Killing Lincoln - Book Review


BOOK REVIEW - By Valerie T. Smullen-OFRW M.E.L.P Chairman

Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard—Published by Henry Hold & Co. New York 2011


The narrative of Killing Lincoln covers the period from April 1st to April 26th 1865 during which time the activities of the President and those conspiring to kill him are detailed day by day culminating with the capture and death of Lincoln’s assassin the well known actor and confederate sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth.


By the beginning of April 1865, the long and bitter civil conflict is drawing to a close.  A weary President is on board the steamboat River Queen waiting for the siege of Petersburg, VA to end as General Ulysses S. Grant narrowed the escape route for Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia.  A few days later on Palm Sunday April 9, 1865 General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox.  On the orders of President Lincoln the rebel soldiers were told to go home to their families and General Lee did not have to surrender his sword.  The two generals met for a couple of hours.  Both remembered that they had met once before, when Grant as a Lieutenant was reprimanded for his untidy uniform by then Major Lee, who was as always immaculately dressed and demanded the same of his officers! Neither had changed their habits!


The authors summarize the events of each day, introducing the cast of characters.  The group of conspirators, led by Booth, planned to assassinate not only Lincoln, but Secretary of State William Seward and General Grant.  However, they fail to kill Seward, who, together with members of his family, is brutally stabbed while in bed recovering from injuries sustained in a carriage accident.  Remarkably  Seward, his daughter and son-in-law survive the attack by conspirator Lewis Powell.  There was no attempt on General Grant as his wife Julia insisted they refuse the invitation to attend the theater with the President and Mrs. Lincoln and return to their home.


The President believed that he would not survive his second term as President.  He tells his wife of a dream in which he walks through the White House where people are sobbing and gazing at a corpse.  When he asks who it is, he is told “The President”.  Mr. Lincoln was very fond of Shakespeare’s plays especially the histories.  Mrs. Lincoln had found and purchased a copy of “Julius Caesar”  one of his favorites and gave it to him a few days before they were to attend a performance at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday.  Of course, that play culminated in the assassination of Caesar.


Each chapter provides exciting vignettes as the events of each day are described and the scenario develops:  the forgiving nature of the President and his goal of reuniting the country “with malice toward none”:  the ego exhibited by John Wilkes Booth and the bitterness he and his fellow conspirators feel toward Lincoln and the North.  We will always wonder “what might have been” if Abraham Lincoln had lived to fulfill his dream of peaceful reunification.


Killing Lincoln is a fascinating book.  Of course Good Friday April 14th is the climax but the search and capture of the culprits is unrelenting.  On April 26th John Wilkes Booth is found and shot and like the man he killed was comatose for a few hours before he died.  The others were captured, tried and sentenced – four to death and the others to years in prison.   The details are well documented and the insights and questions it asks are thought provoking and sometimes troubling.  The book is well worth reading.