On April 15th, 1865—150 years ago—America lost our president to assassination. The nation was just beginning to exit the most costly war in American history, with over 600,000 soldiers killed and an untold number of civilians. The destruction of the nation, especially the southern states of the Confederacy, was incomparable to anything seen before. And yet, through the despair, there were glimmers of the hope to come—the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th amendment to the Constitution, and a leader who plotted the direction in the uncertain times ahead. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds…”
In one of the great injustices in American history, the man who guided our nation would not live to see those wounds bound up. It is little consolation, though important to note, that we would be an entirely different country, a different people, without him. Even today, President Lincoln is still trapped in our national consciousness—a figure and a story that provides endless fascination. As we approach the 150th anniversary of his passing, a new crop of books attempts to make sense of his story, his impact on the nation, and ultimately why he perished in sacrifice to our people.
Many of the Lincoln-related books occupy the shelves of non-fiction in your local bookstores. This year is no exception. Among the better offerings are a pair that are sure to cast new light into the most tumultuous time period in American history.
1. President Lincoln Assassinated by Harold Holzer
There is little doubt that Harold Holzer is one of the preeminent Lincoln scholars of our time. He has written numerous accounts of all aspects of President Lincoln’s administration. And he does not disappoint with his latest offering.
President Lincoln Assassinated recaptures the dramatic immediacy of Lincoln’s assassination, the hunt for the conspirators and their military trial, and the nation’s mourning for the martyred president. The fateful story is told in more than eighty original documents—eyewitness reports, medical records, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, diary entries, and poems—by more than seventy-five participants and observers, including the assassin John Wilkes Booth and Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot him. Together these voices combine to reveal the full panorama of one the most shocking and tragic events in our history. (From his Publisher’s Information)
2. Fortune’s Fool by Terry Alford
Terry Alford is a professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College. He is the author of Prince Among Slaves, which was made into a PBS documentary in 2007.
In Fortune's Fool, Terry Alford provides the first comprehensive look at the life of an enigmatic figure whose life has been overshadowed by his final, infamous act. Tracing Booth's story from his uncertain childhood in Maryland, characterized by a difficult relationship with his famous actor father, to his successful acting career on stages across the country, Alford offers a nuanced picture of Booth as a public figure, performer, and deeply troubled man. The textured and compelling narrative gives new depth to the familiar events at Ford's Theatre and the aftermath that followed, culminating in Booth's capture and death at the hands of Union soldiers 150 years ago. (From his Publisher’s Information)
But Non-fiction doesn’t own the Lincoln narrative. At times, our creative imaginations long for more than the history we find in text books or even the compelling books listed above. Maybe it’s to right a historic wrong, to bring a voice to the voiceless or just as pure story set in a time period wrought with drama and conflict.
3. Lincoln's Assassin: The Unsolicited Confessions of John Wilkes Booth by Jeffrey Francis Pennington
In his debut novel, Pennington explores an alternative narrative where John Wilkes Booth survives the manhunt after he assassinated President Lincoln. Capitalizing on our love of conspiracy theories, Pennington delivers a story that probes the political landscape of Lincoln.
Written in a confessional style, it aims to offer an insight into the true motivations at the heart of the Lincoln assassination, an event that continues to be the subject of much theorising and interest (From his publisher’s info).
4. O Captain! My Captain! By Walt Whitman
Perhaps however, the greatest work of fiction in honor of Abraham Lincoln remains that of Whitman, in a poem written for our fallen captain. While it is not new, and might in fact be the first creative work written about the passing of our president, it is just as relevant today as it was 150 years ago.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
TJ Turner is the author of Lincoln’s Bodyguard, an alternative history that rights one of the nation’s greatest wrongs—the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Told from the perspective of the bodyguard who saves Lincoln, it presents an alternative dystopian view of the nation that would be, and one man’s attempt to find redemption while saving the nation.