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Book Review – Manhunt

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I began reading Manhunt on the Monday morning of a long weekend. By the end of the day I had accomplished none of the chores and errands I had hoped to scratch off my list, but instead found myself 350 pages into this book. I eventually pried myself away long enough to get some sleep and then promptly finished it up the next morning. Though I am a lover of history, rarely has my attention been held as long and as rapt as with this work of non-fiction.

The details of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination are popular knowledge. John Wilkes Booth, a southern actor who was enraged by the northern victories and the surrender of the Confederate States of America, crept up behind the President while he was watching a play at Ford’s Theater. After fatally shooting Lincoln in the head, Booth leaped to the stage (breaking his leg in the process), gave a cry of triumph, and disappeared into the night. For twelve days he was the most wanted man in America and the nation’s eyes were turned upon multitudes of manhunters as they relentlessly pursued the assassin. A patrol of soldiers eventually tracked him to a farm in Virginia where he was shot and killed. The story of his days on the run serve as the subject for James Swanson’s New York Times bestselling Manhunt.

More than a sketch of Booth’s final days, the book looks also to the rest of the conspirators and to their victims. The plot to kill Lincoln was, after all, to involve killing the Vice President (whose assassin lacked the courage to make an attempt on his life) and the Secretary of State (who was badly injured but survived). Booth hoped that his team would decapitate the Union government and turn northern sentiment against the war.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Booth’s plot is that, though it seemed to succeed, it was ultimately a terrible failure. While he had hoped to be seen as a hero, even much Southern sentiment turned against him for his dishonorable act of taking the life of the President. Booth was reviled and hated and, because he was on the run, was not able to explain or to justify his action. The fame he wanted came only in death. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s death raised his status so he is known today as one of the greatest Americans in history and is routinely declared the greatest President. Booth, for many years regarded as one of history’s greatest scoundrels, eventually saw his reputation change to something of an antihero. He entered folklore as a tragic, romantic assassin. The ideology that drove him to assassinate the President is largely forgotten. By any measure but the most immediate, he was a failure.

The book is a bit melodramatic at times, though it could be well argued that the flowery, almost Victorian prose does match the time period of the subject matter. But this is a small complaint and one hardly worth considering against the joy of reading this book. For months I looked at this book as it sat on the bestseller lists and eventually decided to purchase it. For a few weeks more it sat on my shelf before I decided to read it. And now I am grateful that I did. A great choice for summer reading, Manhunt represents a great effort at making history come to life. I gladly recommend it to anyone.

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