Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson


Goodreads: Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
Series: None

Official Summary

Based on rare archival material, obscure trial manuscripts, and interviews with relatives of the conspirators and the manhunters, CHASING LINCOLN’S KILLER is a fast-paced thriller about the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth: a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic and come from original sources: letters, manuscripts, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books and other documents. What happened in Washington, D.C., that spring, and in the swamps and rivers, forests and fields of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have been made up.”

So begins this fast-paced thriller that tells the story of the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth and gives a day-by-day account of the wild chase to find this killer and his accomplices. Based on James Swanson’s bestselling adult book MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER, this young people’s version is an accessible look at the assassination of a president, and shows readers Abraham Lincoln the man, the father, the husband, the friend, and how his death impacted those closest to him.

Star Divider


I admit I was expecting more from this book, based on the glowing reviews. I know little about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, other than that it happened at Ford’s Theatre, and that John Wilkes Booth escaped into Maryland and was subsequently shot and killed in a barn in Virginia. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, however, did not noticeably improve my understanding of the manhunt. It draws the chase in broad strokes, mainly tracing where Booth went and whom he met, but without providing many of the little details that might make history come alive. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is a serviceable first read, for those new to the tale, but readers truly interested in the matter will want to check out other books that might bring out the nuances of history more clearly.

Perhaps the lack of details is a result of the story adapted for children or maybe there simply is not as much historical evidence about the chase as one might want. Either way, once the the Booth departs from Washington, D. C. and into Maryland, the story loses much of its impetus. The author seems concerned mainly with tracing Booth’s path from one safe house to another, but the characters he meets do not get extensive background treatment, nor does the historical moment. What were the lives of these Marylanders like before and after they encountered Booth during his escape? What was happening back in Washington? What was the mood of the nation? What was the mood of Booth’s family, including the reaction of his famous brother, the actor (and Unionist) Edwin Booth? Readers receive only a glimpse.

And the nuances of the history seem to be lost in this telling, as well. Intrigued by what I had read in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, I did a short internet search for Booth. Simply reading a few online articles informed me that the history may not be as straightforward as Swanson presents it. In his version, for instance, Boston Corbett shoots Booth inside the barn, says he did it to defend his men, is court-martialed for disobeying orders, but ultimately let go. He eventually goes mad and disappears from history. Wikipedia adds to this story, noting that eyewitnesses disputed Corbett’s account that Booth had been reaching for his gun; some even expressed doubt that Corbett had been the one to shoot Booth. Additionally, Corbett does exhibit unusual behavior and eventually disappear from history, but it is believed he settled in Minnesota where he perished in the Great Hinkley Fire (though this cannot be confirmed). These are small details and probably not pertinent to the overall account of what happened. It may even be that historians do not doubt that Corbett was the one to kill Booth, and so perhaps some may not feel the need to note that eyewitnesses were not entirely sure who made the shot. And yet, these little details, and the messiness they represent, are what make history interesting.

The writing style, too, leaves something to be desired. Perhaps in an attempt to sound dramatic, the book often repeats itself on the sentence level. So, for instance, the author might inform readers of something to the effect that actress Laura Keene wanted to make history that night by being present at Lincoln’s death. But then the book will say that same thing two more times, in slightly different ways. One would think that, being condensed from a longer work, this book would not need to repeat itself for content. And this does nothing for the story except make for an awkward reading experience.

Part of me suspects that this book has received so much attention mainly because of the subject matter. Lincoln’s death continues to grip, and haunt, the nation. A book about his killer would certainly be of interest to many, especially considering that there have been several conspiracy theories over the years, suggesting Booth did not really die in a barn that April night. However, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is really a surface-level treatment of the history, presenting the basic facts, but not really situating the events in the historical and political context, or even offering any historical analysis. The book is a good place to start, but curious readers will want to keep learning more.

3 Stars

The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom by H. W. Brands


Goodreads: The Zealot and the Emancipator
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

From New York Times bestselling historian H. W. Brands, the epic struggle over slavery as embodied by John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, two men with radically different views on how moral people must act when their democracy countenances evil.

