COLUMN: ‘Killing Lincoln’ a must-read

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By the Side of the Road

While I generally subscribe to the adage, “It is better to give than receive,” I also believe that receiving can be a great joy as well. This past Christmas, I received a book from my wife that held me spellbound for several weeks – yeah, I know, I’m a slow reader. “Killing Lincoln,” by Bill O’Reilly, the “No Spin Zone,” cable commentator and Martin Dugard, a best-selling historical writer, is certainly one I would recommend to anyone with an ounce of interest in the events that surrounded the assassination of our 16th president.

As we’ve all experienced, reading history can sometimes be a chore – think of your high-school textbook. “Killing Lincoln” whisks you on a journey back in time, when our nation faced its greatest peril, the very real threat of anarchy and disintegration. The great democratic experiment created by our founding fathers came close to imploding, thus robbing the world of the best form of government ever devised by man.

Not since the Revolutionary War and its immediate aftermath was there a greater need for a leader who possessed the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job and the faith of Abraham. We have George Washington to thank for setting our country on the high road, and Abraham Lincoln for steering us back when we had lost our way.

“Killing Lincoln” takes up America’s narrative in the final stages of that colossal struggle, when the very soul of our nation hung in the balance. Written in a suspenseful and absorbing manner, the story vicariously transports the reader onto a battlefield with Gen. George Armstrong Custer, as he engages his cavalry in hand-to-hand combat with Robert E. Lee’s Rebel army at Saylor’s Creek.

The authors describe this “little-remembered” battle as being the most brutal and barbaric of the Civil War. Following a Union victory where nearly 8,000 Rebel soldiers were either killed or captured, the reader becomes privy to the awkward and disjointed negotiations between Gen. Lee and the Union army prior to the formal surrender at Appamattox.

Regardless of where one’s sympathies lie, one cannot help but feel a genuine admiration for the resolve, perseverance, courage and masterful leadership of both Lee and his archrival, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, as they marched and maneuvered their opposing armies against one another. Above all, the grisly carnage of human life is an unshakeable image from which the reader is never quite free.

Likewise, the reader is tuned in to the desperate, unfolding plots of the hate-filled actor, John Wilkes Booth, who sees Lincoln as the embodiment of evil, the person most responsible for the destruction of the Southern way of life.

Through the vividness of the narrative, the reader finds himself seated in the very balcony of Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their guests, Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, are enjoying the performance of “Our American Cousin.”

They are blissfully unaware that John Parker, the president’s bodyguard has abandoned his post and that a man dressed in black with a Deringer in one hand and a knife in the other is stealthily making his way to their chamber, unobserved and unobstructed.

In the mad scene that follows the assassination, the reader is transported to the Petersen house, located across the street from the theater, where the dying president lies on a “lumpy mattress ... filled with corn husks.” In a room packed with doctors and dignitaries, the dying president’s son, Robert, sobs uncontrollably. His wife, Mary, is distraught beyond measure.

Booth’s breathtaking escape from the capitol city on horseback, along with fellow co-conspirator, David Herold, and their six-day encampment, hiding out in a cold, wooded, countryside in Maryland, a terrain filled with malaria-infested swamps inhabited by serpents and lizards, caused me to wrap up in two blankets as I read the authors’ account of these sordid events.

Suffice it to say that throughout the book, compelling images are drawn and little-known facts of considerable interest and worth are provided, giving the reader a wealth of mental impressions to ponder.

Such is the power of the written word.

While four individuals received death sentences as a result of their part in the assassination, there is a multitude of documents and many historians who have uncovered evidence – much of it circumstantial – that Lincoln’s demise was the result of a vast conspiracy which may have reached into the highest levels of government in both the North and South. How things might have turned out had Lincoln lived to enact his benign vision of reconciliation, no one will ever know.

America was mercilessly deprived of perhaps the greatest political figure of its illustrious history.