April 15, 2011
Author James L. Swanson could not have chosen a better place, a better time to discuss his wonderful book, Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincolns Corpse. He appeared last night on the anniversary of Lincolns assassination at the Lincoln Cottage, located on the grounds of Washingtons Soldiers Home. This beautifully restored Victorian summer home was a refuge for Abraham, Mary, and Tad Lincoln for three summers1862, 1863, and 1864while they occupied the White House. They first sought quiet and solitude there following the death of their beloved 11-year old son, Willie.
James Swansons book is a gem. He takes us on the long, last mournful way of the Lincoln Funeral Train throughout its 1,600-mile journey from Washington to Springfield.
Even for many of us Civil War buffs and Lincoln students, Swansons book is a goldmine of information. With a novelists keen eye for detail, Swanson even takes us behind the scenes in the White House as the autopsy is conducted on the presidents 64 body. Skilled surgeons take out his brain. Weighing it, they are surprised to find it is of normal size. The author doesnt like Mary Lincoln much. Swanson details her irrationality, her extravagant grief, her grasping for money, and the fact that she never comes out of her darkened room for the funeral, or even to view her husbands embalmed body.
We are there at the train station early on the morning of Friday, April 21st as the body of the slain president is escorted from the Capitol where it had lain in state. It was Lincoln who decreed that the Capitol dome should be completed, despite the fiery trial of civil war, as a symbol of Union. Philip Reid had been a slave when he showed architects and builders how carefully to uncrate the Statue of Freedom. By an Act of Congresssigned by Abraham LincolnPhilip and all his black brothers and sisters in the capital were free when that 19-foot statue was finally raised to the pinnacle.
We can almost hear the hissing of the locomotive and see the jets of steam cover the tracks as they lift the presidents coffin onto the special train. It is decorated with flags of the Union, with the presidential seal, and with black crepe. Waiting for his fathers coffin to be brought on board is the smaller coffin of Willie, the Lincolns 11-year old son whose body rested in Oak Hill cemetery for the past three years.
One million Americans viewed Lincolns body as it wended its way home. Seven million came out to lay flowers on the tracks and to watch, hat in hand, as the presidential train passes by. Nothing like this had ever happened in America before. It was as if the entire North had come out to weep and mourn for the first president to be assassinated. They wept as well for the three hundred fifty thousands soldiers in blue who had died defending the Union. Those soldiers and their surviving brothers gave their commander-in-chief the name Father Abraham. They also gave him their votes in 1864.
Swanson describes the progress of the funeral train as a ribbon of flame spooling out across the land.
James Swanson not only gives us a loving and heartbreaking picture of the Lincoln Funeral Train, he also brings Confederate President Jefferson Davis back from the dead and may single-handedly rescue him from obscurity.
The author challenged his Lincoln Cottage audience to consider America in 1858, just two years before the meteoric rise of Illinois Star of the West. If Americans had been asked to guess who the next president would be in 1858, Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi would not have seemed a dark horse. West Pointer, hero of the Mexican War, outstanding Secretary of War, Congressman and Senator, Davis had traveled extensively in the North and was respected throughout the Union.
But Jefferson Davis had also demanded a federal slave code for the territories. When Northern anti-slavery men refused that demand, first the Democratic Party broke up, then the Union itself was put in mortal danger.
Our hearts are engaged for Jefferson and Varina Davis as their beloved son Joe falls from a porch at the Confederate White House in Richmond. Jeff, Jr., the little boys brother, cries out in anguish: but God will not wake Joe. That was 1864. Imagine what a wrenching experience it must have been to order the evacuation of Richmond a year later, and leave your sons body behind.
Varina Davis comes through as a true Southern lady, faithful, brave, and intelligent. She supports her husband loyally. Never does she embarrass him, as poor unstable Mary Lincoln repeatedly does Abraham.
When federal troopers finally capture Jefferson Daviss fleeing party of thirtyhe once had thousands in his entouragehe is subjected to gross indignities. By this time, Lincoln has been dead for two weeks. Instantly, despicable lies spread throughout the country: Davis has been taken prisoner dressed in womens clothes. Vengeful President Andrew Johnson stands by as Jefferson Davis is taken to Fort Monroe.
Might this bad mans malice toward one actually have saved Daviss life? We know that many embittered Southerners revered Robert E. Lee and blamed Jefferson Davis for their defeat. And theres a good case for that idea. Swanson informs us that two hundred people were lynched in the North for gloating at Lincolns death. Might there have been even more in the South who hated Davis?
Daviss dignity in captivityand his rage at being manacledwon him respect North and South. He soon became a martyr to the Lost Cause. His wifes tireless efforts to free him bore fruit in 1867.
Swansons book gives us Daviss long life after Appomattox. Its an amazing American story. Daviss train trip as a frail old man elicits an overwhelming outpouring of emotion in the South. He was manacled for us, is the sign on his train.
Swanson tells us he is a Lincoln man through and through and in this, his loving tribute to the Lincoln Funeral Train, he certainly proves it. But he shows that you can love and revere Lincolns memory and still respect Jefferson Davis.
I never before had such respect for the man who was described by Sam Houston as cold as a serpent and proud as Lucifer. Swanson does give us more than a hint of the great issues that led to 620,000 American deaths. When Jefferson Davis is urged to head for Texas to continue the rebellion, he says he cannot go through his home state of Mississippi. Every Negro in the state knows me, he tells his fellow Confederates. For sure, the former slaves knew him as a kindly, Christian man.
But the fact that they would readily turn him over to Federal forcesand he knew thatproves that slavery was hardly the positive good for black people that John C. Calhoun and his successor Jefferson Davis said it was. Lincoln had demolished that line of argument. Though volumes have been written to prove the good of slavery, Lincoln said, but we seldom see a man seek the good of it by becoming a slave himself.
James Swanson in this excellent book, and in his earlier work, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincolns Killer, gives us a vivid portrait of those tumultuous times. The Civil War Sesquicentennial on which we are embarked commemorates the 150th anniversary of those defining days. James Swansons work is indispensable. He takes us through that moody, tearful night of the Lincoln assassination and beyond.