Burgs Sunday book review
Reviewed by Robert E. Benoit, Emeritus Microbiology Professor, Virginia Tech.
This book is described as “a riveting historical narrative of the heart stopping events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln” and it has been on the New York Times bestselling nonfiction list for over 10 months. The John Grisham-like writing style insures you will keep reading to the end. The events in this story are familiar to most Americans yet there is suspense in this fast paced tale. Bill O’Reilly is a popular Fox Cable News anchor and it may come as a surprise that his political views are almost invisible as this story unwinds in the streets around Washington, D.C. Mr. Martin Dugard is the author of several popular history books.
Traditional historians will fault this book because it includes hypothetical conversations and thoughts of the participants. It also includes several conspiracy theories such as Secretary of War Stanton’s suspected involvement in Lincoln’s death. O’Reilly and Dugard include an extensive index to tell the story but there are no footnotes or chapter references. The book has 62 short chapters with a prologue, afterword, epilogue, and a recreation of the Harper’s assassination copy. The book‘s plan develops an intricate web of the many participants, and the reader almost believes that some of the paths not taken in this story could have happen except for the intervention of fate. The detail used in the story gives the reader a you-are-there presence. For example, the critical art of horsemanship and the details of the president’s box at Ford’s theater contribute to the tension. John Wilkes Booth used his intricate knowledge of D.C. theaters and the city to kill Lincoln without a challenge from his guards. He added a quick dramatic center stage entrance and exit after he fired the fatal shot. Booth’s plan was to decapitate the government while he reserved the star role of killing the king for himself. The reader knows the plot of Booth’s play but there is no turning away from the tragic ending.
The story begins with Booth observing Lincoln’s second inauguration and ends with the death of the conspirators. Lincoln is portrayed as a great American president who is burdened by the war and the problems of running a divided government. The tragedies, love, and tension within the Lincoln family become a key part of the story. In turn, the Booth family has a cast of characters that permits the family black sheep to dream the fantasy of becoming a great actor and a greater Confederate impenitent racist hero. His mood moves from euphoria to despair as he learns during his escape that he is despised by the North and the South. The authors follow Booth’s tragic post-assassination ride as he seeks safety in Virginia. Great actors don’t plan to die quietly in a tobacco barn. The maps and drawings provide a useful background. Local readers will enjoy the central Virginia battle chapters from the fall of Richmond to Appomattox. Battles such as Sayler’s Creek are often footnotes in some Civil War books.
The details of Lincoln’s impossible daily schedule builds sympathy for a president who has to deal with concurrent problems such as: the military strategy of Grants army, dealing with political hacks surrounding his second floor White House office, and gracefully handling his wife’s extravagant buying habits and variable moods. Rumors of assassins seeking his death were broad spread at that time; Lincoln’s sense of leadership left him exposed to a violent end as he mused about his likely death. Lincoln’s fit body, developed by years of hard physical labor on the prairie, slowly declines as he strives to keep the union together at all cost. Lincoln’s vulnerability is illustrated by his many walking trips to the War Office telegraph to get news of the war. Lincoln used the telegraph as many use Twitter today. Lincoln’s last act before leaving for the theater was a block on a post-war session of the Virginia legislature.
I recommend this book because it will encourage many readers to explore other books about the civil war in particular and history in general. This is a book that is easy to love or hate. The book is generally accurate but there are numerous errors that should have been vetted before publication. Professional historians have had a field day pointing out the factual errors and some of the reviews have been brutal. Mr. O’Reilly is the first author on the book cover but some listings note Mr. Dugard as senior author. In the interest of transparency, I rarely watch Mr. O’Reilly’s program and I probably qualify as a “pinhead “since I am not an O’Reilly chorus member who favors his opines. His new book on the Kennedy assassination is due out this fall. Learn more about Lincoln by visiting the display called “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” at the Newman Library, Virginia Tech.
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