The History Place - Writers' Corner
Book Excerpt
Bloody Crimes:
The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse
by James Swanson

Excerpt - Chapter Two: “In the Days of Our Youths

Richmond, April 4, 1865

The crowd became increasingly wild. Some rushed forward, laid their hands upon the president, and collapsed in ecstatic paroxysms. Some, too awed to approach Father Abraham, kept their distance and just stared at him. Others yelled for joy and performed acrobatic somersaults. Admiral Porter, who had brought the president to Richmond, said the people were so excited that some of them appeared “demented.” Lincoln spoke to them: “My poor friends, you are free—free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it . . . Liberty is your birthright . . . But you must try to deserve this priceless boon. Let the world see that you merit it, and are able to maintain it by your good works. Don’t let your joy carry you into excesses. Learn the laws and obey them . . . There, now, let me pass on; I have but little time to spare. I want to see the capital.”

Porter ordered six men to march ahead of the president and Tad, and six behind them, and with that the landing party walked toward downtown Richmond. Lincoln stopped briefly to look at the notorious Libby Prison, a place of suffering for thousands of Union prisoners of war. “We will pull it down!” screamed voices in the crowd. But Lincoln said no, that they should “leave it as a monument.” The streets were dusty and smoke from the fires still hung in the air. Lincoln could smell Richmond burning as he walked through it. By now thousands of people, blacks and whites, crowded the sidewalks.

A beautiful girl, about seventeen years old, carrying a bouquet of roses, stepped into the street and advanced toward the president. Porter watched her struggle through the crowd. “The mass of people endeavored to open to let her pass, but she had a hard time in reaching him. Her clothes were very much disarranged in making the journey across the street. I reached out and helped her within the circle of the sailors’ bayonets, where, although nearly stifled with dust, she gracefully presented her bouquet to the President and made a neat little speech, while he held her hand . . . There was a card on the bouquet with these simple words: ‘From Eva to the Liberator of the slaves.’ ”


Porter spotted a sole cavalryman and called out to him: “Go to the general, and tell him to send a military escort here to guard the president and get him through this crowd!”

 “Is that old Abe?” the trooper asked, before galloping off.

Thomas Thatcher Graves, aide-de-camp on the staff of General Weitzel, approached the president and his group, and Lincoln asked him, “Is it far to President Davis’s house?”

Graves accompanied the president to the Confederate White House. “At the Davis house, [Lincoln] was shown into a reception room, with the remark that the housekeeper had said that the room was President Davis’s office. [It was Davis’s first-floor study, not his second-floor office.] As he seated himself he remarked, ‘This must have been President Davis’s chair,’ and, crossing his legs, he looked far off with a serious, dreamy expression.”

This was the closest Lincoln had ever come to Jefferson Davis during the war. Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, and not Davis, had represented the Confederacy at the Hampton Roads peace conference in February 1865, where Stephens and Lincoln discussed how to end the war.

Lincoln knew the Confederate president had been in this room no more than thirty-six hours earlier. As one witness remembered, Lincoln “lay back in the chair like a tired man whose nerves had carried him beyond his strength.” The journalist Charles C. Coffin observed on the president’s face a “look of unutterable weariness, as if his spirit, energy and animating force were wholly exhausted.” Sitting in the quiet study of the Confederate president, perhaps Lincoln weighed the cost—more than 620,000 American lives—paid to get there. He did not speak. Then he requested a glass of water.

Excerpt - Chapter Four: “Borne By Loving Hands

Jefferson Davis awoke on the morning of April 15 ignorant of last night’s bloody crimes in Washington. There was no direct telegraph line between the capital and Greensboro. Davis did not know John Wilkes Booth and had not sent him to kill Lincoln. Davis did not know that Lincoln had been marked for death, that Booth had met with Confederate secret agents in Montreal, Canada, that the actor had assembled a list of Confederate operatives in Maryland and Virginia to help him, and that one of his soldiers, Lewis Powell, a brave combat veteran captured at Gettysburg, had joined Booth’s plot and nearly killed the secretary of state. Nor did Davis know that Booth was on the run, fleeing for the heart of the Confederacy, the prey of what would soon become a nationwide manhunt.

That morning Davis had no idea that, last night in the Union capital, events beyond his knowledge or control would now reach out to affect his fate. Within hours his longtime archenemy, Vice President Andrew Johnson, an implacable foe of the planter class, would ascend to the presidency. The South could expect no mercy from him. Worse, this morning’s newspapers accused Davis of being the mastermind behind the great crime. Many editorials demanded his death by hanging or horrible torture. A patriotic envelope, published as a souvenir, carried a blood-red vignette of Davis bound on a scaffold facing the guillotine. The stakes were higher now.

