book response: Bloody Crimes by James Swanson (2010)

I borrowed from my local library the digital version James Swanson's book Bloody Crimes: The chase for Jefferson Davis and the death pageant for Lincoln's corpse, and I was so sad last night that I finished it. Swanson writes good history about a topic, the American Civil War, that I have read plenty about over the last dozen years. This was so good I already checked out his previous book, Manhunt: The twelve day chase to catch Lincoln's killer.

Swanson certainly admires Lincoln, he was certainly admirable, but he does not hide Lincoln's warts. He is not a fan of Jeff Davis, but he does not hide his admirable qualities either. The following paragraph is a good example of Swanson's presentation.
Lincoln, who was not an abolitionist, agreed with Jefferson Davis that the Constitution protected slavery. Thus, the federal government had no power to interfere with it wherever it existed. And like Davis, Lincoln—at least the Lincoln of the 1840s and 1850s—accepted white racial superiority. But Lincoln parted ways with Davis and the South over the morality of slavery and the right to introduce it into new states and territories. Lincoln believed that slavery was a moral crime—“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” He argued that even if blacks were not “equal” to whites, they should enjoy the equal right to liberty and the fruit of their labor. Lincoln insisted that the founders had allowed slavery with the uncomfortable understanding that it was an unholy compromise necessary to create the new nation, and that the founders had envisioned, at some future time, slavery’s natural and ultimate extinction. Lincoln also opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories and states, fearing that its spread would give it a second wind, thus perverting the intentions of the founders and the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Davis and his fellow Southerners rejected that ideology, insisting that slavery was not a necessary evil but something good that benefited both masters and slaves. The “peculiar institution,” they argued, civilized, westernized, and Christianized a primitive, heathen African people. Southern leaders resented the accusation that slavery was a moral evil and not a positive good, and they interpreted the rising antislavery movement in the North as part of a conspiracy to outnumber the slave states with new free states to strip the South of its political power in Congress, especially in the Senate. Page 53

I know some American christians today still agree with parts of Davis's argument. The sourthern politicos observation at the end of the paragraph was true. The North sought to prevent the admission of new slave states, and defeat slavery through a slow political process. The south chose secession, perceiving they could not persuade the nation as a whole.

The book's compare and contrast format between the two presidents is followed throughout the book. As Lincoln's funeral train traveled north and west to it's final stop in Springfield, Ill. Jeff Davis was heading South and East fleeing from Union soldiers. But Lincoln did not seek vengeance, but unity. Booth's assassination prevented a leader, merciful to a fault, from reuniting a country with gentleness.
On this day, General Weitzel, who was now in command of the former Confederate capital, asked Lincoln what policies he should adopt in dealing with the conquered rebels. Thomas Graves overheard the conversation, and Lincoln’s answer became an American legend. “President Lincoln replied that he did not want to give any orders on that subject, but, as he expressed it, ‘If I were in your place I’d let ’em up easy, let ’em up easy.’ ” This was one of the most remarkable statements ever spoken by a commander in chief. During his time in Richmond, Lincoln did not order the arrests of any rebel leaders who remained there, nor did he order their property seized. And he uttered no words of vengeance or punishment. Even while he sat in Jefferson Davis’s own home, he did not disparage or defame the Confederate president. Nor did he order an urgent manhunt for Davis and the cabinet officers who had evacuated the city less than two days before. It was a moment of singular greatness. It was Abraham Lincoln at his best. Page 63
In fact, Lincoln made clear to his generals that he preferred Davis be allowed to flee the country. He did not want a show trial. He did not want a martyr in the hanging of Davis for treachery. He wanted the states to be united again.

As one observer quoted by Swanson said “The talk now is…that the military authorities are conniving the escape of Mr. Davis…The general belief is that Grant and the military men, even Sherman, are not anxious for the ugly job of hanging such a man as our president, and are quite willing to let him give them the slip, and get out of the country if he can. The military men, who do the hard and cruel things in war, seem to be more merciful in peace than the politicians who stay at home and do the talking.” Page 289

Swanson adds,The danger came from the armies of Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston. To Lincoln, the fleeing Davis was of little tactical or strategic importance. For other reasons, Lincoln did not want to capture Davis at all. To help heal the rift between North and South, Lincoln wanted no treason trials or prison sentences, and certainly no public hangings. He cued his cabinet and several of his generals on his desires. Between April 2 and April 14, Lincoln issued no orders to hunt down Davis. Instead, Lincoln had issued him an unwritten, unofficial free pass to escape. Page 296

Instead, Booth made Lincoln a martyr on Good Friday, 1865. For all it's evil, it also served as a cathartic focal point for all in the North who lost so many family members to the war. Swanson shares this important observation made by those in the moment, as Lincoln's funeral train rolled from city to city.
Somewhere between Washington and Springfield, the train became a universal symbol of the cost of the Civil War. It came to represent a mournful homecoming for all the lost men. In the heartbroken and collective judgment of the American people, an army of the dead—and not just its commander in chief—rode aboard that train. Page 213
Jefferson Davis was captured and languished in prison for two years. At first, the government thought he could be implicated in Lincoln's assassination. But the courts were fair, and the witnesses' stories fell apart on the stand in Union courts. Eventually, President Johnson let Davis out on parole. He eventually settled near Biloxi, Miss. and wrote. Towards the end of his life, over 20 years after war, he gave speeches at dedications and confederate veteran gatherings. Those speeches were also cathartic for southerners. They had lost, but he had never given up for what he believed was right, in their eyes. He enjoyed a huge surge in popularity. Swanson tells us that history has shown greater favor to Lincoln though. There are great books and movies about him; great memorials. Towns are named after him. Yet Davis's White House in Richmond has fallen on hard times. His story is not celebrated by the culture at large. He was wrong. Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was right. I was struck over and over again with his capacity for mercy. He truly wanted malice toward none. At his funeral in Springfield...
Simpson read Lincoln’s second inaugural speech at tomb-side. Invoking the president’s mantra of “Malice toward none,” Simpson proposed forgiveness for the “deluded masses” of the Southern people: “We will take them to our hearts.” And we must, said Simpson, continue Lincoln’s work: “Standing, as we do today, by his coffin and his sepulcher, let us resolve to carry forward the work which he so nobly begun.” Page 283
Amen.
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