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4 january 2008

James L. Swanson's Manhunt is an extremely circumscribed narrative. It really is, as its subtitle advertises, just about "the twelve-day chase for Lincoln's killer." Yet you need relatively little prior knowledge of the lives of Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth, or of the course of the Civil War, in order to follow the story. Swanson entertains and informs, without padding or providing the kind of voluminous backstory that detracts from the interest of so many historical narratives.

I place Manhunt in the category of "crime" rather than "war & peace." Though its context is the Civil War, the war was effectively over by the time Booth shot Lincoln. The assassin and his fellow consiprators certainly saw their acts as acts of war. By killing Lincoln and the two other intended targets, Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson, they would be taking the fight from the battlefield, where the Confederacy had lost, to the streets of Washington, where they might win, or at the least frustrate the victors.

But the Confederate brass didn't see Booth as one of their footsoldiers. Confederate lieutenant general Richard S. Ewell and sixteen other southern generals sent a letter to Ulysses S. Grant the day after the Lincoln died. "We are not assassins, not the allies of assassins, be they from the North or from the South" (174). And Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, though he charged the military with pursuing Booth through parts of Maryland and Virginia that were strongly rebel in sympathies and under virtual martial law at the time, stressed the "law" part of the equation over the "martial." By both recent antagonists in the War, Booth was seen as a murderer, not as a warrior.

Booth was eventually killed (while undeniably resisting arrest) by a Union trooper (the impossibly bizarre Boston Corbett). But he was tracked down by a hybrid force of military men, civilian detectives, and Southern informers. The federal cavalry took to the roads like a mounted police force. Interestingly, when Booth was found in a barn in Virginia, the Union cavalry officer in command (Edward P. Doherty) ruled out an immediate military assault on his hiding place, preferring first to negotiate and then to smoke Booth out by setting the building afire. Swanson questions the tactics, noting that the Union army had risked casualties for years. But Doherty, though he failed to take Booth alive, brought his own men out of the action unharmed. The time for calculated risks in battle was over; the time for cautious civilian law enforcement had arrived.

I am struck by the parallels with 9/11/2001, which are not as distant as they might seem. Swanson notes that Booth perpetrated the most shocking crime in American history, and arguably that was still the case until Osama bin Laden perpetrated an even more audacious and costly set of murders 136 years later. Booth was caught twelve days after he shot Lincoln; Osama remains free more than six years later.

Obviously, the parallels break down as quickly as they arise. Booth ran to a neighboring state; Osama was halfway around the world. Booth had the help of a few unarmed civilian sympathizers; Osama was protected first by the Taliban government of Afghanistan and later by a vast network of paramilitaries. But it is striking that very soon after the 9/11 crimes, the Bush Administration saw these murders as an act of war. Initially, of course, on September 11th, President Bush framed the response to the attacks much as Secretary Stanton had framed the response to the Booth conspiracy:

The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I've directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them (11 September 2001)
But soon after, the conversation shifted to a military response, the shadowy "War on Terror" that continues today.
On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country . . . Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success (20 September 2001)

Imagine President Johnson and Secretary Stanton taking the same line in April 1865 that Bush took in September 2001. We might have seen a resumption of military campaigns across the South, initially in search of Booth but then with an increasingly ill-defined agenda of wiping out rebel sentiment across an unreconstructed Confederacy – and the unintended consequence of hardening and perpetuating such resistance. Booth himself might have gone to ground in the hills between North Carolina and Tennessee, and we might have effectively lost heart in the search for him in order to placate a nominally pro-Union governor of one or the other of those states. A year and a half later, we might have seen an invasion of Mexico on the shaky pretext that the Mexican government, sympathetic to Booth, was acquiring the technology to build a fleet of unsinkable monitors with which to launch surprise attacks on our coastal cities. And we might still have been in Mexico in 1872, with no prospect of ever leaving, and Booth as uncaught as ever a thousand miles away.

War is war and crime is crime. Edwin Stanton, for all his dictatorial tendencies, was ultimately unconfused about the distinction. Every Presidential candidate in 2008 should read Manhunt and reacquaint him- or herself with that distinction.

Swanson, James L. Manhunt: The twelve-day chase for Lincoln's killer. New York: Morrow, 2006.