Bloody Crimes

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In an outpouring of grief and honor for their fallen President, Americans flocked to walk past his casket in every city the train stopped in, and lined the tracks along the route.  Hearses as large as small houses were built in some cities to carry the body from the train to whatever hall it was displayed in.

This gave the nation a way to not only mourn its martyred President—who was not riding a huge wave of popularity after a long and bloody war, ironically, until his murder united the North—but to give the nations in the Union a chance to, by proxy, mourn all of its fallen.

Without making apologies for Jeff Davis’s faults, Swanson also rescues him from the caricature of him that still exists—much of which, ironically, is left over from Edwin Stanton’s effective propaganda effort designed to disgrace Davis and keep Southerners from rallying to his side.  This includes the still persistent false story that Davis was captured while trying to escape disguised as a woman with a fortune in Confederate gold.

But the real revelation to most readers of this book, just may be the First Lady of the Confederacy, Varina Davis.  If there is one thing it is undeniable that Davis had over Lincoln, it would be that he married better.  Much better.

Abraham Lincoln defied the bromide that behind every great man is a great woman.  He was a man who overcame the influence of the women in his life.

While Mary Todd Lincoln was prostrate in a show of wailing grief—and torturing her poor son Tad by never allowing him to leave her side while she shrieked the day away—Varina Davis was managing her husband’s household on the run, taking care of their children, and proving a capable and poised asset in the escape attempt.

After his capture, Davis was imprisoned for two years while the feds tried to decide what to do with him.  Finally, he was quietly released and he returned home and lived a private life.  Ironically, Davis also went out with a triumphant train tour, though while he was still alive—and quite by accident.

While he traveled to address a gathering honoring Confederate dead in Atlanta, he was surprised at the outpouring of affection and support among those along the way and at the event.  This led to a couple of speaking tours for the aging Rebel, who circumspectly kept his remarks to humbly honoring his former troops, not in South-shall-rise-again rabblerousing.

But though Davis outlived Lincoln physically and went out on somewhat of a high note; it is the slain leader of the Union who lives on in American hearts– and even in Dixie, Jefferson Davis is more caricatured than remembered.

I’m not sure there is a lot of new material in either of Swanson’s books, but like Stanton himself, Swanson is a master of stagecraft.  His approach to these stories, both in their familiar aspects as well as the less well-known, makes the material seem fresh and new.  It is telling that his first book won an Edgar, as the narrative in both books is closer to that of the “true crime” genre in its readability and reporting style than that of the historian or scholar, making it extremely accessible to general readers.  I can’t wait to see what James Swanson tackles next.

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  • Jim

    "not riding a huge wave of popularity after a long and bloody war, ironically, until his murder united the North"

    Like JFK it was a great career move eh whot

    • USMCSniper

      JFK accomplished many great things. He allowed the Russians to build the Berlin Wall, allowed the Russians to put tanks and troops in Eastern Europe, betrayed freedom fighters to the Communists at the Bay of Pigs, agreed to a USA hands off Cuba policy with the Soviet Union, got us into the Vietnam war, and of course ruined the steel industryhmmm… Marilyn Monroe's death….. hmmm. Yes sir a great man with man with many white house "Monicas."

  • jaythehistorian

    Jefferson Davis and Lincoln were faced with the worst crisis in American history, the breaking apart of the United States. Lincoln is highly regarded because he was able , in the end , to prevent the breakup of the Union. Davis' task was the lead the seceded states to independence. He failed in part because of his own character flaws. An example of Lincoln's wisdom was his ability not to allow his personal feelings about his generals interfere with his goal of keeping the Union together. George McClellan treated Lincoln like a servant and referred to him as the "Original Gorilla". Lincoln was quoted as saying about the insufferable ,incompetent George McClellan , "I'll hold McClellan's horse if he will bring victory. Davis, could not suppress his emotions enough to further the goal of Southern Independence. For example, he kept the incompetent Braxton Bragg in command after it clear Bragg was harming the Confederate cause. Bragg was a close friend of Davis.

  • minnieiam

    Re: IQ comparrisons….While doing genelogy research I found a letter in the PA Archives from the head of the Philadelphia Armory to Lincoln advising him that when the Philadelphia Minutemen were mobilized and sent to Baltimore at the beginning of the war, they had to report for duty with whatever personal weapons and ammunition each had because "That traitorous Bastard" who was Secretary of War in the previous administration had ordered the entire contents of the arsenal to be shipped to Louisana and then sold to the governor of LA. The Sec. of War in the previous administration was Jefferson Davis. So Jeff Davis transferred all the North's guns and ammo to the South knowing the South would cecede rather than pay the 25% increase in tarriffs on imported goods which Lincoln supported. Why has this been deleted from hisotry books? It would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep Abe Lincoln up there his Pedestal along side Jesus, if it were known that he was dumb enough to send him armies into battle without guns and ammunition. This explains why northern casualties were so much higher than the South's and why the south almost won that war in the first two years.