John Brown was a charismatic and deeply religious man who heard the God of the Old Testament speaking to him, telling him to destroy slavery by any means. In 1854, when Congress opened Kansas territory to slavery, Brown raised a band of followers to wage war against the institution–his men tore proslavery settlers from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Three years later Brown and his men assaulted the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to arm slaves with weapons for the coming race war that would cleanse the nation of slavery once and for all.

Brown’s violence pointed ambitious Illinois lawyer and former office-holder Abraham Lincoln toward a different solution to slavery: politics. A member of the moderate wing of the new, antislavery Republican Party, he spoke cautiously and dreamed big, plotting his path to Washington and perhaps the White House. Yet Lincoln’s caution couldn’t preserve him from the vortex of violence Brown set in motion. Arrested and sentenced to death, Brown’s righteous dignity on the way to the gallows led many in the North to see him as a martyr to liberty. Southerners responded in anger and horror that a terrorist was made into a saint. Lincoln shrewdly threaded the needle of the fracturing country and won election as president, still preaching moderation.

But the time for moderation had passed, and as the nation careened toward war Lincoln would see his central faith, that democracy can resolve its moral crises peacefully, face the ultimate test. Master storyteller H. W. Brands narrates in thrilling fashion how two men confronted America’s gravest scourge in the moments before the nation’s darkest hour.

Star Divider


The Zealot and the Emancipator is a well-researched look at John Brown’s life alongside Abraham Lincoln’s rise to politics and the presidency. The chapters largely alternate between the two men’s biographies, until the moment when John Brown is executed for taking over the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and attempting to start a slave uprising. Then the book continues through Lincoln’s life and presidency. Exactly why H. W. Brands chose to intertwine the stories of these two men is left a little nebulous until the very end, when he contrasts Brown’s decisive, bloody action with Lincoln’s more roundabout approach to ending slavery. The book would have had more direction had the contrasts between the two men been made clearer throughout the whole. Still, The Zealot and the Emancipator is a good book for history lovers who are somewhat new to Brown and Lincoln’s biographies.

While The Zealot and the Emancipator has received its share critical acclaim, I must admit that I found the book to be a rather standard text on the Civil War era. Its interest for me ended up mainly being an extended look at John Brown’s life since I, presumably like many Americans, am mainly familiar with his actions in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, but not with much else. I was intrigued to learn about this fascinating man and the effect he had on others around him, impressing them with his morality and gravity even as he spoke (or hedged about) doing decisive deeds to end the scourge of slavery.

The chapters on Lincoln, in contrast, offered me very little new information on him. I am very familiar with his biography, however, so readers who are not may find more of interest here. I think the greatest strength the book has in this regard is that Brands spends more time than most on chronicling Lincoln’s changing attitudes towards slavery, meticulously noting (usually through extended quotes from Lincoln’s speeches) how Lincoln began as anti-expansionist and ultimately ended with abolition. Brands’ take is largely that Lincoln was a Constitutionalist who believed he had no legal authority to end slavery in the states, but who worked where he could to stop the spread, hoping that this would make slavery die out everywhere. He also worked to end slavery in D.C., where he believed Congress had the legal authority to end it.

Many people today likely won’t be satisfied with Lincoln’s actions, especially since schools tend to suggest Lincoln was an ardent abolitionist, so the revelation that he was really anti-expansionist (politically, not morally) often comes as a real shock. However, I think Brands does a meticulous job explaining Lincoln’s position as a politician, noting the political climate, the need to hold the Republican party together in the face of a fracturing Democratic party, and the strategy to gain votes largely by offending no one (which meant not taking a strong abolitionist stance when such a stance was not popularly supported, even in the North). While Lincoln’s actions and words may seem repugnant to modern audiences, they also worked, catapulting Lincoln to the presidency, where he ultimately did more to end slavery than Brown did with his more direct approach.

The book ends by reflecting on Lincoln’s effectiveness versus Brown’s, making the volume an interesting read on politics, if not very interesting as biography. (The somewhat dry style of the writing combined with the copious quotations from Lincoln’s speech may be off-putting to readers who like their popular historians to be storytellers.) Lincoln as an ambitious, canny politician, willing to say–or not say–things based on their utility to his advancement is not how textbooks tend to depict him, but it is a facet of his life that continues to make him an intriguing historical figure. And Brands does justice to that side of Lincoln, not shielding him from criticism, but doing the historical work to try to figure out why Lincoln said and did what he did. It is a balanced look at Lincoln that puts him into historical context for a new generation of readers.

