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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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