Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lincoln's Assassination by Edward Steers, Jr.

Abraham Lincoln
Edward Steers' Lincoln's Assassination traces the actions leading to John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and Booth's attempt to escape capture. Steers clearly and concisely describes the events surrounding the murder and skillfully refutes the popular histories and conspiracy theories.

The attacks against Lincoln might have begun with a proposed raid on Richmond with the objective of freeing Union prisoners, capturing Davis, and burning the city. The raid failed but a document recovered from the body of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren contained instructions to destroy the city and kill Jeff Davis and his cabinet. This launched what the Richmond Examiner declared was a "war under the Black Flag." Another factor in the assault on Lincoln might have been Grant's suspension of prisoner exchanges.  Booth thought that if he could capture Lincoln, the president could have been exchanged for southern POWs.

John Wilkes Booth
We learn how Booth, often accused of being a "mad actor fueled with delusional revenge, was a
"fully rational person" whose original plan to capture Lincoln could have succeeded. The author clearly demonstrates that no one in the Lincoln Administration was part of the President's murder plot.  We also learn that both Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd were integrally involved in  the plans to capture or kill Lincoln.

Steers describes the role that the Confederate spy network in Canada played in Booth's plot. He was given money to fund the attack and a letter of introduction to Dr. William Queen and Dr. Samuel Mudd. From Mudd, Booth gained access to the spy network in south Maryland and a safe haven halfway between Washington and the place where the conspirators would cross the Potomac River. Far from being an innocent doctor who carried for a stranger, Mudd was well acquainted with Booth and assisted Booth in planning and carrying out the attack. Mary Surratt's delivery of weapons and instructions to John Lloyd in Surrattsville "would put her on the gallows."

Ford's Theater
The author also reveals that the conspirators were not just a randomly selected group but were chosen for the special skills they brought to the enterprise.

Steers indicates that Booth shared Jeff Davis' views on continuing the struggle for Southern Independence and Booth's plan to decapitate the Union Government might have succeeded. After Lee's surrender, Booth concluded, "our cause being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done."

The author provides details of the events prior to and following the assassination with maps of Booth's escape route in Washington and from the Capitol to the Garrett farm. Steers also includes photographs of sites and people involved in the conspiracy.

What may be most disturbing about the assassination is how many of the conspirators, especially John Surratt, escaped punishment entirely or received minimal sentences for their participation. Especially puzzling is Andrew Johnson's pardoning of three conspirators. I was left with the feeling that in some misguided way, justice was not served.

Steers closes his history by noting, "History is the one area of study where no amount of scholarship can dissuade those who believe in the conspiratorial nature of important events."  

Edward Steers is the author, editor, coauthor, or coeditor of thirteen books, including Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln; The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia; The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence; The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators; and Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Abraham Lincoln.  Steers is a scientist retired from the National Institutes of Health.