Sunday, January 23, 2011
Bloody Crimes - book
Bloody Crimes The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse, James L. Swanson (William Morrow, N.Y., 2010).
As I have never been a Civil War aficionado, or a Lincoln “buff,” when someone gave me this book for Christmas I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism. Without the subtitle I would have assumed it was a book about crime, perhaps serial killers or some such thing. In fact, as the author tells us in the Introduction, it comes from Ezekiel 7:23, “Make a chain: for the land is full of bloody crimes, and the city is full of violence.” “Bloody crimes” is also a phrase used by Lincoln when he warned in his second inaugural address that slavery was a bloody crime that might not be expunged without the shedding of more blood.
As I knew nothing about Abraham Lincoln’s elaborate funeral, and even less about the fate of Jefferson Davis, I came away having learned a great deal. I had no idea that Lincoln’s funeral lasted for some sixteen days and involved transporting his corpse more than 1600 miles in part by horse-drawn hearse and, more importantly, by train. During this long trip (with no refrigeration) the corpse was attended by a pair of morticians who employed all their professional skills to preserve it for viewing by a public that exceeded one million citizens. This funeral was an absolutely monumental task for that period of time, but it came off without a hitch, right on schedule, as the train traveled all the way from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln was finally laid to rest. It was a scene of unimaginable grief as thousands lined up to view the corpse and mourn at every one of the many stops along the way.
The bulk of the book is taken up with the description of this pageant of death, and it is described in such excruciating, and even somewhat gory detail, that I found it excessive. I believe the author is correct when he suggests this was more than merely a funeral for a President, but also represented the overwhelming relief on the part of most that the horrible, deadly war, with such an incredible waste of life, was at last over.
This is not a book about the assassination itself, although it is briefly described, as is the pursuit and death of John Wilkes Booth, nor is it a book about slavery. What makes the book of special interest is the author’s weaving of the time lines of Lincoln’s funeral with that of the fate of Jefferson Davis. While the death train is in one place, Davis’s location and state of mind is also noted. Communication being as it was at that time, Jefferson Davis was not aware for several days that Lincoln had been assassinated. Although he had nothing whatsoever to do with the assassination, Davis was aware that he might be blamed for it, and he was. A reward of $100,000 was offered for his capture (that was truly a huge amount of money at that time). Several of his aides were also charged, each with a $25,000 on their heads.
Although after Robert E. Lee surrendered his army it was obvious the war was over, but Davis did not think so and urged other Southern troops to fight on. Morale, however, was so low, and the desire to return to their homes was so great, most of them simply refused to fight on and began to disperse. Davis thought he might cross the Mississippi and fight on in the West, but that was not to be. He probably could have made his way out of the United States and found refuge in Mexico or even in Europe, but being a man of honor and a gentleman, he refused to do so. His wife and children were themselves fugitives and trying to escape capture. The few letters between Davis and his wife were truly moving in their expressions of love and loyalty. As Davis refused to run away as he might have, he was, of course, eventually captured, put in chains, and humiliated by his captors. Curiously enough, after he was held for a time, no charges were brought against him, he was released and, although without many resources, lived into his 80’s, never believing he or the South had done anything wrong. He and his wife were reunited and lived happily for quite a long time. Abraham Lincoln became recognized as one of our great Presidents, Jefferson Davis has faded into relative obscurity. Bloody Crimes offers some insights into the personalities of these two great men, and is well worth reading if, like me, you know little about the Civil War, those who fought it, and the final outcome of some of the participants.