3 Stars

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson


Goodreads: The Mirk and Midnight Hour
Series:  Strands #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014


With her twin brother dead and her father gone off to fight for the South, Violet Dancey is trying to hold her life together.  Unfortunately, her new stepmother is addicted to laudanum, her stepsister Sunny is an obnoxious flirt, and her cousin Dorian seems charming but could mean trouble.  Then Violet and her young cousin Seeley find an injured Union soldier in the woods.  Unexpectedly, he’s handsome and intelligent, nothing like she thought a Yankee would be.  But why are the mysterious VanZeldts caring from him?  Will he be a victim of their dark powers?  A retelling of “Tam Lin.”


Jane Nickerson’s The Mirk and Midnight Hour reimagines the Scottish tale of “Tam Lin” in Civil War-era Mississippi.  Her interest in the Southern Gothic combined with a story of forbidden love makes the story intriguing.  Unfortunately, the plot feels a little messy and the depiction of slavery indicates that, even though Nickerson seems to be attempting to deal with the difficulties inherent in discussing such a terrible topic, she ultimately is unable to avoid reinforcing stereotypes or to avoid the influence of the narrative of the Lost Cause.

[Spoilers Ahead for the Rest of the Review.] The uncomfortable depiction of slavery and Black individuals is in, fact, part of the reason the plot feels like such a mess.  In Nickerson’s retelling of “Tam Lin,” the fairies are replaced by voodoo practitioners.  Because they are invoking mysterious powers, Nickerson wants to depict them as strange and other-worldly.  And, of course, as villainous.  This gets incredibly awkward since it means that the people of the town  see the African men and women as something other than people.  They move strangely, are associated with snakes. and are referred to as (by another Black character) “People-things” to indicate that they are not normal.  In a book where race and racial politics must always be at the forefront, associating Black characters with dark powers and wrongness is…well, it feels wrong.  Furthermore,the voodoo really doesn’t add much to the plot but seems like it was awkwardly tacked on to a standard Union-Confederate forbidden romance story.  So these depictions and their problematic implications could have easily be edited out and improved the book in more ways than one.

The book, however, seems unsure exactly how to deal with racial politics even while it seems clear it knows that it has to.  For example, Nickerson seems to realize that depicting a young woman whose family owns slaves and making that woman the heroine is going to be a problem.  She attempts to deal with this by making Violet and her slave Laney friends.  Violet and Laney grew up together, share secrets, even do the household chores together.  Violet loves Laney’s baby Cubby and babysits him.  There are two nods given to this inexplicable arrangement.  Violet muses randomly that if she were Laney she would run to the Union lines despite the friendship.  And Laney reminds Violet at one point that she cannot, in fact, drop Master Seeley’s formal title when speaking about him.  Otherwise, however, slavery is depicted as fairly benign.  In fact, the neighbor and her slave Jubal seem to have had feelings for each other and are great friends, too!

There is one conversation in which the question of slavery is more explicitly addressed.  Violet’s Union soldier explains he is fighting to end a great wrong.  Violet halfheartedly gives a few sentences about slavery being necessary to the economy (like she would really care), Abraham owning slaves in the Bible, and her kind treatment to her slaves.  Ultimately, however, the sense is that Violet just really hasn’t thought about slavery that much and simply accepts it.  Perhaps that’s the scariest depiction one could give of the insidiousness of the evil of slavery, but the book doesn’t follow this up except to have Violet suddenly have an equally half-hearted repentance.  She apologizes to Laney for having Laney as a slave.  Laney, perhaps realizing that she is still a slave, that the apology doesn’t mean much as a result, and that as a slave she cannot be honest about her emotions with her masters, seems to forgive Violet like it’s all no big deal.

