James Swanson’s Manhunt
tells the chilling story of the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States. The narrative focuses primarily on twelve-day chase for the president’s assassin, recounting events from the moment Booth decided to kill Lincoln, to the time the manhunt ended. Swanson’s tale does not limit itself to merely one perspective. He alternates focus between Booth and the law enforcement officials who pursued and finally captured him. Additionally, the narrative presents a well-rounded view of the cast of characters involved in every aspect of the crime and ensuing manhunt. Thus, the book covers events between April 14th and April 26th 1865.
As the story begins, Swanson focuses on Booth’s background. Booth was born in 1838 to a well-known theater family. He was the second youngest child of the Booths, flamboyantly proud Confederates who despised the idea of abolishing slavery and eventually hated Abraham Lincoln for his role in the Civil War. Booth’s hatred for Lincoln was the primary motive for the assassination. Throughout the narrative, Swanson paints Booth as someone who initially exhibited a great deal of pride for killing Lincoln, but ultimately regretted it. Despite Booth’s shifting opinions, the premeditation involved casts doubt on whether Booth truly regretted his actions.
The events surrounding the assassination should have worked in Booth’s favor. He arrived at the Ford Theatre to retrieve his mail and learned through an acquaintance that the president and first lady would be present that evening for a viewing of the play “Our American Cousin.” Additionally, the first couple would be accompanied by General Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the Union Army, and his wife. Booth’s intention had been to eliminate the Union leadership in one swift blow, thus plunging the Union government into chaos. As a result, the Confederate army would have sufficient time to regroup and plan the retaliation for the freshly concluded Civil War. Things did not go as planned, however—Grant and his wife did not attend the performance. Instead, they left town that evening, heading for New Jersey to visit relatives. Booth proceeded with his plan anyway, shooting Lincoln in the back of the head during the performance. This ultimately resulted in the President’s death the following day. Booth’s plan was further aided by the fact that he had ready access to the theatre. His family had previous dealings there, and he himself had performed there in the past. Booth was also well acquainted with the theatre’s owner, John T. Ford.
Immediately following the assassination, Booth fled to Maryland, having expertly plotted his escape route to avoid highly populated areas. The region’s lack of adequate communication and transportation systems made it easier for Booth to remain under the radar. His allegiance to the Confederate cause also garnered him many sympathizers who aided him as he attempted to elude the authorities. In the days that followed, federal officials pursued Booth, searching the rural areas and swamps where Booth was rumored to be hiding. The manhunt held national attention as mourners expressed their overwhelming grief at Lincoln’s assassination. Thousands of mourners flooded Washington D.C. to attend the funeral and get a glimpse of the president’s body. And yet, while the outpouring of grief and sympathy seemed ubiquitous, there were those who did not share this sentiment. Hatred for Lincoln endured in the South even after his death, and Booth was viewed as a hero by many who shared his Confederate loyalty.
Despite the support however, Swanson’s narrative reveals that Booth struggled to accept the harsh reality that his actions did not make him a national hero. His supporters in the South were not influential enough to sway the majority opinion. And instead of becoming the hero he dreamed of, Booth instead was cast as a villain in many eyes. The author captures Booth’s sentiments in the wake of these events by including an excerpt from Booth’s diary in which he expresses his profound despondency: “I am here in despair,” Booth writes. “And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat…. I hope for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country groaned beneath this tyranny and prayed for this end. Yet now behold the cold hand they extend to me.”
Swanson excels in exposing Booth’s mind and thoughts to the reader. He conveys Booth’s perception of himself as a patriot acting for the common good of the nation. In that way, perhaps his regret at killing Lincoln was birthed not from a sense of remorse for taking the life of one of the most important national figures of the 19th century, but of the way he was perceived by the nation he loved so much.