“Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard


Reviewed by Nina Walsh
At Chautauqua Institution July 10, 2013

Being a librarian and a writer, I was blown away by the amount of research which went into this book.  It reads like a novel with the degree of detail that is given, such as what thoughts are going through characters’ heads, what they were wearing, what one character was thinking while lying in bed staring at the ceiling, the type of horses they were riding, the food they were eating, what the weather was like, almost down to the birds they heard tweeting outside their window!  The documents the authors were able to uncover allowed them to create an incredibly detailed account of what was happening with all of the players in this period of time.

The reason I was drawn to reading this book was to collect research for the book I am working on based upon my great great grandfather’s diary as a Union soldier.

The first sentence of the book reads:  “The story you are about to read is true and truly shocking.”  The book is chronological.  Each chapter is a day.  Sometimes successive chapters are the same day chronicling separate accounts of the players and/or separate locations of events occurring on the same day.

The story begins on April 1, 1865, in City Point, Virginia, with Lincoln pacing the upper deck of the River Queen.  One thing in my research which was not included in this chapter is — by evening, Pickett’s troops, who had fought with such gallant fortitude, were defeated; 5,000 were taken prisoner and the survivors fled westward in a disorderly array throwing down their arms as they ran.   Many guns and colors were taken as trophies by the victors, and some battle flags were taken by courier to Lincoln at City Point.  Lincoln eagerly received them saying, “Here is something…I can see, feel, and understand.  This means victory.”

Once Grant learned the result of the battle that day at Five Forks (and my ancestor was involved in that battle), just west of Petersburg, he knew he had to press on to end this war.  He ordered an artillery barrage on the 12 miles of Confederate troops still in Petersburg.  Killing Lincoln records Lincoln standing on the River Queen watching the flashing of the canons eight miles away from him. That night, he had a vivid dream about the assassination of “the President” which he related to his wife and friends ten days later.

From now on, Lee is trying to escape to NC while Union troops try to move in front of the enemy.

On April 3, Grant could see the Confederate troops crossing the Appomattox.  He could easily have slaughtered hundreds with a cannon barrage.  But Grant realized the loss of those fathers, sons, and husbands would not advance the healing of the nation.  This was a rare act of military compassion on Grant’s part to aid in Lincoln’s desperate desire to bring all the states back together as one country.

There were at least four groups planning the demise of the President at this time.  Two of them planned to kidnap him, a third wanted to smuggle yellow fever infested shirts into his dresser, and another to bomb the White House.  Booth was one of the kidnapping conspiracies, though he used the term “capture,” because kidnapping is a crime, while capturing an enemy during war is logical and acceptable.

From the characterization of John Wilkes Booth, I would label him a sociopath otherwise known as antisocial personality disorder.  He felt entitled by his celebrity status as a very well known actor.  He boasted, lied, embellished stories making himself to be brave and adventurous.  He was promiscuous in spite of his engagement.  He also was cruel and volatile, a bully who liked to punish those with opposing viewpoints.  He would do anything to satisfy his urges.  He also was a white supremacist.  If the north were to win the war, he thought the freed slaves would slaughter and rape the whites, therefore, slavery must remain in place.  He hated his father, an accomplished actor who did not acknowledge his son’s talent.  Booth’s paternal hatred was transferred to Lincoln as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Booth’s flamboyant personality would not allow him to be a mundane soldier.  He would fight the war on his own terms, directing the choreography to the grand finale with a dramatic conclusion of the antagonist and protagonist meeting to settle their differences.  Booth, as the antagonist, wanted to gag, bind and smuggle Lincoln out of Washington and hand him over to the Confederates to rot in a dungeon.  Booth dreamed up other schemes as well but his co-conspirators would not agree.

Jefferson Davis had given Booth orders, but now he was gone.

He turned his thoughts to killing the President, rather than capture, as killing the enemy is no more illegal than capturing.  He realized he was so close to Lincoln on March 4, 1865, inauguration day, that he should have done it then, as he stood a few feet behind the President while Lincoln gave his inauguration speech.  In fact, on that day, though he had no weapon, his hatred for Lincoln caused him to lunge at the President as he stepped out on the East Portico.  Washington’s Metropolitan Police, grabbed him hard and pulled him back.  The policeman did not arrest or even question Booth as he was a celebrity and claimed he had stumbled.

