Life in the Aftermath of a National Tragedy

Author James Swanson Recalls the Search for Jefferson Davis and the Final Journey of Abraham Lincoln

Posted September 27, 2010 at 4:57pm

Jefferson Davis is a titan of American history. Not only did he serve as president of the Confederate States of America, but he was a Congressman and Senator. These days, however, many Americans know next to nothing about the man who led the South.

Author James Swanson is hoping to change that with his new book, “Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse.” The book, released this week, is actually two stories woven together.

First, there is the tale of Davis and the fall of the Confederacy, including his life on the run from Union soldiers after the fall of Richmond, Va. This story is intertwined with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the lengthy funeral and death pageant that followed his death.

Swanson, known for his best-seller “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” is a history buff like no other. To begin with, he owns perhaps the foremost private collection of Lincoln artifacts in the world. He shares a birthday with the Great Emancipator and has been collecting everything from letters to photographs to locks of Lincoln’s hair since he was a young boy. In fact, his collection is so revered that the Newseum put it on display last year. All of these things loan themselves to research, making Swanson’s books filled with vivid details.

In some cases, however, Swanson gets lost in those details. “Bloody Crimes,” which picks up where “Manhunt” left off, borders on dull at times because of the overwhelming amount of information. Where “Manhunt” was suspenseful and thrilling, “Bloody Crimes” is dry.

Swanson gathered the particulars of Jefferson’s journey through the South and Lincoln’s burial over the course of several years. In addition to using letters, newspaper articles, photographs and other historical documents to gather as much raw information as possible, Swanson traveled to many of the locations mentioned in the text.

“I went to many of these haunted places, including the now-empty tomb at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Abraham Lincoln once buried his 11-year-old son, Willie; the Confederate White House in Richmond; Jefferson Davis’ grave and many more places,” he writes. “Objects and places take me back in time, which is where I have to go if I hope to take my readers on that journey.”

The result is a more-than-400-page book with details such as the embalming of Lincoln’s corpse and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury George Harrington’s extensive planning of the funeral, from the size of the coffin to the suit for Lincoln to wear to the grave.

One element, though, is deeply interesting: the search for Davis, whom Swanson calls the “lost man” of American history. “Bloody Crimes” takes a look into his past, at times even drawing parallels to Lincoln. For example, both leaders had children who died young because of illness. Swanson also delves into Davis’ role as an American war hero before the Civil War.

“After he was wounded in the Mexican War and served as a Congressman, secretary of war and Senator, many people believed he was destined to become president of the United States. He loved the old union and was dubious of secession,” Swanson writes. “When he resigned from the Senate in 1861, people wept during his farewell speech.”

“Bloody Crimes” shows Davis as a leader and a family man. Much of his correspondence to Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Varina, is used throughout the book.

The book also explores his life after the war. After being captured in Georgia, Davis was imprisoned in Virginia for two years before being released. He struggled to find work for several years before becoming a traveling speaker. Davis spent the latter part of his life traveling all over the South to dedicate Confederate memorials and graveyards.

At its core, “Bloody Crimes” is an epic tale. While tedious at times, it also illustrates an important and often overlooked portion of American history. Readers will walk away with a deep understanding of the toll that the war and the assassination took on America.

And in the end, that’s exactly what Swanson was hoping for. “The last journeys of Lincoln and Davis are as important as the journey of Lewis and Clark, the building of the transcontinental railroad, even the voyage to the moon,” he writes. “Many of their issues are our issues, the legacy of their deeds still affects American politics, and in their final days, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis influenced how we remember the Civil War today.”