Robert's Reviews > Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse
Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse
by James L. Swanson
by James L. Swanson
This book was a disappointment. I had read and enjoyed Swanson's previous best-seller "Manhunt" which was a dramatic retelling of John Wilkes Booth's flight after his assassination of Lincoln. This follow-up book is also about a flight, that of Jefferson Davis fleeing capture after the fall of Richmond. While "Manhunt" was well-researched and tightly organized on the single topic of the hunt for Lincoln's killer, in this new book Swanson complicates the narrative structure by telling two stories - describes two simultaneous presidential journeys, that of the ceremonial return by train of Lincoln's body to Illinois and that of Jeff Davis's flight from Union capture and from reality. The account of the Lincoln cross country funeral procession is well-researched, providing much unfamiliar information. Gives the full story of Stanton's repression of the Gurney photograph of Lincoln in his coffin. And Swanson's approach is quite original. His coverage of the funeral is similar to the style of cable news reportage. Is focused on the visual aspects - on what a camera would see - the loading and unloading of the coffin, the funeral processions through the streets of the cities along the train route, the elaborate hearses, the elaborate catafalques, the length of the lines waiting to see the body, the people standing along the tracks waving flags. Previous historians writing about this event have mainly emphasized the verbal - the speeches made, the sermons preached, the articles written in local newspapers. Swanson's unusual, "television coverage" makes the book interesting, worth reading. However, a far larger portion of the book is about Jefferson Davis - and unfortunately Swanson's portrayal of his personally is completely mistaken. His characterization of Davis is so far from the historical consensus, is so unsupported by any evidence, by any new, justifying research, is so completely incompatible to the personality revealed by Davis himself in his "Rise and Fall of the Confederacy", is so far from the man described in all the contemporary accounts, in the memoirs of those who knew him during the war, who served under him, that the book loses all credibility. One wonders why Swanson got it so far wrong. It seems unlikely that the not uncommon occupational hazard of biographers of becoming enamored of their subject would be great enough to lead him to place a halo on this arrogant, small-minded, vindictive man. Good Grief! He did not even attend the funeral of General Lee because of his petty feud with Joe Johnston - an action that Swanson reports without acknowledging its incompatibility with his description of a grandfatherly, long-suffering Davis. Perhaps Swanson's desire to include a second funeral train, one to parallel Lincoln's, lead him to expand what had been a concise narrative of two simultaneous presidential journeys into a much longer work, to expand the narrative to include the funeral train that carried Davis's body to Richmond for reburial. And to get the reader to that train, Swanson felt obligated to tell the story of the last decades of Davis's life. Did this simply to furnish a decent corpse for the second train. Wanting that corpse to be equally mourned, be equally loved as Lincoln's, he was obligated to do a great deal of "historical revisionism, of cleaning up of Davis's image, and, in doing so. indulged himself in "Lost Cause" hagiolatry, created this apotheosis of Davis that not even the most fervent "Son of the Confederacy" would find credible. Am fearful that this type of "Gone with the Wind" historical writing may be a sign of what can be expected during next year's sesquicentennial of Succession.
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