It was April of 1973 when I, then teenager
more interested in girls and cars than in history, happened to
walk into a book store at a Milwaukee shopping mall. While browsing
through their offerings, I came upon a stack of remaindered books
dealing with the Lincoln assassination. It was probably the macabre
subject matter rather than a genuine interest in the historical
event that caused me to pick up the book and crack it open. After
a few minutes I was completely engaged in the story of Lincoln's
death and the subsequent twenty days before he was finally laid
to rest. I had an overwhelming feeling that I not only wanted
to read this book, but I wanted to own it as well. Counting my
money, including pocket change, I found that I had enough to purchase
the book, and Twenty Days, by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt
and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., became the first Lincoln book in
what is now a good sized library.
Twenty Days is now 38 years old, but it wears the time well. I still return to it now and then to revisit the sad yet compelling topic. And despite the other fine scholarship and outstanding prose I have absorbed since 1973, few books have captured me the way Twenty Day did. But when I recently picked up the book, The Day Lincoln Was Shot: An Illustrated Chronicle, by Richard Bak, I experienced the same rush of emotions I felt 25 years ago when I first browsed through Twenty Days. Here at last is a book on the assassination that deserves to stand next to Twenty Days, or any other Lincoln title.
The Day Lincoln Was Shot: An Illustrated Chronicle is billed a companion volume to the TNT Network's recent original television movie, also called The Day Lincoln Was Shot. Both movie and book were inspired by the 1955 dramatized account of Lincoln's last day written by Jim Bishop. Although Bishop himself would come to disdain the book, the TNT producers retained the title, thus linking their effort, albeit loosely, to the unscholarly work that preceded it. An unfortunate misstep, in my opinion, as this effort does just fine standing on its own merits.
Richard Bak does a good job at describing the events of April 14th and 15th, 1865. Quite correctly, he sets the assassination into the context as being the culminating event of the Civil War. In his introduction to the book, assassination expert William Hanchett endorses this notion, that Booth's actions may be viewed as a deed carried out by a Confederate agent in a last-ditch effort to save the cause in which he believed, rather than a random act of a madman.1
In his narrative Bak is not afraid to take a stand on controversial issues connected with the assassination, something the movie producers seemed a bit more reluctant to do. Bak points out Samuel Mudd's unwillingness to turn Booth into the authorities, and Mudd's initial lack of cooperation once he came under suspicion as one who may have aided and abetted the murderer in his escape. Further, Bak uses the George Atzerodt confession, discovered in 1977, to support the premise that Mary Surratt did indeed conspire to help Booth escape the Washington, D.C. area after his infamous deed.
In an unusual and innovative twist, each chapter is followed by a special section contributed by other experts in the field of Lincoln or the assassination. Harold Holzer presents an illustrated essay on "The Changing Wartime Image of Lincoln." In a composition titled, "Was Booth part of a Confederate Conspiracy?" William A. Tidwell recaps data supporting the supposition suggested in the title, culled from his two books on the subject.2 Michael W. Kauffman recounts the many fictional stories of Booth's successful escape in "Sideshow: The Mythic Afterlife of John Wilkes Booth." Betty Ownsby shares with the reader some of her detailed research on one of Booth's co-conspirators in, "Unlocking the Mystery of Lewis Powell." "The Reel Lives of Lincoln and Booth," by Richard E. Sloan, traces how Lincoln and his assassin have been portrayed in film.
Also featured is a verbatim account of the testimony given the day after the assassination by Major Henry Rathbone and Miss Clara Harris, who were the best witnesses available as to the crime committed in the Presidential box on that fateful night. The young engaged couple were the guests of the Lincolns at Ford's Theatre.
There are few shortcomings to be found in this book. This reviewer might question the purpose of a section inserted in the middle of the book titled, "Lincoln: A Color Gallery of His Life and Death." It presents a wide array of color prints and period photographs tracing the Life and assassination of Lincoln. While in no way offensive, and if fact quite pleasing to the eye, they really brought no further insight into the main topic of the book.
The other illustrations are done in a goldish-sepia color, reminiscent of the general hue of albumin prints prevalent in the 1860s. A f our page bibliography guides the reader to further sources of information on the assassination. The only glaring omission noted is the lack of an index.
In whole, the book is a quality production, and I have no fonder hope than that some day, it will be picked up by other young men and women, who may be drawn to the topic out of a morbid curiosity with the subject matter, and thereby find a lifelong fascination with a subject as noble as the life, and the untimely death, of Abraham Lincoln.
1 Hanchett has been
developing this thesis in recent years. See John Wilkes Booth
and the Terrible Truth About the Civil War, Historical Bulletin
Number 49 (Racine: The Lincoln Fellowship of Wisconsin, 1994).
2 Tidwell is the co-author, with James O. Hall and David Winfred Gaddy, of Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988) and the author of April `65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1995).
Daniel E. Pearson