to find this mystery deeply troubling, including the seeming fatalism Lincoln had about being shot.

In terms of its organization and structure, the book is divided into a large number of mostly short chapters organized in four parts: Total War, The Ides of Death, The Long Good Friday, and The Chase. The chapters are in chronological order, first looking at the victory of the Army of the Potomac over Lees forces, culminating in the surrender at Appomattox, and looking at the visit Abraham Lincoln took to Richmond shortly after the fall of the Confederate Capital, then looking in detail at the long history of the kidnapping and then assassination plot from Booth and those caught in the grips of his obsessive hatred of Lincoln, the lengthy details of the last day of the life of Lincoln, and then the dramatic aftermath. The author takes advantage of solid research, mostly in fairly accessible books, ranging from standard popular histories to more controversial but still accessible sources. No one reading this book would expect scholarship on the level of Jaffa or Fehrenbacher, but what they get is competent popular history that prompts someone to read more and read more in depth. This is about as much as can be expected in such a work as this is.

Beyond expectations, though, is the immensely poetic prose that this book contains [2]. There are times, to be sure, where the book more resembles a historical novel than it does a history, although it definitely supports its conjectures with diaries and letters and other primary and secondary documentation, to make sure that the speculations and guesses are not too far off the mark. What does come through, alarmingly well, is that the security apparatus of the early American Republic was shockingly lax. The assassination of Lincoln heralded an age of security threats for American presidents that eventually forced the presidency to become much less open, with a much higher priority placed on protecting the president than was the case before Lincoln, when times were more innocent. The example of John Wilkes Booth made presidents less safe by showing how easy it was to murder one, even if it was not easy to get away with it afterward. And make no mistake, John Wilkes Booth did not get away with it, although we await the DNA evidence to be sure beyond all doubt.


[2] An example follows:

Yes, Lincoln believes in dreams, in dreams and in nightmares and in their power to haunt a man. Night is a time of terror for Abraham Lincoln. The bodyguards standing watch outside his bedroom hear him moan in his sleep as his worries and anxieties are unleashed by the darkness, when the distractions and busyness of the day can no longer keep them at bay. Very often he cannot sleep at all (110-111).

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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