Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth


The assassination of Abraham Lincoln ranks easily among the most heinous acts of American history. For the man who guided the nation through its darkest and most trying ordeal, and who, perhaps more than any other single person, helped bring an end to the barbaric institution of human slavery to be gunned down just days after the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Robert E. Lee's once vaunted and seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia was a remarkable tragedy that still beggars description. John Wilkes Booth--vain, delusional. . .a man so committed to his beloved Confederacy that he would do anything for it, except fight--was a villain, his act a cowardly one. Yet in spite of all of this, or perhaps because of it, the assassination and its larger conspiracy to cripple the United States in its moment of triumph by striking down its top leaders, plus the epic 12-day manhunt for Booth, remain among the most fascinating--and most thrilling--aspects of not just the Civil War, but of all American history. And it is because of this, that I agreed several weeks back to review a History Channel documentary, titled The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth.

I am certainly not alone in being fascinated by the assassination and its larger conspiracy; the number of books concerning the assassination are legion. But while the killing of Lincoln has been thoroughly covered, and the details known well to most, the immediate aftermath of the slaying and the monumental manhunt for Booth still remains relatively unexplored, only recently receiving full and fair treatment. It must be remembered that Booth's plot included not just the killing of Lincoln, but also Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and, had he decided to take up Lincoln's offer to join him that evening at Ford's Theater, General U.S. Grant. Keep in mind, too, that at the time of the slaying, the American Civil War was not yet over. Lee's army had surrendered and Richmond had fallen, but Jeff Davis and the members of his Cabinet were still on the loose, and several Confederate armies remained in the field.

Through historical reenactments and recreations, combined with expert commentary from noted historians (including the emminent Doris Kearns Goodwin), the History Channel's The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth does a great job at explaining the assassination and in documenting the largest manhunt in U.S. history. It does a good job at capturing the emotions of the time, which were largely shock and outrage followed soon after by profound mourning. And not just in the North, but throughout the South as well. Most in the former Confederacy knew that Lincoln would be their best friend in efforts at Reconstruction and reconciliation. The filming of this documentary at historic sites related to Booth's escape, i.e. the Samuel Mudd House, Surratt's Tavern, etc, makes it all the more compelling. For those who have not yet seen The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth, I would highly recommend that you do so. More information can be found here.