On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth entered the State Box at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C, and shot Abraham Lincoln, who was enjoying a performance of Our American Cousin with his wife and their two guests. Booth then dramatically jumped from the State Box to the stage and escaped by the back door. He was captured twelve days later after one of the biggest manhunts in American history.
Manhunt by James L. Swanson is the detailed hour-by-hour account of the manhunt which ultimately included police, the military, and private detectives across Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
A passionate supporter of the Confederate cause, Booth had his sights on Lincoln earlier in the year. In March, he and his band of co-conspirators hatched a rather harebrained plot to kidnap the President from his carriage. The plot was foiled when the President changed his plans.
The opportunity for a do-over presented itself to Booth on April 14 when the newspapers announced that the President and First Lady would attend a performance at the Ford Theater that evening. The twenty-six-year-old Booth couldn’t believe his luck. A member of a theatrical family and a successful actor in his own right, he knew the Ford Theater intimately. He just had to get his crew together.
Unfortunately, not all the gang from the earlier kidnapping plot were available on such short notice, but Booth was able to track down George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Lewis Powell. His new plan was more ambitious than mere kidnapping, however. In addition to assassinating Lincoln (Booth), the crew planned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson (Atzerodt) and Secretary of State William Seward (Herold and Powell).
Things did not go as planned. Atzerodt backed out at the last minute, and Powell, encountering unanticipated resistance at the Seward house, left a bloody mess. (Seward miraculously survived his injuries, but was badly disfigured.) The crew scattered; only Booth and Herold made it to the safe house in Maryland.
The plan was to reach Virginia where Booth would be protected and presumably feted as a Southern savior. But Booth hadn’t given much thought to his escape route. A lifelong city dweller, he had no experience of long days on horseback or living rough, and he left D.C. without provisions or suitable clothing. A famously handsome man with a distinctive mustache, he was also widely recognizable.
Fortunately, of all of his crew, it was Herold who joined him in the escape. An avid hunter and outdoorsman, Herold could deal with the more practical aspects of traveling through the countryside. Even better, he worshipped Booth.
Dumb luck, the lack of a coordinated response by law enforcement, and several helpful Confederates gave Booth and Herold a good head start. But Booth’s injury (he hurt his ankle jumping to the stage) coupled with some major tactical errors narrowed their lead. Ultimately they were caught at Garrett farm in Virginia, and Booth was fatally shot. Herold was tried and hung along with Powell and Atzerodt.
Today the entire escape route takes only a couple hours by car.
The fast-moving narrative is enhanced by a handy map, black and white photos, and selections from Booth’s diary. Highly recommended!
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS SAY
CNN.com: “Manhunt infuses the historical events with a sense of adventure. It takes the reader down dusty roads and into teeming swamps in the company of soldiers and scoundrels alike. Swanson illuminates the characters of his story with a wealth of personal detail usually found in fiction. He binds them to his narrative, which gallops along at the pace of a page-turning thriller.”
WHO WROTE IT
James L. Swanson has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and American Heritage. He is the coauthor of Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution, and he is a member of the advisory committee of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.