Fantastic Tragedy

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The essence of an historic tragedy is that although we can see it coming we know that nothing can possibly be done to avert it. It is the result of a whole chain of events, and the chain can be extremely loose; it could be broken anywhere—by sheer accident, by the action of someone possessing just a little foresight, by any one of a dozen things which could so easily happen but somehow do not. In the end the tragedy occurs, in spite of logic and probability. We know it is going to happen, but until the moment of catastrophe we hope, in spite of what we know, that the story will turn toward a happy ending. It never does—and history goes on to some other tale.

It is this built-in quality of suspense and growing doom that lends a peculiar flavor of excitement to Jim Bishop’s excellent new book, The Day Lincoln Was Shot .

Mr. Bishop has taken the final 24 hours of Lincoln’s life and he has presented them on an hour-by-hour schedule, showing what each participant in the tragedy was doing—at dawn, in mid-afternoon, at dusk, early in the evening, and so on—up to the moment when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton bowed his head over the deathbed and remarked, grandiloquently: “Now he belongs to the ages.” And although the events of that day have been told and retold over and over again, there is a cumulative tension arising from the pages of this book that makes the narrative seem fresh, moving and almost unendurably shocking.

Perhaps it is the sheer flimsiness of the whole conspiracy—the rattle-brained incompetence of John Wilkes Booth and his incredible fellow-plotters, the utter improbability that any concerted action they might dream up could possibly come to anything—that provides the authentic horror to this tale. Surely, no conspiracy that changed the course of history was ever handled as amateurishly as this one. A group of mentally retarded juvenile delinquents planning to swipe trinkets from a neighborhood five-and-ten-cent store would have planned and acted with more sense than the Booth conspirators ever displayed. The thing could not possibly have worked, in a world where sane adults were dominant; could not have worked, but somehow did work, and brought about the greatest single disaster in American history.

Booth was an actor, playing in a drama written and produced by himself. The plot was sheer fantasy, and the supporting cast was inept beyond belief. The one member of the cast who was at least a killer by nature—big-boned Lewis Paine, a deserter from the Confederate army—was so stupid that he could not find his way about Washington without help. David Herold was a moon-struck youngster capable of doing no more than ride aimlessly at Booth’s heels after the murder. George Atzerodt, a timid jellyfish who could not have carried out an assignment to drown a sick kitten, was given—and here improbability reaches its climax—the task of killing Vice-President Andrew Johnson, who was tough enough to scare a Cicero gangster. Naturally, Atzerodt never got within a block of him.

These men, their plot leaking at every seam, undertook to operate in a capital city which had been scenting out treason and conspiracy through four years of war. The place fairly crawled with detectives, counterespionage agents and armed guards. Secretary Stanton, the most alert and suspicious Secretary of War who ever lived, had been unraveling Confederate plots with eager zest for years. And that, oddly enough, was what gave the tragedy its final, grimmest twist.

For Stanton, once the murder had been committed, leaped to the conclusion that it was the work of the Richmond government, and set in motion the publicity machinery which conditioned Northern hearts and minds to turn away from Lincoln’s plan for a peace of reconciliation. And Mr. Bishop points out that it was not sheer native malice which led Stanton to do that. In its own inept and stage-struck way, the Richmond government for a year had been fumbling with a gaudy and impractical fifth column conspiracy in the North. (There had been, for instance, the previous fall, an attempt to burn the city of New York.) Stanton was familiar with that conspiracy; all things considered, it was perfectly natural for him to suppose that Booth’s act was a piece of it. At the moment, the thing seemed to fit.

So the final act of the Civil War ran true to type. For the entire war, from Fort Sumter to Ford’s Theater, was essentially a stagy over-acted melodrama, conceived among improbabilities, taking on reality simply because everybody concerned was using live ammunition. The whole business should never have happened. Booth’s insane plot simply capped the climax—a final bit of fantasy, after years in which men behaved by fevered emotion rather than by logic.

The Day Lincoln Was Shot , by Jim Bishop. 308 pp. Harper & Brothers.