Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever
By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
(December 2011 Civil War News)
Photos, maps, appendix, index, 334 pp., 2011, Henry Holt, www.henryholt.com, $28.
There is a cliché that those of us in the book review business often fall back on: “This book belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in the Civil War.” In the case of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever, that cliché does not apply.
The prison jack (guard) in the film “Cool Hand Luke” opines, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” What we have here in this cliché-dripping book is a failure to illuminate.
In a genre that is crowded, what is needed are books that offer new ideas or insights. It does the collective canon no good if an author simply rehashes a past that has been told time and time again. The authors of the “newest” Lincoln assassination book claim to have uncovered a new kind of truth relative to the murder of Lincoln. But none can be found anywhere in its pages.
What is presented is a sappy, error-laden, melodramatic tale, written in the present tense, in which the authors utilize only secondary sources to argue their point.
It is a point that has been beaten to death: “the evil John Wilkes Booth” — authors’ adjective not mine — and his cronies conspired to kill Lincoln because of outrage about the defeat of the Confederacy and the possibility that Lincoln’s postwar actions might lead to African-American enfranchisement.
There is also intimation in the afterword that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton may have played a role in the assassination: “Did he have any part in the assassination? To this day, there are those who believe he did. But nothing has ever been proved.” What the reader is left with then is a question – “So what else is new?”
There is a dearth of easily accessible primary sources that should have been consulted. Among them are the relevant National Archives documents compiled, edited and organized by William Edwards and Edward Steers Jr. and published by the University of Illinois Press in The Lincoln Assassination. The Evidence (2009).
Also, Edward Steers’ compilation of the trial records of the conspirators in The Trial (2003) published by the University of Kentucky Press, and Steers and Harold Holzer’s The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators. Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft (2009) published by Louisiana State University Press. As their principal caretaker, Gen. John E. Hartranft had daily access to the accused conspirators.
Anyone preferring an accurate and well-regarded secondary account of the assassination should read Michael Kaufman’s American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (Random House, 2004).
In the end the book comes across as if it was penned by a television celebrity to cash in on the surge in popular books about Lincoln and the Civil War. And that is unfortunate because many people will purchase this book because of the author’s name recognition and not because it is accurate history.
The book is replete with all manner of errors, such as the “facts” that Abraham Lincoln ran against Edwin Stanton in the 1860 presidential election and that Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant met after Appomattox in the Oval Office (which was first completed in 1909). Bill O’Reilly should stick to the electronic media and leave history to those who seek to uncover the truth with a capital T.
Reviewer: James A. Percoco
James A. Percoco is the Director of Education for the Friends of the National World War II Memorial and author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monument. He is a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.