Anatomy of a Murder

Contrary to popular understanding, John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln was not the handiwork of a half-mad crank and a handful of misfits. The President’s slaying “was clearly a sequel of the war,” as Allan Nevins put it, “product of its senseless hatreds, fears, and cruelties.” The consequences of Lincoln’s death disappeared in the maelstrom of post-war confusions and political strife.

Building on the extensive files of a private collector named James O. Hall, Edward Steers Jr. has written a careful synthesis of what is known about Lincoln’s murder. In Blood on the Moon, he places the crime against the background of a four-year Rebel campaign to impair the Northern will to fight, create havoc among civilians, demolish cities, even the nation’s largest, and kidnap or slay Lincoln as the prime and monstrous author of Southern suffering. In recent times, other such works on the tragedy have dismantled old myths (chiefly pro-Southern ones) about who the conspirators were and why they sought to eliminate the President. Despite the impressive revisions by William Tidwell, William Hanchett, and Thomas Reed Turner, Lincoln’s homicide still needs fresh analysis. Steers provides it in an accessible although not altogether elegant or comprehensive account.

Steers describes how fanatical pro-slavery ideology offered the rationale for sabotage—a conviction that heroic immortality in the name of whites’ liberty to own slaves could be achieved even if it involved martyrdom. Steers reminds us just how intense anti-Lincoln, anti-black feeling remained throughout the war. Conspiracy, especially against civilians young and old, demands not just stealth but absorption in a pure hatred. Like the Ku Klux Klan later, the Confederate slaveholding cause swept up white masses in waves of a wrath hard now to fathom. After the 1860 election, Steers tells us, packages of poisoned fruit preserves arrived on Lincoln’s doorstep in Springfield. Pro-Confederate groups emerged in the Midwestern states with names like “the Circle of Honor,” “Knights of the Golden Circle,” and “the Circle and Knights of the Mighty Host.” Still greater threats lay closer to the national capital. In late February 1861, Pinkerton detectives, as Steers recounts, spirited President-elect Lincoln through Baltimore before two separate groups of stalkers could kill him. On March 4 troops had to protect the inaugural platform from a plot to blow it up. Government departments harbored disloyalists; longtime Washington residents could not be casually trusted. After Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation and after he authorized African-American recruitment, pro-slavery elements became possessed by indignation and hatred.

In discussing Booth’s motives, Steers could have drawn a more convincing portrait. The actor, a matinee idol, moved from sympathy with the Confederacy to overwhelming obsession as he observed the retreat of the Southern armies and the irresistible growth of Northern power. Imbued with an inflated …

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