Lincoln and Davis, to their graves

By David M. Shribman
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2010

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In the gloom of the last days of the Confederacy in April 1865 amid the fall of Richmond, where food was scarce, rumors were abundant, and prospects were grim, Robert E. Lee advised Jefferson Davis to flee — and the president of the Confederacy and his government did so, in a hushed train that departed a dark city en route to Danville, Va., a journey that, as James L. Swanson puts it, “saved, for at least another day, the Confederate States of America.’’

That same month, another train departed in sad silence all its own, this one known as the “lonesome train,’’ bearing the body of a slain president who had bid the nation to heed the better angels of its nature only to die an unnatural death himself — a death that provided the backdrop for Swanson’s “Manhunt,’’ the best-selling 2006 historical thriller about the chase for Abraham Lincoln’s killer.

In “Bloody Crimes,’’ Swanson does a deft job of transforming tragedy and treachery into a chase story of a different kind, tying together two disparate journeys — the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln and the flight of Jefferson Davis — and portraying them as the two trips that marked the spring that changed America.

In doing so he provides a glimpse of the twin tragedies of the immediate aftermath of the war — the martyred president and the wrecked South. (The former slaves, free from bondage but not yet free to enjoy the liberties Lincoln died for, hardly make an appearance here.)

“Thank God that I have lived to see this!’’ Lincoln said in early April as the end of the war came into view. Of course he was destined not to live much longer. As a result Davis, once a voice of moderation as a senator from Mississippi and a superb secretary of war in Franklin Pierce’s administration, was portrayed in the North not only as a traitor but also as a murder suspect.

“Lincoln’s murder was like a violent storm on a distant horizon, its mighty thunderclap taking time to travel a great distance before it caught up with Davis,’’ Swanson writes.

We now know that Davis didn’t send John Wilkes Booth on his murder mission and didn’t even know the assassin. But in 1865 he stood accused — and thus could not stand still.

By horse on lonely rain-soaked roads he moved. By iron horse past tear-saturated crowds, Lincoln’s body traveled through the East before turning west to Springfield at about the same time. When Lincoln’s funeral train appeared in Northern cities, the grief flowing from the loss tempered the exhilaration of victory. In his appearances Davis tried to rally the Confederacy, believing that the runaway country had not yet been defeated.

“Lincoln’s murder had put his life in great danger,’’ Swanson writes, “but he still considered the cause more important.’’

The story of Lincoln’s last journey is so well known and so deeply ingrained in the American story that a century later Robert F. Kennedy’s body would go on a similar rail journey. The story of Davis’s journey is less well-known, the tale of a penniless man slowly realizing the personal peril he faced when President Andrew Johnson offered a reward for his capture, which finally occurred near Irwinville, Ga., on May 10, 1865. The folklore aside, Davis was not wearing a dress at the time.

Davis was placed in prison the very day Mary Todd Lincoln left the White House. Once released, he ended his days as what Swanson calls “a keeper of Confederate memory.’’ His own death prompted an eerie, ironic echo of that of his great rival Lincoln, for Davis’s body went to its resting place on a funeral train of its own. It left New Orleans and arrived in Richmond in May 1893. It was 28 years after the hurried departure that began the drama of April 1865.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

BLOODY CRIMES: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse

By James L. Swanson

William Morrow, 464 pp.,

illustrated, $27.99