Add to this the inclusion of a Black man who attempts rape and the stereotypical stronger-than-average Black man and the book gets increasingly more troubling.  Yes, Black characters should be able to be presented in a wide range of ways, should get to be the good guys or the villains or the people in-between.  However, when you add these two depictions to everything else going on in the book, it really seems like the books perhaps just is not aware of the implications of some of the characterizations.  I can only conclude that there is a lack of knowledge because the explanation for the presence of the voodoo practitioners in Mississippi is that they voluntarily moved there as free people because they thought they would blend in.  They could have moved to anywhere in the world and they chose to move to a place where they would be hated and despised and would not have legal freedoms?  It makes no sense, but the underlying implication is that slavery must not be such a big deal if free Africans would purposely move to the Civil War South!

Probably this story should have been written as a standard romance without the addition of the voodoo practitioners.  And probably if Nickerson wanted Violet to be sympathetic, she should have made Violet a secret Union sympathizer and non-slave owner from the start.  There are complex questions that could have been addressed, such as Violet’s blithe ignorance of the evils of slavery and what that tells us about how seemingly ordinary people can do something so wrong, but, if they are not going to be addressed, it’s going to make the book an extremely troubling read.

Lincoln’s Spymaster: Thomas Haines Dudley and the Liverpool Network by David Hepburn Milton

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Lincoln's SpymasterINFORMATION

Goodreads: Lincoln’s Spymaster
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2003


As the U.S. consul to Liverpool, Thomas Haines Dudley was tasked not only with representing the United States in England but also with secretly heading a network of spies to thwart Confederate efforts to build ships in British ports.  His story, and that of international politics, is one often overlooked in the annals of the Civil War, and yet his efforts prevented the Confederacy from forming a navy and kept England from going to war against the U.S at a time when the States could not afford to expand more military effort.


I sometimes think of international relations as the secret war being waged during the Civil War.  Historical accounts often focus on larger-than-life figures such as Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, or on battles in the Eastern Theatre (really, history of the Civil War tends to be history of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia).  And yet, the U.S. could have lost the Civil War if England had chosen to support the Confederacy or otherwise intervene–and England was close to doing so at various times.

Milton’s book explains the complicated politics behind Dudley’s mission in Liverpool.  The British aristocracy, he writes, had much in common with Southern plantation owners, and the Palmerston government was leaning toward intervening in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.  It helped that they also wished to see the American power broke up and that their textile workers wanted to see an end to the war and the subsequent shortage of cotton.  Furthermore, early on, the South seemed likely to win as reports came back of Lee’s various victories.  Complicating the matter was that England was hesitant to support a slave power, but some pro-South propaganda in England suggested that slavery would be more likely to end if the Confederacy won .  (Unsurprisingly, the Confederate government did not support this claim and later recalled the individual responsible for it.)

While England waivered, the South used pro-Confederate support in the country to build ships in English dockyards.  It was pretty much an open secret that this was occurring, but the British government at various levels repeatedly declined to intervene.  Dudley kept an eye on ships being built and worked various cases, presenting evidence to the British government that their laws of neutrality were being flouted.  Britain usually responded unfavorably, allowing, for example, the infamous Alabama to escape and wreak havoc on Northern shipping.  In these cases, Dudley kept records so the U.S. could sue Britain for damages after the war.

Milton goes into some detail describing the various ships and the outcomes of their cases and illuminating the tactics used by the U.S. representatives to prevent England from intervening in the war.  Sometimes this meant the U.S. in fact all but declared war on Britain if she refused to enforce her own neutrality laws.  All of this makes for a high-stakes drama and it is engrossing, even when Milton’s work becomes repetitive or even a bit dry (not everyone, I suppose, will be interested in the exact measurements of all the ships being built).  Anyone interested in U.S. foreign relations during the Civil War should check out this book.

3 starsKrysta 64

Civil War Walking Tour of Savannah by David D’Arcy and Ben Mammina

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Civil War Walking Tour of SavannahInformation

Goodreads: Civil War Walking Tour of Savannah
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 2006

Words by David D’Arcy, Photographs by Ben Mammina


Includes two walking tours and two driving tours of downtown Savannah and the battle lines.  Ninety-eight photographs, historical sketches, and maps accompany the text.