Up to this time, two presidents had died in office, but no president had been murdered.  If Booth were to be successful, he would achieve the lasting recognition he so deeply craved.

Lincoln secretly believed he would be assassinated.  No American president had ever been more despised than Lincoln.  His close friend, Ward Hill Lamon, the United States Marshall for the District of Columbia, constantly warned Lincoln he needed to improve his security.  Lincoln was quoted as saying, “If I am killed, I can die but once, but to live in constant dread is to die over and over again.”  Lamon even warned Lincoln’s guards that he should never go out at night – especially to the theater!

The book describes Booth:  “He is everything an effective assassin should be:  methodical, passionate, determined, and an excellent strategist and planner.  He is prone to depression, as many assassins are, but his ability to turn angst into rage makes him even more dangerous.  He expects no reward for killing Lincoln, though infamy would be nice.”

Booth was such a skilled actor that none of his Union friends, including his fiancé, Lucy Hale, the daughter of a US Senator, had any idea of his plan.  Until April 4, 1865.  While they were on a romantic getaway in Newport, R.I, he rambled on about his love for the Confederacy and hate of Lincoln.  Their sweet encounter turned to argument.  They took a train to Boston before dinner and went their separate ways.

The Conspiracy to kill Lincoln had several players.  The leader was John Wilkes Booth, the dashing, well known thespian.  He began his plan in August 1864.   His first recruits were Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold.

In October of 1864, Booth went to Montreal where agents of Jefferson Davis held more than $1 million in gold for espionage against the Union.  Booth sought funding for his conspiracy.  Besides $1500, he had a letter of introduction to prominent southern sympathizers in Maryland, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and John Surratt.

James Pumphrey, a Confederate sympathizer, owned a stable and was an acquaintance of John Surratt.  Surratt was the courier who made sure Booth’s operation was fully funded by the Confederacy.  As a result, Surratt was often difficult to locate.  But a message could reach him through his mother, Mary Surratt, who ran a boarding house in Washington.  She supported the Confederacy by assisting with spying and smuggling weapons.

Two other conspirators were David Herold and Lewis Powell.  Herold was handsome, Georgetown educated, a former pharmacy clerk, and fond of hunting.  He was introduced to Booth by John Surratt.  Lewis Powell was a former Confederate soldier.  Half of his face had been disfigured by a mule kick which also left him dim-witted.  He was the youngest of the conspirators and the most experienced as he had killed a man.  He was tall, powerful, a solid horseman, and as a soldier, he had military and reconnaissance training.

George Atzerold was a drunk, simpleton, and drifter.  His advantage in the conspiracy was he knew all the smuggling routes of D.C. into the deep South.

Each person Booth chose was based upon his expertise of weapons, physical fitness, or knowledge of southern Virginia and Maryland’s backroads and waterways.

On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered.  The capital dome had remained unlit during the war as it was an obvious military target.  On the night of April 10, the lamps blazed again as the city of Washington was in jubilation.  It seemed fitting that a crowd gather on the lawn of the White House at the front door chanting, “Lincoln.  Speech.”

But Lincoln was in no mood for a speech.  He tried to satisfy the crowd by pulling back a curtain and waving, which only made the crowd explode.  To appease them, he went to the window again only to discover his young son, Tad, was running through the crowd.  Lincoln emerged, with no protection, to retrieve his son.  He then went to a second floor window and said, “I am very greatly rejoiced to find that an occasion has occurred so pleasurable that the people cannot restrain themselves,” he jokes, knowing that the crowd will respond by cheering even louder.

They again began chanting, “Speech.   Speech.”  He did not want to speak impulsively, but to give them the truth, though the crowd wanted retribution, not reconciliation.  He could not give them half-baked words, so he asked them to please come back tomorrow.  Then he declared Dixie to be one of the best tunes ever.  He stated,  “It is now our property.” And asked the band to play it.  During the song, Lincoln slipped back inside and began writing his last speech.

