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Book Review: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (by Thomas R. Turner): CWT

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Thomas R. Turner, Kreiger Publishing, Mulabar, Florida, 407-724-9542, 181 pages, softcover, $16.50.

Except for an important flaw, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln is an ideal introduction to the history of Lincoln's assassination. Like other volumes in the highly respected Anvil Series, it combines, in roughly equal parts, narrative text and excerpts from supporting documents. Written by Thomas R. Turner, a history professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts and the editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Lincoln Herald, the book is full of up-to-date commentary on the nature of the Civil War and the motivations of assassin John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators.

Booth was not the evil madman still imagined by many Americans. He was, on the contrary, a charming and talented actor who, like millions of men and women in both North and South, hated Lincoln for his denial of Southern constitutional rights and his ruthless war against Southern civilization. Nor were Booth's friends the good-for-nothing misfits so often portrayed. All were Confederate patriots who become involved with Booth in a scheme to capture Lincoln and hold him hostage for some major concession; the Union army's own rules of war permitted such an action. When this kidnapping plan had to be abandoned, Booth, recognizing that only "something decisive and great" (as he put it in his diary) could save his country, sought to decapitate the Federal government. Ordering some of his cohorts to kill top Federal officials, he reserved Lincoln for himself. Only he succeeded.

Booth's political motivation has been ignored, Turner points out, because Americans have so romanticized the Civil War that they see the assassination as an aberration rather than as an example of the war's violence. One reason for this unrealistic view is that the war's ferocity was masked by the mildness of Reconstruction; there was no prosecution of the leading Rebels, so there were no hangings, no forced exiles, no confiscation of property (except slave property).

In short, sharp paragraphs, each with a brief heading, Turner summarizes current thinking about many of the myths of the assassination, including the "desertion" of the guard outside Lincoln's box in Ford's Theatre, the "out-of-control" conduct of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on assassination night, and Booth's "escape." He gives pros and cons in the cases of convicted assassination conspirators Mary E. Surratt and Samuel A. Mudd, and he discusses the popular appeal of wild conspiracy theories associated with both the Lincoln and John F. Kennedy assassinations.

Turner devotes 10 pages to analyzing an interpretation of Lincoln's assassination that is now attracting the respectful attention of specialists everywhere and promises to lead to a major revision of Civil War history. Based upon many years of research in never-before studied collections in the National Archives and elsewhere, the theory is that late in March 1865, the Confederate government was involved in a desperate but legitimate plan to save itself by directly attacking the Federal government. When the plan went awry due to the coincidental capture of a key player, Booth took it upon himself to approximate its intended results in his hastily arranged conspiracy. Details are in Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln (1988), by William A. Tidwell, with James O. Hall and David Winfred Gaddy, and in April '65: Confederate Covert Action (1995), by William A. Tidwell.

Here is a daring revival of the Federal government's 1865 charge that Jefferson Davis and other Confederates were involved in Lincoln's murder. It may be too daring for Turner, who fails to come to grips with it and who misrepresents or misunderstands many of its key features. He asks why the Federal government, anxious to try Davis as an assassination conspirator, backed away from its 1865 charge if Davis really was involved. The answer is that the government backed away because its evidence was quickly and easily exposed as perjured. Instead of making a careful study of the new evidence discovered by Tidwell and his co-authors, Turner ridicules their scholarship. He accuses them of proving their hypothesis by presenting only evidence that supports it, suggests they have been influenced by post-Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theories, and states that they admit their case is based "largely" on circumstantial evidence. The fact is that the authors state at the beginning of Come Retribution and in April '65 that it is based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But, oh, what a lot of circumstantial evidence there is and how thoroughly it discredits the comfortable old assumption that Booth was a loner without any backing from the Confederacy!

It is a pity that the author of such an instructive text should dismiss so blithely the findings of the most important and scholarly books ever published on the assassination.

William Hanchett
San Diego, California

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