We all know that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln. What is less known is what happened next. A recent very well written book recounts that rollocking tale. In Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, James L. Swanson tells of the lively chase of the charismatic egotistical actor who took down the President.
Along the way we learn that Booth’s decision to assassinate Lincoln was very hastily put together. Resurrecting a prior plan to kidnap Lincoln, it only took Booth hours to throw together the plans to assassinate Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and general Grant. And “thrown together” is the best word for it. Although Booth was successful in his role of assassinating Lincoln, the rest of the plan quickly unraveled. Seward’s assassin failed in his attempt, Johnson’s never even tried, and Grant avoided all threats by unexpectedly leaving town.
But that was only the beginning. Booth was an actor, not a director. And once he shot Lincoln, he needed to flee Washington DC. Unfortunately, that part of the plan had never been written. So he was left relying on Confederate spy networks for help.
And for 12 days that lack of a plan actually worked, partly due to to his pursuers following false leads and partly due to his own unpredictable route. With a broken leg, the most wanted man in the country first hid out in a forest for about a week trying to find a way to cross the Potomac into Virginia. Once he finally got a boat, he went the wrong direction and landed back in Maryland. But I’ve included enough spoilers, so you’ll have to read the book itself to find out how he was eventually tracked down.
Most striking about the story is its revelations about Booth himself. A passionate, good looking, and vain actor with a sense for the theoretical, he was not the best with details. He expected to be treated as a hero after shooting Lincoln, and never formed contingency escape plans or appreciated the danger he put his friends in. And Swanson is a good enough writer to capture the personalities of all the major characters involved, from Booth and his co-conspirators down to the soldiers who tracked him.
If there is one criticism, it is Swanson’s tendency to speculate about motives and thoughts of the characters. In this way, although I haven’t read anything indicating he is historically incorrect, he does at times go slightly beyond what the hard factual record gives us. But so long as that is recognized, Manhunt provides an excellent introduction to Booth and the events surrounding Lincoln’s death.