When I read this book, I was not in Savannah and, in fact, had never been in the city at all.  I therefore relied on the book to guide me through an unknown space and to make it come alive.  I hoped, even if I could not situate myself visually (no modern map is included), that I would learn more about Savannah and its Civil War history and that I could use that knowledge as a base for later reading.  Being able to view photographs of the places mentioned, after all, helps me feel closer to the events and the people described.

However, while reading, I wondered if even being in Savannah could make this book truly useful.  The majority of the entries are only a few sentence long.  Some are merely one sentence–a statement, for instance, that a building functioned as a hospital at a certain date.  No personal stories made the stories come alive.  Even the brief biographies sometimes provided, such as one for the father of Juliette Gordon Low, often proved too cut-and-dried to arouse my interest.  I had never heard about many of these figures before and so did not care much about where they were at specific times–and the book did not make me care.

A few quotes intersperse the work, giving the book its one glimmer of humanity, but often the text fails to situate these quotes.  One from Juliette Gordon Low as a four-year-old meeting Sherman and Howard, for example, raised questions for me about the nature of the encounter.  But the book says nothing of it–only that it happened.  The quotes function the same way, piquing interesting but failing to deliver anything really juicy and human.

I understand that a walking tour book necessarily must confine its entries to a brief space.  Most tourist presumably do not intend to become experts on the town or to spend literally their entire day on just one tour–there is obviously quite a lot of history cram in during a stay in Savannah! Still, a few short stories could not hurt, could they?

The presence of numerous grammatical errors and run-on sentences also marred the work.  One page even has a cut-off sentence with the last word tantalizingly hyphenated–only for the book to start a completely new section on the next page.  Now I’ll never know what happened after Joseph E Johnston caught “pneu-“.  And then there’s the section that refers to a gravestone with “147 years” scratched on by Union soldiers–except the picture of the stone shows that the actual number is “146.”  With so many errors, one’s trust in the rest of the information begins to waver.

This book did not really make history come alive for me, nor did it seem particularly informative–I doubt I will remember most of the names and dates presented.  Still, it shows that there is an awful lot to see and do in Savannah and it made me want to visit the city.  I just won’t be bringing this book along as my guide.

Fun Facts from the Book

  • Glory was shot in Savannah, as was Forrest Gump.
  • Francis S. Bartow was born in Savannah and chose grey as the color of the Confederate uniforms.
  • Savannah is home to America’s longest running theatre.  John Wilkes Booth performed there.

Krysta 64

A Yankee Spy in Richmond by Elizabeth Van Lew, ed. by David D. Ryan

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Yankee SpyInformation

Goodreads: A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 2006


Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist and self-proclaimed loyalist, operated as a spy out of Richmond for the duration of the war, providing care and comfort to Union prisoners and passing valuable information through the lines.  During this time she kept a journal–one written hastily and under the constant threat of discovery–that David D. Ryan has reconstructed, along with some of the letters she passed and received.


Elizabeth Van Lew’s diary provides an intriguing look at the Civil War South through the eyes of a woman who remained a staunch Union supporter.  Her views, always strongly expressed and obviously not without bias, anticipate many  of the arguments still waged over questions of the war–addressing the nature of chivalry, the cause of the war, and more.  Though hastily written and incomplete due to the ravages of time, Van Lew’s record is not any less important, or less interesting.

Casual readers, I suspect, will find themselves drawn to a journal such as this due to its aura of romance and danger.  Van Lew operated for the duration of the war as a spy out of Richmond, passing articles and information through the lines to Union generals and providing comfort and care to Union prisoners.  Her fellow citizens seemed aware of her political views, sometimes writing against her and her mother in the newspapers and even proposing their arrest.  To divert suspicion from herself, Van Lew began dressing oddly and talking to herself in the streets.

Still, the nature of her work meant that Van Lew did not record her exploits in any great detail.  Furthermore, after the war, the people of Richmond displayed so much animosity toward Van Lew for her actions that she begged for her spy correspondence to be returned to her so she could destroy it.  Much of the biographical information provided in the book comes from David D. Ryan’s notes, rather than from Van Lew.  He also provides what correspondence he could find, though often it comes only in the forms of notes passed to Van Lew and not in any she herself wrote.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of Van Lew’s diaries (after the enticingly vague notes on her work) are her observations and views on the South.  Van Lew writes of the bloodthirsty mobs crying for war, the men who betray their closest friends due to politics, and her conviction that slavery and not states’ rights was the cause of the war.  She also writes feelingly of the suffering of the people of Richmond, the women begging for bread in the streets, and her own difficulties finding enough food.  This is the Civil War come alive–and it is less romantic than one would think from much of the fiction written about it.

