May. 3rd, 2017

truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and MemoryThe Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory by Harold Holzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Unexpectedly apposite this week (*facepalm*), this is a collection of essays originally presented at the Lincoln Forum (except for a reprint of the first chapter of The Lincoln Nobody Knows). As is inevitable, the quality varies pretty widely, from the essays by Edward Steers Jr. and Michael Kauffman on the trial of the conspirators, which are well-written and thought-provokingly at odds with each other, to Frank J. Williams' disorganized assemblage of remarks about Lincoln, Obama, and the constitutional rights of political detainees. I disagree with Williams' politics pretty vehemently, but my actual problem with the essay is that it has no clear thesis and doesn't seem to be sure what it's trying to talk about.

The essays in this collection have in common the attempt to understand Lincoln's assassination, and the responses to it by various parties, in the context of April 1865. These attempts range from a collation of newspaper accounts of Lincoln's funeral procession in New York (and how much of the route and the buildings along it are still extant today); to a biographical assessment of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, the man who oversaw the conspirators' trial and who became lost in his obsession with avenging Lincoln's death on the men he thought responsible: the leaders of the Confederacy; to an examination of the trials of people accused of celebrating Lincoln's death (sentences of up to ten years' imprisonment were imposed; one soldier was sentenced to death by firing squad for saying, "Abraham Lincoln was a long-sided Yankee son of a bitch and ought to have been killed long ago." (His sentence was commuted, although what happened to him after that is not shown.)

Oddly, the most resonant part of the collection for me (aside from the stupid grief I feel for a man who would have been dead long before I was born anyway) are Elizabeth Leonard's quotes from Joseph Holt's writings. Holt became wrong, and I make no apologia for his conduct of the conspirators' trial, but before that, he wrote: We are all with our every earthly interest embarked in midocean, on the same common deck, the howl of the storm in our ears, and [...] while the noble ship pitches and rolls under the lashings of the waves, a cry is heard that she has sprung a leak at many points, and that the rushing waters are mounting rapidly in the hold. The man who in such an hour will not work at the pumps is either a maniac or a monster. (Joseph Holt, open letter published in the Louisville Journal and the New York Times, May 31, 1861, qtd. in Elizabeth Leonard, "Lincoln's Chief Avenger: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt," p. 123). The ship of state is certainly storm-tossed at the moment and (to bring this into a ring-composition), I wish I believed that the man at the helm was neither monster nor maniac.



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