Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Darkest Dawn

One of my favorite books of recent years is April 1865: The Month That Saved America, Jay Winik's masterful account of the Civil War's end. Winik believes--and history tends to support his thesis--that the actions of Lincoln, Grant, and Robert E. Lee during those critical days put the nation on the long road toward healing and eventual reconciliation.

Beautifully written, Winik captures the events (large and small) that brought an end to the Civil War, and prevented the nation from plunging into guerilla warfare, or racial violence. In one of the more memorable anecdotes from the book, Winik recounts the first post-war Sunday service at Richmond's leading Episcopalian Church. The priest and parishioners were shocked when a recently-freed slave presented himself at the communion rail to receive the holy sacrements. The congregation remained frozen in shock until an elderly, dignified white man joined him at the rail. It was Robert E. Lee. It was a simple, yet heroic act that spoke volumes about the Lee and his desire to heal the wounds of slavery and the war.

More recently, I've discovered aonother book that is, in some respects, a companion piece to April 1865. This particular work captures some of the darker moments of that month, concentrating on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent capture and execution of the conspirators. Written by the husband and wife team of Debra and Thomas Goodrich, The Darkest Dawn reminds us that hopes for a quick and peaceful reconciliation were dealt a near-mortal blow when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theater in Washington. With southern armies still in the field, the threat of guerilla war, and even fears that British troops would invade from Canada, Republican leaders were determined to track down Booth and his fellow conspirators and eliminate them, quickly and mercilessly.

To be sure, other historians have covered this ground before and arguably, better; James Swanson's "Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln's Killers Comes to Mind is a superior account in some respects. But the Goodriches deserve credit for expertly capturing the feelings of fear, loathing, despair (and even glee) that enveloped the nation after the assassination. For example, when word of Lincoln's death reached the occupied South, Union troops demanded that the former Confederates mount public displays of grief, by hanging black bunting from the few houses and buildings that were still standing. One southern woman, who had lost both her husband and son in the war, refused to comply, then hung herself by her mourning veil from the balcony of her home.

The writers also highlight some of the lesser-known personalities that played a pivotal role in capturing Booth and the other conspirators. Boston Corbett, the Union soldier who helped corner Booth and shot him--against orders--was a survivor of the Andersonville POW camp and religious fanatic who had castrated himself, to prevent temptations of the flesh. When Corbett's superiors tried to have him court-martialed for disobeying orders, he was pardoned by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Other passages from the book are equally vivid. As Lincoln's body was carried from Ford's Theater to the Peterson home across the street, bystanders dabbed at drops of the President's blood that dripped on the cobblestones, collecting souvenirs. Lincoln's funeral train took almost three weeks to reach his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois; along the way, the procession attracted huge crowds (in Philadelphia, some spectators were crushed to death when the mob stormed the tracks), and in some places, generated a carnival-like atmosphere. The Goodriches note that bands of pickpockets followed the funeral train, plying their trade among the crowds that gathered to pay their final respects.

The Darkest Dawn is not the definitive book on the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath, but it is an entertaining and sometimes riveting account of one of the most disturbing periods in our history. Jay Winik is probably right; the Union was saved in April 1865, but as the Goodriches remind us, hopes for reconciliation and a lasting peace often hung by a thread during that tumultuous month.

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