The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse
By James Swanson
Morrow, $27.99, 464pp.
In the modern media era, we have become accustomed to every Democrat presidential candidate being considered smarter, more sophisticated, and urbane and accomplished than his Republican counterpart. From Eisenhower and Stevenson, to Kennedy and Nixon, Reagan and both Carter and Mondale, certainly both Bush presidents and each opponent they faced.
But it started with the very first Republican president, according to the latest compulsively readable history from James Swanson, who burst onto the scene with his terrifically exciting bestseller, Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, which won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America.
While Lincoln never stood for election against Jefferson Davis, Swanson thinks that it is likely Davis would have won had he been the Democrat nominee. With Lincoln having reached demigod status in most Americans’ minds now, it’s hard to imagine that by Washington D.C. standards at the time, Davis, an experienced and well-spoken Washington hand, West Point graduate, war hero and successful businessman (even if it took slaves to make it happen) would have been considered a much more accomplished man than a plainspoken backwoods lawyer—with ties to radical freedom lovers.
Talk about the more things change…
Swanson’s latest book Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse takes a more obscure, but nonetheless just as fascinating look at April of 1865 as his huge bestselling debut—and it’s such a great story, and obvious parallel, that I bet it has Civil War historians all over the country slapping their foreheads and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” (Though in lesser hands, it might have come across as grotesque.)
Bloody Crimes follows the last major journeys of Lincoln and Davis—the magnificent funeral procession for the slain president that covered 1,600 miles and attended by millions of Americans; and the flight by Jefferson Davis, trying to slip away unnoticed into Mexico, even as his armies led by first Lee and then Johnston were surrendering.
While one might think that Davis’s flight from capture would easily be the best part of Bloody Crimes, the details of the Lincoln funeral procession are not only fascinating, they are a bit mind-boggling—and may constitute the most ingenious bit of political stagecraft in American history.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arranged for not only the biggest state funeral in nation’s history, he gave much of the rest of the country a chance to join in, with a 1,600 mile train trip with stops in every major city along a circuitous route from Washington D.C. as far northeast as Albany, before heading across the Midwest to Lincoln’s final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
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.