Van Lew’s piecemeal diary gave me much respect for the woman who risked everything for a cause she believed in and it made me want to learn more about her and her work.  Ryan has done a great service to the literature on the Civil War by bringing this part of its history back into the light.

Fun Facts from the Book

  • One of Elizabeth’s black servants, Mary Bowser, found work with Varina Davis and passed information from the Davis house.
  • Elizabeth suggested the failed Kirkpatrick-Dahlgreen raid to rescue Union prisoners held in Richmond.
  • Elizabeth later helped steal Dahlgreen’s body and rebury it.

Krysta 64

Mini Reviews: Stephen Crane’s Short Stories

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Stephen Crane, best known for his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage and his 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, also wrote poetry and a number of short stories.  Below are a few mini reviews for some of his stories set in the Civil War.

“A Mystery of Heroism”

Thirsty and taunted by a distant well, separated from his regiment by a field under artillery bombardment, soldier Fred Collins ponders the qualities that make a hero.  Crane’s trademark realism and unique descriptions make reading this an incredible sensory experience.   Check ou this representative paragraph:

“As the eyes of half the regiment swept in one machine-like movement, there was an instant’s picture of a horse in a great convulsive leap of a death-wound and a rider leaning back with a crooked arm and spread fingers before his face. On the ground was the crimson terror of an exploding shell, with fibres of flame that seemed like lances. A glittering bugle swung clear of the rider’s back as fell headlong the horse and the man. In the air was an odour as from a conflagration.”

“Crimson terror of an exploding shell”–talk about a remarkable gift with words.

“A Gray Sleeve”

This was always one of my favorite Crane stories because, though it’s set during  a battle, it’s really a romance.  A group of Union soldiers come upon a house and think they see a gray sleeve at the window and so attempt to search the house.  A young girl, however, thwarts them.  The depiction of the unnamed girl does make her seem a bit too childlike for modern tastes, but there’s still something endearing about the Southern girl, the Union captain, and their forbidden love.  The captain in particular is really endearing in his switch from confident soldier to uncertain lover:

But now he began, for one thing, to wonder if his uniform was so dusty
and old in appearance. Moreover, he had a feeling that his face was
covered with a compound of dust, grime, and perspiration. He took a step
forward and said: “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” But his voice was
coarse from his battle-howling. It seemed to him to have hempen fibres
in it.

“Three Miraculous Soldiers”

A young girl, Mary, discovers three Confederate soldiers in the barn and offers to feed them–but then a troop of Union soldiers arrives!  Mary tries to hide her new friends in the feed box, but worries they will be discovered and captured when the Union forces set up camp in the yard and take over the barn to house another prisoner.  Mary’s curiosity, fear, and determination make the pages of this short story come alive as she watches the events of history unfold.  And, in typical Crane style, the surprise ending does not disappoint.

Krysta 64

Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills

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Lincoln at GettysburgINFORMATION

Goodreads: Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 1992


Gary Wills examines Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in light of its historical and cultural framework, arguing that Lincoln employed methods common to Greek rhetoric to create a speech that would reach back to the Declaration of Independence and redefine they way Americans view themselves.


Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has attained mythic status, so it seems incredible that anyone could say anything new about it, much less enable us to see it anew.  Wills, however, through careful research, illuminates the culture of Lincoln’s time, showing how Transcendentalism and the Greek Revival influenced the president’s thinking and enabled him to create a speech that would transcend its own historical moment and rewrite the meaning of America.

Wills goes into great detail explaining how the Address reflects patterns of Greek rhetoric and Transcendentalist thought, how it ties into the natural cemetery movement, and how it fits into the expected oratory of the day.  Even though I have heard the Address countless numbers of times, I felt I was reading it with fresh eyes, seeing once again just how beautiful, how delicately balanced, how powerful it really is.  Wills guides readers through sentence by sentence, looking closely at a word choice or a turn or phrase.