The next night, April 11, 1865, Booth was present for the speech on the White House lawn.

By April 12, Booth had made the decision the shooting would take place inside a theater, a place he knew intricately.  He decided in the last second of his acting career, he would shout a political statement:  “Sic semper tyrannis.”  Meaning “Thus always to tyrants.”

Booth heard Grant was coming to town and realized there was the possibility he could kill both at once.  He wanted to overthrow the Union, so needed to do a top-down destruction of the government.  His targets included Lincoln, Grant, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward.  This would cause anarchy.

Edwin M. Stanton did not vote for Lincoln in 1860, yet Lincoln crossed party lines to make him Secretary of War.   They often had opposing views, but Lincoln trusted his counsel.  There is a suspicion of Stanton being involved in the conspiracy.  Stanton was the second most powerful man in Washington.   He logically should have been on Booth’s hit list, but he was not.

Briefly, the murky conspiracy theory involves Secretary of State Seward bringing Lafayette Baker, a Union spy, to investigate Confederate communications from which he was promoted in the War Department where he created the precursor to the Secret Service known as the National Detective Police.  He is also associated with Booth in that both men received substantial payments from a Canadian firm, J. J. Chaffey Company.  There is no known reason why either man would have received money from this company, plus the payments were in the same period of time in late 1864.

Booth charged Lewis Powell with the task of killing Seward – an easy target as he was bedridden after a near-fatal carriage accident.  The difficult part of the assignment was getting into Seward’s home and finding his bedroom.  George Atzerodt was chosen to kill Johnson. His boat and knowledge of the Potomac currents were vital for escape.  Of course, Booth assigned himself the center stage.  All four murders were to happen simultaneously.

On the morning of April 13, Booth serendipitously learned of Lincoln’s whereabouts for Friday night.  Because Booth spent so much time on the road, he used the Ford Theater as his permanent address.  Friday morning, April 13, he was picking up his mail at the manager’s office, when he overheard the manager exclaiming to the stage carpenter that Lincoln and Grant were coming to the play that evening.  The men were ecstatic, but Booth pretended he didn’t hear.  Actually, Booth was more ecstatic at the news than either of them.

While still at Ford’s, he wrote a letter to the National Intelligencer stating what he was about to do and those who assisted.  He gave the letter to a fellow actor, who had rejected joining the conspiracy, asking him to mail it the following morning after 10:00 if he had not seen Booth before then.  In other words, he was nasty enough to implicate someone who was not involved.

Though the Grants were to attend with the Lincolns, Julia Grant was not fond of Mary Lincoln and refused to attend wanting to leave town that day anyway.  As fate would have it, Booth was stunned to come across the Grants leaving town in an open carriage.  He followed them, staring at Grant with such intensity that Julia later recalled “the crazed man who stared us down.”

Booth practiced galloping up an alley from E Street to F Street as a maid watched, not imagining she was witnessing Booth’s dry run of his escape.  He invited two stagehands to have a drink with him, one of whom became implicated in the assassination.  When he returned to his hotel, the desk clerk noted Booth was extremely pale and asked about his health.

These are only a few of several bizarre and coincidental occurrences which led up to the climax of the day.  I am not going to give them away; you must read them yourself!  Some of these instances would make one think they were connected to a conspiracy, but no one has found a connection.  We all know the basic events which took place on April 13 and the following days.  No one is lacking in the historical record of events.  But only those who have done extensive research or have already read this book know the horrifying details.  Even if you think you know what happened, you will be enlightened by this account.  It is an excellent read.


About 9awalsh

A genealogist and writer who has uncovered legacy stories which must be told. I also write a blog, Deciphering Life, trying to figure out why life becomes so tangled -- www.9awalsh.wordpress.com
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3 Responses to “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

  1. mpschrauwers says:

    It was a privilege to listen to this book review!! Glad you posted it!!


  2. Bob Fleck says:

    Well done, Nina. I thought I would get through life without any input from Bill O’Reilly but, alas, you have made this impossible.

    Bob Fleck


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