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

by Julie Failla Earhart

Even when I was a kid in high school, there was a lot of history to teach and to learn. A lot of areas were merely skimmed over, only teaching the highlights. I can’t imagine how history teachers manage today and what they must be forced to leave out or to gloss over.

I’ve always been fascinated with American history, especially the Civil War Era. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the American South, where this history may be skewed a bit differently than in the rest of the country. To read an actual account, not tainted by loss, and written in story form rather than a dull scholarly tome, is refreshing and quite interesting.
One of my favorite writers of the Civil War Era is James L. Swanson.  As author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, Swanson created a narrative account of the hunt for John Wilkes Booth as he tried to flee into the Deep South.  He’s done it again with Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse.

The book opens with Swanson explaining his choice of the title, Bloody Crimes.  It’s part of a passage from Ezekiel (7:23) that John Brown highlighted and underlined while waiting to be hung for his attack on the U. S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.

The first two chapters are a little slow as Swanson grounds the reader in the last days of the Civil War. The paragraphs alternate between Lincoln and Davis as Richmond falls and the Confederacy is doomed. Still, I was fascinated that Lincoln rode into Richmond mere days after it fell. Not as a gloating victor, but as a man truly concerned with those who had been left behind. I found it quite unsettling as Lincoln strode about the Confederate White House, even using Davis’s desk as his own. Davis, on the other hand, was headed further south, though determined to remain in Virginia.

By Chapter Four, the narrative takes off with Lincoln on his way to Ford’s Theater, and we all know what happened there. Swanson takes readers inside the Peterson Home and the bedroom where Lincoln died.  I was fascinated with the autopsy, the weighing of Lincoln’s brain, the embalming of the corpse, and the pageantry that accompanied the death of the beloved President.

Davis almost takes a back seat, much like he does in today’s history books, while the nation mourns its sixteenth President. History buffs like myself know about the catafalque (an ornamental structure used in funerals for the lying in state of the body, which is still in use today when a prominent American lies in state in the Capital Rotunda) and the funeral train. What I didn’t know is that as the train traveled 1,600 miles from Washington, D. C. to Springfield, Illinois, it made several stops along the way at 13 major cities. When the train stopped, poor old Abe was hauled off the train, processed to a place where he would lie in state, the coffin opened for the mourners to view, then the pattern was reversed and he was hauled back onto the train.

Lincoln was gunned down on April 14.  The funeral train didn’t leave Washington until April 21, and Lincoln was finally laid to rest on May 4, 1865.  The embalmers did a remarkable job in keeping the corpse presentable during its trek across the country.

After Lincoln is entombed, the narrative switches back to Davis’ flight, capture, and how he lived out his final years.  It broke my heart to read about the destruction of Davis’ library and the home known as Beauvoir where he spent his last years, being destroyed by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

In the end, nearly a million Americans viewed their martyr’s countenance and many more millions stood silently and in inclement weather, beside the rails as the train passed.
In the end, Jefferson Davis became a footnote in history but still haunts the Southern states.
In the end, Swanson uses fiction techniques to write a compelling story, using a vivid sty.

There is a beginning, middle, and end with plot points, narrative and foreshadowing.  Even when the funeral train passages were getting a little old because basically the same thing happened in each city, Swanson’s writing style kept me engaged.

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

  1. October 2, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    You are very well informed. really well informed. I will not in anyway dispute your critique, and I agree that an historian should at least address contrary evidence in his work. What I do want to ask, is really, what person who is not a cross dresser wants to state publicly he wore a dress or what commander would admit to running from the enemy in a time of war? I don’t really have a problem with President Davis not bringing that to light, but an historian should be less obviously biased.

  2. October 2, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Swanson did not do his homework on, of all things, the capture of Jeff Davis. He writes well but his facts are right out of wikipedia. He is apparently unaware of the documents, namely Varina Davis letter to the Blairs, describing their flight from Richmond and capture. How on earth do you miss such a thing, if you are even writing a term paper, much less a book about his capture.

    Instead, Swanson just parrots the Davis apologists. Davis is seen as heroic, noble, fearless, and principled. That’s all fiction, if his wife’s letter is correct, and her letter is correct.

    Varina Davis wrote the Blairs an amazing 18 page letter from her hotel, where she was kept after their capture. It’s no secret, it’s not in dispute, it came from the Blair family in 1906, and she is trying to defend her husband, not trash him. But the facts in her letter confirm substantially the Union Army officer’s reports, in fact, she goes into much more detail than they do on some things. Davis was cowardly — not brave. He did absolutely wear a dress — her dress, and two other female garments. And most of all, Davis was running away from his children as bullets were flying, leaving them behind.

    Davis himself insisted he did not run one foot, that he stayed by his tent, and he had thrown on by mistake a shawl, or shoulder wrap. Swanson simply accepts that. He has no clue that Varina’s letter even exists. Instead Swanson says there is a dispute whether he had that one garment on by mistake or not, he simply has no clue that Varina Davis spoke of three garments, one of them full bodies, from ankle to neck, AND two other garments, which she said she pleaded with him to put on.

    Swanson simply accepts Davis own statement as the final arbiter. He makes it seem as if this “dress thing” was a manufactured event, hyped by newspapers. Oh no it wasnt;. If Davis had worn his own clothes, why on earth would his wife devote page after page on his clothing? If this was a newspaper thing ginned up later, why was Varina obsessed with his clothing in her own letter, and why did she describe three garments, and say she pleaded with him to put them on