When one considers the vast literature concerning the Lincoln assassination, it is a wonder that nearly all of it was written by avocational authors. In fact, only three full-length book treatments published before 2001 came from the pen of a professionally trained historian. (The three works are: Thomas R. Turner. Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1982]; William Hanchett. The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983]; and Thomas R. Turner. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln [Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co., 1999].) Now Edward Steers Jr., a practiced researcher (he holds a PhD in Molecular biology and is the retired Deputy Scientific Director for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney diseases at the National Institutes of Health), brings his skills to bear upon the topic of the assassination.
Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln takes a refreshingly new look at what has become a somewhat stale topic. Steers disregards the work done by others, and writes this book using mainly primary sources. That meant combing through the microfilmed records of the Judge Advocate General and the Adjutant General's office. When he uses reminiscences, he makes every effort to collaborate those statements. The effort pays off. Not only does it make Steers' book more authoritative, but he also finds many facts and pieces of evidence previously overlooked. In addition to these important sources, Steers utilizes the research that has appeared in the pages of The Surratt Courier, and the files of the indefatigable assassination expert, James O. Hall.
The story of the assassination as told in the simplest terms, that it was a single mad act of a deranged person, has been repeated so many times that it has become almost universally accepted. Steers' version is quite different. He portrays the assassination as a calculated act of war, carefully planned and skillfully executed. (162)
The research done by William Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Gaddy, (the trio co-authored Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988], and Tidwell followed up with April '65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War [Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995]) resulted in a strong yet highly circumstantial case that the assassination was a conspiracy that involved the highest levels of the Confederate government. Lincoln scholars have not universally accepted these conclusions. But Steers argues rather convincingly in support of these theories. He traces the beginnings of the conspiracy back to the Judson Kilpatrick raid on Richmond and the papers found on Capt. Ulrich Dahlgren indicating that the high-level Union government representatives approved targeting Jefferson Davis and other high Confederate officials for assassination. Thus, the Union government instituted the policy of "black flag warfare," where anyone and anything could be considered a target. All bets were off so far as a conflict confined merely to military battles, and the Confederate government responded in kind.
No doubt, Steers incorporation of the conspiracy theory in his book is what will cause this most controversy. However, some of the most seasoned Lincoln scholars are beginning to accept the fact that the assassination was more than a simple conspiracy. William Hanchett, who supported a simple conspiracy theory in his 1983 book, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, has in recent years made clear his own belief in black flag warfare. (See Hanchett's John Wilkes Booth and the Terrible Truth About the Civil War [Racine, WI: Lincoln Fellowship of Wisconsin, 1994].)
Yet other assassination experts remain unconvinced by the Confederate conspiracy theory. Thomas R. Turner, in his 1999 book, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, refutes the claims made in Come Retribution and April '65. Turner goes so far as to assert that political assassination would not have been option for a "Victorian gentleman" like Jefferson Davis. (p. 73) (However, if you subscribe to such a notion, it must then be explained how an armed conflict that kills 600,000 American soldiers could be regarded as being within the acceptable boundaries of Victorian sensibilities). In any event, one can rest assured that Steers inclusion of a high level Confederate conspiracy will not pass unchallenged.
Steers offers engaging and succinct accounts of the hunt, capture, trial and punishment of those who aided Booth. In well-argued sections, the author outlines the cases against Dr. Samuel Mudd and Mary E. Surratt, maintaining that both were appropriately found guilty and that their sentences were just. In the case of the former, Steers successfully presents evidence that condemns Samuel Mudd without merely rehashing the facts presented in his excellent book His Name Is Still Mudd (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1997).
Dr. Steers emphasizes Mudd's intense dislike for African Americans. Such an attitude provides plenty of motive for Mudd's willingness to participate in the Lincoln kidnapping plan, and to assist Booth during his flight from Washington in the aftermath of the assassination. This hatred for African Americans also induced Mudd to attempt to escape imprisonment at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas after Black troops were posted there to serve as guards. (237-39)
One aspect of this book that particularly appealed to me was that Steers allowed his research to tell the story, and he spent relatively little time debunking old theories and assumptions. However, as old sensationalist ideas die hard, the author did devote one chapter near the end of the book to deal with one of the more pernicious myths. In the chapter "Life After Death," Dr. Steers addresses the old stories of Booth escaping death at Garrett's farm. In doing so, Steers analyzes the reminiscences and testimony of one Wilson D. Kenzie, who has been called "the linchpin of the Booth escape theories." Kenzie claimed that he was at the Garrett farm on April 26, 1865, and saw the body of the man who was shot in the barn. Kenzie stated in an affidavit signed on March 31, 1922, some 57 years after the event, that he had personally met John Wilkes Booth in 1864, and that the dead man was definitely not Booth. George Bryan dismissed Kenzie's claims in his 1940 book The Great American Myth (New York: Carrick & Evans, 1940) and Steers does an equally good job demolishing Kenzie's claim.
This otherwise minor incident was of great interest to me, as the Kenzie family later settled in Horicon, Wisconsin, located a mere nine miles from my home. Many citizens in my area are well acquainted with the family and their story, and have come to the conclusion that Booth did in fact escape death at the Garrett farm. Most of these people reached this conclusion not by examining the historical record, but because the Kenzie family were "very nice people," and that they cannot imagine one of them making up such a tale!
Edward Steers' book Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln is a masterful tale. Well researched, skillfully written, and easily read, it presents a sometimes complex story in a concise and well-documented manner. Surely some historians will take exception to some of Steers' conclusions, but such is the fodder of historical discourse. In the meantime, I believe Blood on the Moon stands alone as the definitive book on the subject of the Lincoln assassination.