All of this had happened without Davis knowing about any of it. And for several more days, he would not know that Lincoln was dead or that the government of the United States would soon scheme to charge him with murder and put him on trial for his life. Lincoln’s murder was like a violent storm on a distant horizon, its mighty thunderclap taking time to travel a great distance before it caught up with Davis.

Davis did evacuate Greensboro on April 15 but the move wasn’t prompted by news of Lincoln’s assassination. It was coincidence and the overall military situation. Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, tried to convince Davis that he should do more than relocate the temporary capital—he should flee the country: “It was evident to every dispassionate mind that no further military stand could be made . . . But it was no less evident that Mr. Davis was extremely reluctant to quit the country at all, and that he would make no effort to leave it so long as he could find an organized body of troops, however small, in the field. He shrank from the idea of abandoning any body of men who might still be found willing to strike for the cause, and gave little attention to the question of his personal safety.”

If Davis’s staff had known that Lincoln had just been murdered, they might have been even more forceful in demanding that Davis flee to Mexico, the Bahamas, or Europe to escape the North’s vengeance. But they did not know and went about their packing up for the next stage of their journey south.

They would no longer enjoy the luxury of railroad transportation. There were no trains at Greensboro, so that afternoon Davis; Colonels Harrison, Lubbock, and Wood; and some of the cabinet members rode horses, while other dignitaries climbed aboard wagons and ambulances. “Heavy rains had recently fallen,” Burton Harrison wrote, “the earth was saturated with water, the soil was a sticky red clay, the mud was awful, and the road, in places, almost impracticable.”

The presidential party plotted their route and planned to spend successive nights at Jamestown, Lexington, Salisbury, and Concord, where they would be guests of Victor C. Barringer.

Rough travel conditions would not intimidate Davis. He was not a creature softened by effete, cocooned salons. He was ready for the physical challenge that lay ahead. He had endured journeys far more arduous than this journey away from Richmond promised to be. As a seven-year-old child, he rode a pony 500 miles up the Natchez Trace from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, where he met General Andrew Jackson; in 1833, while an army officer, he and his unit of dragoons (a heavy, mounted cavalry) traveled 450 miles through difficult territory to a remote post on the Arkansas frontier; in 1834, Davis and the dragoons made a 500-mile round trip from their fort into Comanche territory, enduring 100-degree heat, exhaustion, and dehydration; in 1845, Jefferson and Varina traveled from Vicksburg to Washington, D.C., through the northern route into Ohio, where severe winter weather and ice on the Ohio River required them to continue by sled; he traveled to Mexico for the war, experienced hard travels there, made a 1,000-mile trip home to Mississippi, and then returned to Mexico; in December 1862, as president of the Confederacy, he embarked on a twenty-seven day, 3,000-mile inspection tour of the South; later, he made other long, wartime journeys through his embattled country; and in Richmond he often went on dangerous, 20-mile night rides on horseback to visit Lee’s headquarters and other military posts. A lifetime of difficult journeys had accustomed Davis to the hardships of the road.

From the Book "BLOODY CRIMES: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse" by James Swanson. Copyright © 2010 by James Swanson. Reprinted by arrangement with William Morrow.

Book Jacket: On the morning of April 2, 1865, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, received a telegram from General Robert E. Lee. There is no more time—the Yankees are coming, it warned. Shortly before midnight, Davis boarded a train from Richmond and fled the capital, setting off an intense and thrilling chase in which Union cavalry hunted the Confederate president.

Two weeks later, President Lincoln was assassinated, and the nation was convinced that Davis was involved in the conspiracy that led to the crime. Lincoln's murder, autopsy, and White House funeral transfixed the nation. His final journey began when soldiers placed his corpse aboard a special train that would carry him home on the 1,600-mile trip to Springfield. Along the way, more than a million Americans looked upon their martyr's face, and several million watched the funeral train roll by. It was the largest and most magnificent funeral pageant in American history.

To the Union, Davis was no longer merely a traitor. He became a murderer, a wanted man with a $100,000 bounty on his head. Davis was hunted down and placed in captivity, the beginning of an intense and dramatic odyssey that would transform him into a martyr of the South's Lost Cause.

The saga that began with Manhunt continues with the suspenseful and electrifying Bloody Crimes. James Swanson masterfully weaves together the stories of two fallen leaders as they made their last expeditions through the bloody landscape of a wounded nation.


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