At times the detail and the writing become technical enough that I am surprised the book gained such a large popular audience. I admit at times I found myself skimming a bit out of boredom.

Other times I found myself lost by Wills’s tendency to insert quotations between paragraphs with no introduction.  He might be speaking of Douglas and Lincoln, and the reader must  discern whether the block quote following was written by one or the other.   I am surprised no editor asked Wills to change this.

Wills’s book is a testimony to the enduring power of Lincoln’s words and the way in which they continue to give America an ideal of freedom toward which to strive.  Even over a decade after its publication, it remains timely.

Krysta 64

American Civil War Event Introduction Post

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On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln and his anti-slavery politics.  Other states followed to form the Confederate States of America, and, on April 12, 1861, the Civil War officially began when Confederate forces fired on a U.S. fort in Charleston Harbor.  Thus began a struggle to preserve the Union. The war would last until April 1865 and cost the lives of over 600,000 soldiers.

The U.S. continues to feel the effects of this historical moment.   In looking back, Americans are confronted with the racism and oppression in the nation’s past–but also in its present.  Conflict still swirls over the true meaning of the war, about whether it can be defined as being about states’ rights or if such a definition ignores the uglier truth about slavey, about what it means to fly a Confederate flag, about how Americans see themselves in light of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his appeal to preserve one of the world’s great political experiments.

This week, Pages Unbound explores some of the literature dealing with this defining moment of American history.  From Yankee spies to international politics to  Lincoln at Gettysburg, we take a look at the ways in which Americans continue to interpret and reinterpret themselves through the past.

did you know?

  • Though Robert E. Lee surrendered his army in April 1865, the last Confederate ship didn’t surrender until November of that year.  The CSS Shenandoah was raiding whaling ships and didn’t hear of the various army surrenders until later in the year.
  • The Confederacy counted Missouri and Kentucky as members, even though they never officially seceded.
  • West Virginia formed as a state by breaking away from Virginia when that state seceded from the Union.
  • The Civil War was one of the first wars to be photographed, changing the way those on the home front understood battle.

Eager to learn more about history?  Join us this week!   But before then, check out some of our past features below.

Past features

TV Review: Mercy Street, Ep. 6 “The Diabolical Plot”

Mercy StreetSummary

With Mr. Green in prison, his family works to secure his release.  Meanwhile, Nurse Phinney tries to console a dying soldier, Drs. Foster and Hale struggle for control over who decides proper medical procedure, and Aurelia accepts that she might have to move on.  But, unknown to all of them, the Knights of the Golden Circle plan to assassinate President Lincoln when he visits Mansion House.


The second half of the series has been leading up to this final moment–the day that the Knights of the Golden Circle attempt to blow up the Union hospital where most of our protagonists spend every day.  As the minutes counted down and only ten minutes remained of the show, then only six, I wondered “How will they do it?  How will they pull it off?”  After all, the Green family has broken apart as they pursue increasingly desperate avenues to aid their father and the Confederacy.  Dr. Foster has been been struggling all season to reform medical practice at Mansion House.  Aurelia remains separated from her boy.  And Frank, Emma’s beau, is about to commit mass murder even as she wavers between her loyalty to him and her new attraction to the handsome hospital chaplain.  Six minutes.  How will everyone’s story end?

I hope this is not a spoiler–but the stories do not end.  It took Mercy Street six episodes to reach this point only so the show could end with multiple major cliffhangers and no announcement (yet) for a second season.  My understanding is that historical dramas like this are somewhat expensive to produce, so it seems odd to me that the season would not wrap up, just in case the audience does not justify a second season.  (And, with three weak episodes out of six, I would not be surprised if the views did not justify a continuation of the show.)

I like to think that PBS meant to make a second season all along and that, eventually, we will learn how everyone’s story ends.  (I need Emma and the chaplain to get together!)  Until that time, however, the abrupt ending of the final episode overshadows so much of the good that it contained, from the Green family’s remarkable performances as they try to release Mr. Green to Aurelia’s small moment of triumph.  The show was finally hitting its stride when suddenly it ended.

*Need more Civil War drama?  Check out the blog explaining the history behind the show.

Krysta 64