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Jerry Bauer photo
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One man is dead by a murderer's hand, and another on the run is implicated in assorted crimes, while the fate of a nation and millions of lives hang in the balance. No, it's not a Michael Bay movie but events unfolding in April 1865 and the weeks soon after. It's a sprawling epic that includes a celebrity cameo by Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.
Washington, D.C.-based historian James Swanson, who in previous books examined the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and the trial of his accomplices, now presents the big picture in Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse .
Swanson speaks about his latest book on Oct. 4 at 6 p.m., at the Library of Virginia. Admission is free.
Q: Your approach in the book is the intriguing parallel between Lincoln and Davis; one man transported by his death, the other by the death of his country.
A: The journeys of these two men, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, in terms of how they shaped the nation and how we've interpreted their meanings even until this day, I believe they are among the most important events of our history.
Q: The circumstance of Lincoln's visit to Richmond while the embers of the evacuation fire still cooled is an amazing chapter of our history. And of all the places one would've expected someone to take a shot at him, nobody did.
A: Lincoln's visit to Richmond is certainly the most dangerous thing a sitting U.S. president has ever done. It's a miracle nobody tried to assassinate him. When Lincoln sat down in Jefferson Davis' chair, and he told his general how to proceed with administrating the former Confederates, saying "Let them up easy." It was — well, only Lincoln could've done that. Really, two miracles occurred in Richmond when Lincoln came: Citizens didn't murder him in the streets, and he did not call for vengeance.
Q: One aspect of your book is explaining the national convulsion at this time with Lincoln's death and the concluding weeks of the war. We think of national mourning for John F. Kennedy or on 9/11 — but this reminds me of Franklin Roosevelt dying so near to the end of World War II.
A: Not even the death and mourning for George Washington resulted in a more magnificent display than the deaths of Lincoln — and Davis. And you are right, not until Roosevelt's death, had Americans experienced anything like it. One million people viewed Abraham Lincoln in death, and 7 million people in 20 days witnessed the train carrying him to his grave.
Q: The black bunting that stayed on houses after the Lincoln funeral train came by reminded me of the ribbons and flags of 9/11 that stayed up until they were tatters.
A: Quite similar. We need to keep this in context: 600,000 people were dead, and among them, Abraham Lincoln. So Lincoln's death was the catalyst that released this enormous tsunami of grief that swept the nation. Houses along the train's passing, or in cities where Lincoln's body was brought, left up the funeral decorations until nature wore them away.
Q: The Jefferson Davis I have in my head is a prickly micro-manager with serious ego problems. Here, you give us some aspects of his character that make him seem somewhat less annoying.
A: Davis is one of the Lost Men of American history. The American people know so little about him, even in the South. He's this ramrod-straight image in studio-posed pictures — which give no indication of his personal magnetism.
Davis and Lincoln were both compelling and charismatic men. That is the one thing that's been forgotten. Davis was one of the best orators in the U.S. Senate. During his farewell speech, people wept. His voice and manner was one of the things that won over [his second wife] Varina. When you walked into a room full of people, Jefferson Davis stood out.
Lincoln and Davis both experienced the loss of their first loves; both were great nationalists and loved history. Jefferson Davis was a reluctant secessionist and went along with the plan fairly late. He mourned the "old Union" and had fought courageously for it in the Mexican War.
Prior to 1861, nobody can deny that Jefferson Davis was a great American hero, one of our best Secretaries of War. ... He was certainly one of the small pool of men considered eligible for the presidency of the United States.
Q: Davis lived, however, long enough to write his memoirs and justify his actions.
A: Neither Lincoln nor Davis was universally admired when in power. But Lincoln's sudden, bloody death transformed him, and Davis' capture and imprisonment, and how he conducted himself, he truly experienced a resurrection. He became the mourner–in-chief for the vast army of Confederate dead.
When Davis' body was brought from New Orleans to Richmond, and there were stops along the way, people lined the tracks — just as they did with Lincoln — and held signs with inscriptions of mourning that were word-for-word similar to the ones held when Lincoln's train passed.
Q: You found the official ledger of expenses for the Lincoln funeral — how did that happen?
A: It's in the National Archives. Unfortunately the archives had lost its location. Scouring an old book, I found an obscure reference to a citation number, and then they were able to lay their hands on it. Still missing, by the way, is the ledger book of the funeral train itself. A man traveled on the train to handle daily expenses, for meals, hotel rooms, purchasing assorted items.
Q: The story about Oscar Wilde visiting Jefferson Davis is one of the strangest encounters I've ever heard of.
A: [ Laughs ] Well, this is one of those indications of Davis' fame in his later years. People wanted to meet him as this representative of history. Journalists who came to his home [Beauvoir, in Biloxi, Miss.] were always surprised to find him not a bitter old man but a gracious host.
Wilde, on a speaking tour in Memphis, said Davis was the man he most wanted to meet in the United States — he was reading Davis' memoirs. They had dinner, Wilde did most of the talking, and Davis just couldn't believe this strange fellow and went to bed and left him with the ladies, including Varina — who thought he was just great. He left an autographed picture for Davis, who didn't think much of the gesture.
Q: As if we needed proof that this'll never really be over, you take us up to the present, including how in 2005, Hurricane Katrina took out Jefferson Davis' library at Beauvoir, where he'd composed his memoirs.
A: This, to me, is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago I visited Richmond. I went to Hollywood Cemetery and was shocked to see that the mighty oak tree just behind his grave was torn out of the ground. If that tree had fallen forwards, it would've crushed the statue on his grave. The tree had partly shattered. Pieces of oak wood scattered all over. I picked one up and took it with me.