Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse by James L. Swanson

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One of the issues with being a history nut (besides the fact that people tell you to get a better hobby, have you tried knitting?) is that you end up covering the same ground a lot. Normally that’s pretty interesting; I’ve read way too many books about the Roosevelts, but I’m able to glean something new from each new book. Unfortunately, sometimes you read a history book that’s decent, but it doesn’t really give you something new. Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse is an okay book, handicapped by the fact that there are so many better Civil War/Lincoln/Davies books elsewhere.

In April 1865, the Civil War was basically over. Confederate President Jefferson Davies, on the advice of Robert E. Lee, boarded the train and fled Richmond, trying to evade the Union soldiers. His friends and colleagues advised him to try to get to Mexico. Two weeks later, while at a performance of “Our American Cousin”, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. James Swanson’s book is about these two presidents-one dead and one whose cause had died-and their long roads home.

After Lincoln died, his embalmed corpse took the two week train ride back to Illinois. Millions of Americans clamored to get a glimpse of their president, already becoming a saint in the eyes of many. The journey-one part patriotism, one part macabre- was unprecedented in our history.

Davies didn’t hear that Lincoln had died, didn’t hear that most people assumed he was involved, and didn’t know the about massive bounty (about $2 million today) on his head. Rather than run to Mexico, he inexplicably dawdled, hoping perhaps that there was still a chance to win the war. His sluggishness would cost him and he was arrested in Georgia by the men of the 4th Michigan and 1st Wisconsin cavalry regiments (he was not-as the myth says-dressed up as a woman, hoping to evade capture). Davies spent two years in captivity, as bloodthirsty editorialists and angry veterans called for him to hang.

This was not a great book. Even though the subject matter was interesting, I was never really engaged. Not to mention, Swanson seemed to have made up his mind about the subjects before actually writing the book. His hatred for Mary Todd Lincoln is unfathomable. Not that she was awesome, but according to this author every action she undertook was crazy/wrong/selfish. More concerning was his attempt to sanctify Jefferson Davies as a man who fought until the end to keep Southern ideals alive, not as someone who didn’t understand when he had lost. He goes on and one about how disrespectful soldiers were to poor ol’ Jefferson, without acknowledging that throughout history he was probably one of the few leaders allowed to live out the rest of his life, dying in his home at age 81. And for a Civil War book, Swanson seemed to keep a light hand on the whole “slavery” thing. While I was reading, I couldn’t help think of the superior Civil War books I’ve read. So here’s my review: skip Bloody Crimes. Pick up Team of Rivals again instead.

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