Book Review: Twenty Days

Twenty Days:  A Narrative In Text And Pictures Of The Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln And The Twenty Days And Nights That Followed – The Nation In Mourning, The Long Trip Home To Springfield, by Dorthy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt Jr.

I managed to pick up this book because it had a foreword by Bruce Catton, and I am glad I checked it out, because the book is a very worthwhile one for both its text and its photos.  A true labor of love, the book is the result of the assiduous collection of photographs and commenting on them from someone who is an expert in the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the response of the nation to this.  Although the book is not a scholarly history, it is clearly a social history of the highest order, and a very worthwhile source if one has an interest in Civil War studies and of Lincoln’s assassination in particular.  In fact, reading this book was like reading a better form of Killing Lincoln, with more photos and a more complete story, and fewer conspiratorial speculations, all of which is definitely a change for the better, if I may say so for myself in a somewhat biased way.  All of that leads me to think very highly of this book, even if it would make for a somewhat unconventional coffee table volume.

The roughly 300 pages of this book (and the pages are very large) can be divided into six sections.  The book begins with a preface and foreword and then moves on in a thematic or chronological fashion through the titular twenty days.  The book begins with a discussion of the assassination itself, and photos and text relating to the attack, including the angle of firing from John Wilkes Booth’s pistol and drawings and photographs taken of the scene and of the various people, including the actors and actresses in The American Cousin (1).  After that the author looks at the six days immediately after the murder when Lincoln remained in Washington, looking at the transition of power to Andrew Johnson and what happened with the investigation (2).  The third part of the book looks at the first few stops of the funeral train as it made its way from Washington through Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, and Buffalo, on the first part of its journey (3).  After this the book discusses the fate of the assassins, including the investigation and the trial of those who were accused of guilt in conspiring to murder Lincoln and carrying out that deed (as well as the simultaneous assault on Secretary of State Seward) (4).  After this the author looks at Lincoln’s journey as it approached home, with stops in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois (5) before the authors close with the funeral and aftermath of the funeral of Lincoln in Springfield, even containing a picture of a beloved pet dog who had been given to others (6).

It is the little details that make this book particular important as a source on the Civil War.  Whether one looks at the unpopularity of Mary Todd Lincoln with many of the people of Springfield, the sorrow and devotion of America to the first president (but, sadly, not the last) who had been struck down in violence, or looks at the premonitions by Lincoln’s stepmother that he would suffer violence, or even the picture of the Lincoln’s dog, we are reminded of the fact that Lincoln was greatly beloved and that at the time people sought to immortalize as much as possible about the man himself and his context.  This included his body, his writings, his various photographs, any item that he had at the time of the assassination, including a cane, and his house.  The book also, as a somewhat darker undercurrent, also reminds us that part of what made Mary Todd Lincoln so reviled in the aftermath of her husband’s death was her insensitivity to the common standards of decency, even as the book highlights those who, like Tad and Robert Lincoln and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, sought to comfort and help Lincoln’s widow even as she fell apart in dramatic fashion.

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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