Book Review: "Bloody Crimes" by James Swanson
As a history major in college, I approached Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse with the desire to uncover nuggets of information that I have never encountered in other books on similar subjects. I have read my fair share of various Civil War-era books, ranging from the daunting: James McPherson’s Battlecry of Freedom and Gerald Linderman’s Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the Civil War to the middling, with James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades and David Donald’s Why the North Won the Civil War.
I found what I wanted in Bloody Crimes. Following up his highly acclaimed book, Manhunt: A 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, James Swanson introduces the interweaving stories of Lincoln’s post-mortem journey to the grave and Jefferson Davis’ plight as president of the Confederacy. Bloody Crimes navigates these two story lines superbly. Swanson never wavers too long on one storyline and allows a sufficient amount of time to comprehend the depth of research presented.
Swanson sets up the backdrop for the book by extrapolating on the different mindsets of the major players in the early months of 1865. President Lincoln is cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the war in front of him, not letting the rapture of impending victory overcome his decision-making. In the Confederate ranks, General Lee is beginning to waver on continuing the war while Jefferson Davis is already in the beginning stages of promoting “The Lost Cause.” As the Union army invades the capital of the Confederacy at Richmond, Jefferson Davis reluctantly leaves his home and flees south. This event begins his escape from the clutches of the Union army. In Washington, Lincoln is reflecting on a victory that took many lives, a truth that he meets with a sorrowful heart. Little did Lincoln know that he would be the next victim in an already unfathomable death toll.
The events that occur after these tumultuous episodes have often been overlooked and ignored in history, but deserve their rightful place in our memories. Swanson sheds light on how big of an event Lincoln’s “Death Parade” was, an interesting phrase that conjures up conflicting images of sorrow and happiness. The sheer amount of planning, repairing, transfiguration, and attention to detail that went into the train ride back to Springfield is impressive. It was a feat of orchestrated chaos that was only matched by the outpouring of grief by everyday citizens. As a reader, you come to understand how heartbroken Mary Lincoln was after her husband’s assassination. She battled fits of hysteria and manic depression, never truly overcoming the grief that weighed so heavily on her that day. Further south, Jefferson Davis is attempting a half-hearted escape that causes him to have conflicting emotions. In fleeing, he leaves behind his citizenry. This could potentially throw the “cause” into chaos, and lead to a breakdown of the Confederacy. By staying, he could be caught and tried for his crimes. Davis does flee, but is slowed down by his desire to be with his family. You feel as though he never intended to leave, and that it was just a masquerade for the masses. Davis and Lincoln’s journeys eventually both came to an abrupt halt. Lincoln lives on in a way, seemingly still raising the emotions of people in a time long removed from Antebellum America. Jefferson Davis often remains forgotten, dwarfed by the results of the war and Abraham Lincoln.
Swanson’s sequel is an insightful book that takes a monumental time in history and puts it in slow motion, allowing you to savor the moment. From uncovering heartwarming letters between Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina, to delving into the gory details about Abraham Lincoln’s autopsy, the book reveals itself as both personable and quixotic.
--by Justin Pair, Library Associate