- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006


By James L. Swanson, William Morrow, $26.95, 448 pages, illustrated

James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt” is a vividly rendered account of how John Wilkes Booth spent the last 12 days of his life trying to escape the law after shooting President Lincoln.

Although the book includes plenty of information about the assassination and about the attempted murder of Secretary of State William H. Seward, the main focus is on Booth the fugitive. “Manhunt” well may be the most detailed version yet of the brief time between the assassination and Booth’s death. It certainly was for this reviewer.

In the popular imagination, those 12 days have tended to get short shrift, sandwiched as they are between Lincoln’s dramatic death at the beginning and Booth’s own death at the end. Nonetheless, as “Manhunt” shows, the escape story has plenty of drama and tantalizing what-ifs in its own right.

Booth did his best to escape and reach the Deep South, perhaps hoping to move on to a foreign country. A superb horseman, after shooting the president, he immediately galloped out of Washington into the Maryland countryside, where he rendezvoused with fellow conspirator Davey Herold.

The brief remainder of Booth’s life was spent mostly roughing it outdoors in the wilderness, receiving reluctant help from Southern sympathizers (Mr. Swanson shows just how reluctant), becoming ever dirtier and grubbier along the way. Booth got as far as the Garrett farm in Virginia before authorities tracked him down. Herold surrendered, but Booth ended up getting shot in a burning tobacco barn.

In “Manhunt,” most of the characters are described in detail, even the usually neglected walk-ons or extras, so to speak. Almost every person is given his full name and often a brief biography as well. This should make it easier for future scholars to search out more information about them.

The occasional mention of a last-name-only personage can be a bit of a shock, such as in Chapter 4, where Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton is described riding about in his carriage early on assassination night, trying to find out what had happened. At one point, Stanton encountered “an army sergeant named Koerth.” What was his first name?

“Manhunt” also enlarges, justifiably, upon the role of Herold, Booth’s traveling companion. It has long been customary to portray Herold as a feckless youth who never quite grew up. As the usual interpretation has it, he basically was just tagging along — perhaps he was of some mild use, having hunted extensively in the local countryside.

“Manhunt” dispels this image. Whatever adolescent traits Herold may have had, his role in the escape was crucial. Time and again, he saved Booth’s skin. John Wilkes Booth was very much a city man. Apart from the rare visit, he knew little of the regions through which he was passing. Having to spend most of the escape attempt without bath or bed must have been hard on him.

Herold, on the other hand, usually knew where to go and what to do. Time and again in Mr. Swanson’s narrative, Herold is the one who knows where to find help or what route to take. Even if he hadn’t broken his leg during the assassination, Booth alone never would have lasted as long as he did. Herold even was the one who had to row the two of them in a small boat across the Potomac River at one point: “David Herold dipped the blades deep and pulled hard, and the skiff … responded to his experienced touch at the oars.”

Booth’s death scene in “Manhunt” shows that he was aware of this. Booth and Herold had been sleeping in an old tobacco barn on the Garrett family farm when Union soldiers finally found them and surrounded the place. Herold wanted to surrender. Booth’s initial reaction was, “You damned coward! Will you leave me now? Go, go! I would not have you stay with me.”

Then came second thoughts: “But on every occasion, the loyal Herold returned to share Booth’s fate. Almost certainly, Booth must have concluded that it would be ungrateful, even ungallant, to deny his young follower the chance to live.” And so Booth called out, “Let him out; that young man is innocent.” Herold thus was captured — and later hanged.

The government officials immediately in charge of the capture come off especially badly in “Manhunt.” A couple of dozen soldiers were under the leadership of one officer and two detectives — no unified command here. Each one quarreled with the other two, like jealous schoolchildren. It all resembled an Inspector Clouseau movie, except that real lives hung in the balance.

Their first act was to threaten the elderly farmer with hanging unless he told all he knew. At the tobacco barn, rather than do the job themselves, they first shoved in one of the Garrett sons to negotiate with an understandably annoyed Booth.

Later, someone thought it was a good idea to set the barn on fire. Discipline was so lax that Sgt. Boston Corbett shot Booth against orders — an act for which Corbett was never punished.

Perhaps the most ludicrous scene took place when the two detectives finally rushed the barn after Booth had been shot and then spent the next minute or two conducting a seminar over Booth’s wound: “[T]he two detectives and several soldiers were hovering over Booth in the middle of a burning barn, and carrying on an animated argument about the origin of the wound.”

Booth eventually was carried out of the barn and soon died, taking with him the answers to many questions, including who had been part of his plot and who had not. Such answers might have spared the country the following months of hysteria and conspiracy-mongering. Perhaps one or two of the eight defendants on trial as co-conspirators might have been cleared — stagehand Ned Spangler, for instance.

“Manhunt” does not fail to show the author’s likes and dislikes, especially the latter. Occasionally, that can jar a little, as when a character “babbled” or was “whining.” Also, one brief anecdote cries out for a follow-up.

When Booth and Herold were just 13 miles beyond Washington, they had “an inconsequential encounter with two men and a broken-down wagon.” Who were the two men? The reader is left hungering for more.

These are minor points, however. The writing style is lively, with a flair for color and setting. The misty night when the two fugitives had to cross the Potomac is a good example.

“Manhunt” makes for a gripping read, all the more so because the events really happened. Even the most knowledgeable reader will feel the suspense of it. In these days of terrorist attacks, it may remind us of how the nation survived a blow at the heart of the government — and just after the country’s most destructive war.

John Lockwood is a freelance writer.

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