Review: Booth's Toll


Elizabeth Leonard probes the tumultous events that followed Lincoln's assassination

By Gerry Boyle '78

Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and the Reunion after the Civil War
By Elizabeth Leonard (history)
W.W. Norton & Company (2004)
Most people have at least vague knowledge of the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. After shooting Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth leapt from the president's box at the Ford Theater and was injured in the fall. Booth fled Washington and was treated by a doctor named Mudd. The assassin was surrounded as he hid with an accomplice in a barn. He was shot and died without telling his story. Some of his fellow conspirators were subsequently executed.

End of story? Hardly.

Historian Elizabeth Leonard's new book, Lincoln's Avengers, is a detailed account of the rest of the story-political upheaval that followed Lincoln's death and shaped the Reconstruction Era. The book also relates-and thoughtfully considers-the public political and ideological debates that raged in the months and years after the assassination as the country wrestled with monumental questions. How best to reunite the country after the carnage of years of civil war? Should the South be punished or forgiven? Would forgiveness lead to resurgence of the same forces that led to the Confederacy? What did Confederate president Jefferson Davis know about the Lincoln assassination plot, and when did he know it?

Leonard traces the events in large part by following Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, a Kentucky lawyer who, despite his southern heritage, was a stalwart "Union man." It was Holt and his Bureau of Military Justice that headed the investigation of Lincoln's murder, determined not only to catch Booth and his cronies but also to prove that the assassination was ordered or approved by Davis.

Holt succeeded in rounding up and convicting (before a military tribunal) eight conspirators. They worked with Booth in a failed plot to kidnap Lincoln and, later, in simultaneous attacks on the president and Secretary of State William Seward and a planned assault on Vice President Andrew Johnson. The attacker chickened out.

The assassination, on April 14, 1865, came as Americans were daring to think that Robert E. Lee's surrender would lead to a long-awaited peace. Instead it was a brutal reminder that, while the fighting had stopped on the battlefield, the enmity that fueled the war was unabated in the South.

Drawing on newspaper reports and other documents, Leonard gives detailed accounts of the lives of Booth and his abettors, most of whom were fervent Confederate sympathizers. The eight were arrested and rapidly convicted. Four, including Mudd, were sentenced to life in prison (though he was pardoned in 1869). Four, including rooming-house owner Mary Surratt, were sentenced to death. They were hanged July 7, less than three months after the assassination, despite national debate on the propriety of executing a woman.

While Leonard draws compelling portraits of the individuals involved in the Lincoln plot, her book also provides insight into the political climate of the time. The nation was torn between revenge and reconciliation, and with Andrew Johnson in the White House it was reconciliation (which some charged was motivated by his southern sympathies and oppposition to suffrage for freed slaves) that would prevail.

But Holt had no doubts about the course he felt the nation should take. At considerable personal cost, including death threats and estrangement from friends and family in the South, he set out to bring Confederate leaders to justice. After the conspirators, it was Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious prison camp at Andersonville, Ga., where more than 10,000 Union prisoners died.

Holt's military tribunal found Wirz guilty of a host of charges and, as Leonard notes, he was hanged and buried alongside the Lincoln assassination conspirators.

But it was Jefferson Davis whom Holt wanted to bring to trial for Lincoln's murder, and he told Johnson just that. "Holt's step was bold," Leonard writes, "but hardly reckless or surprising. [Secretary of State] Stanton himself had reached the same conclusion. Indeed, as early as the day Holt took over the investigations, The New York Times had explicitly linked the assassination conspiracy with the leadership of the Slave Power itself, noting that the attacks . . . amounted to nothing less than the 'legitimate crowning of a whole system of crimes and atrocities.'"

In Davis, Holt may have met his match, not because the judge advocate lacked conviction but because the issue became enmeshed in one of the most raucous disputes between a president, his own Cabinet and Congress in the nation's history. Johnson did everything in his power to obstruct the Republican reconstruction plan, in a series of dramatic moves that Leonard chronicles in passages that make this a political page-turner.

It was a remarkable time, and Leonard brings it to life with succinct, unfettered writing and the clarity of a historian's perspective. She shows that, as is often the case, it isn't the historic act itself that is important but the ripples that spread irrevocably and unpredictably from it.