BookBrowse Reviews Manhunt by James L. Swanson

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Manhunt

The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

by James L. Swanson

Manhunt by James L. Swanson
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2006, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2007, 496 pages

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Pure narrative pleasure, sure to satisfy the casual reader and Civil War aficionado alike. History

From the book jacket: The murder of Abraham Lincoln set off the greatest manhunt in American history -- the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. From April 14 to April 26, 1865, the assassin led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia, while the nation, still reeling from the just-ended Civil War, watched in horror and sadness.

At the very center of this story is John Wilkes Booth, America's notorious villain. A Confederate sympathizer and a member of a celebrated acting family, Booth threw away his fame and wealth for a chance to avenge the South's defeat. For almost two weeks, he confounded the manhunters, slipping away from their every move and denying them the justice they sought.

Comment: There are some topics that have been written about so much that when another book comes out on the same subject it's quite difficult to do anything but yawn, so it was particularly extraordinary to see the pre-publication excitement over Manhunt when it published last year in hardcover, and not just from book critics, movie rights were snapped up before publication as well (see sidebar).

The reason for the excitement is that Swanson has taken a piece of history and presented it as an action-adventure story seen through the eyes of the hunters and the hunted - and quite a story it is too! Swanson cuts through the overwhelming weight of history to focus solely on the hour-by-hour events immediately before Lincoln's assassination, and the 12-day chase following it (with a short discussion at the end covering the trials of the four co-conspirators and the post-assassination lives of those caught up in the chase).

The scene opens on an exhausted but joyous nation, the Civil War is finally over and a new era has begun; this jubilance is brought to a swift end with the assassination of Lincoln which throws the country into turmoil - would this cause the fighting to renew, indeed, was Washington under attack from Confederate forces? For 12-days the country waited breathlessly as the story unfolded through the telegraph wires, as the flamboyant Booth evaded the best the federal government could send against him, until, trapped on a farm in Virginia he gave "his final and greatest performance, not just for the small audience of soldiers at the improvised theater of Garrett's farm, but also for history."

Interesting Link: A collection of archival materials including newspaper clippings, photos and illustrations at the author's website, including a photograph of Booth with "the most beautiful eyes in the world" at the height of his fame.

This review was originally published in March 2006, and has been updated for the February 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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