Sunday, May 24, 2009

Edited by Edward Steers Jr. and Harold Holzer
Louisiana State University Press, $24.95, 200 pages

It has been unavoidable that this year’s observance of the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth should be accompanied by a land rush of biographies of all facets of the great man’s life and especially of his death.

By my informal count, there are more than 15 books out in the past year devoted to various aspects of Lincoln’s assassination ranging in tone from the crisply historical to the maudlin and ghoulish. A lot of the output is revisionist rubbish, attempts to impose present civil liberties sensitivities on what can only be called the 19th-century equivalent of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist atrocity. Lincoln’s murder not only was the first such of a president, it also caused a wave of suffocating terror across the nation coming as it did just as people dared to acknowledge that the long and bloody Civil War might be over at last. But was it over when apparently a last convulsion of the Confederacy threatened to turn victory into tragic defeat?

Interestingly, two local authors seem to lead the most recent assassination book charge. James Swanson is a Washington think-tank attorney and Edward Steers Jr. is a retired National Institutes of Health biomedical researcher. Both have turned out multiple books on the murder, the pursuit of assassin John Wilkes Booth and the trial and execution of four of the plot’s conspirators. Both have produced readable works.

Of the two, Mr. Steers is the more rigorous researcher, a clear writer who keeps a dispassionate eye on the central truths among the cross-currents of largely manufactured controversies surrounding Lincoln’s death. One such central truth is that the guilty were caught and punished and, all in all, their treatment at the hands of a vengeful nation and a terrified government was the best they had a right to expect.

If one had to recommend one book out of the many that would satisfy both Lincoln buff and first-time reader, it would have to be a seemingly unlikely joint editing venture by Mr. Steers and Harold Holzer, the nationally recognized leading Lincoln scholar. The pair skillfully annotated the official daily record kept by the Union general in charge of imprisoning the Lincoln murder conspirators and of arranging the hanging of four of them, Mary Surratt, Louis Paine, George Atzerodt and David Herold.

But before the reader gets to the “letterbook” of Gen. John Frederick Hartranft, the editors precede it with a lengthy essay that is as good a setting of the context of the times, the cast of characters and the horror of the events as one can find. A reader who has never heard of Booth and his dimwitted gang may be excused for reaching for comparisons with the way we treat the terrorists now among us and marveling at the similarities of history.

Booth himself, by the time of this book, is a minor character. The charismatic celebrity actor, one of a family of popular Shakespearean actors (who had their own anger-management problems), had become so maddened by the impending defeat of the Confederacy that he assembled a derelict crew of stable bums, drunks and part-time rebel couriers in what he saw as a daring bid to reverse history. Using contacts among the Confederate sympathizers in Charles County, Md., the gang would kidnap Lincoln and spirit him off to Richmond where Jefferson Davis could broker a successful end to the war that preserved the breakaway nation. When that failed, Booth was faced with the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia and resolved that the only response was to kill the president on April 14.

Luck more than anything can be credited with Booth’s capture and death 12 days later. By that time, police had already rounded up most of his band including quite a number of potential witnesses who were jailed as well for safe-keeping. Considering the hurried assembly of a detective force, the flood of false leads and the ramshackle plot itself, it is remarkable how quickly the government’s net was drawn in. Some, like Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who had set Booth’s broken leg, were first jailed in the Old Capitol Prison located on the site of the current U.S. Supreme Court Building.

Others, Lewis Paine, the hulking lout who had attacked Secretary of State William Seward; George Atzerodt, who had chickened out on his task of killing Vice President Andrew Johnson; Booth childhood friends Edmand Spangler, Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlin, all were first shackled at the wrists and ankles and hooded in canvas bags while they were kept in the depths of a Union gunboat in the middle of the Potomac.

But because of a palpable fear that the murder was part of a larger Confederate uprising, all of the eight plotters finally charged and a large number of witnesses were taken to a three-story prison at the Navy Arsenal that was on a spit of land on the banks of the Potomac near present Fort McNair. The trial and the executions also would be held there.

Between April 29 and July 9, when Surratt, Atzerodt, Paine and Herold were hanged, the plotters were in the care of Frederick Hartranft, a politically ambitious Pennsylvania general of volunteers, who had had a somewhat disappointing war until that time. He later would be accused of “coddling” the prisoners, but considering the multiple tasks imposed on him by unforgiving superiors, he merely managed to relax some of the more Abu Ghraib-like conditions imposed by Lincoln’s outraged successors.

Still, the laconic official record makes pretty stiff reading. The prisoners were kept isolated in single cells. Most (including some of the unnamed witnesses) were shackled at the wrist and ankle and kept totally hooded in canvas sacks in their cells except during meals and the brief, twice-daily inspections by Hartranft and a team of doctors, or when lawyers or family visitors were admitted. Brief outdoor exercise was finally permitted at the end. The exceptions were Surratt and Mudd, who apparently were treated more leniently. The food was limited to salt beef, bread, coffee and water (again, Surratt demanded and got tea). The general also recorded the hurried consultations between the prisoners and their lawyers and relatives, although Hartranft went to lengths to ensure their privacy within the limits of security.

Perhaps the big surprise of the story told here is how many of the conspirators believed that because they had not actually done any violence (say, Atzerodt, who had balked at killing Johnson) or because they had been involved in the kidnapping plot but not the actual assassination that they were blameless. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, they say. In this case, ignorance of the law of conspiracy proved fatal for three of the four and in prison sentences for others.

Thanks to the guidance of Mr. Steers and Mr. Holzer, Hartranft’s dry official prose creates a tension that carries you from the cells through the trial in the adjoining courtroom and right to the steps of the scaffold.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.” His e-mail address is

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