Book Review: Killing Lincoln

I’m not a Bill O’Reilly fan.  In fact, if I had paid attention and realized that this was written by him, it might have influenced my decision to read the book.  Instead, I saw the book on a ‘best of 2013’ list and thought it was intriguing (plus I’m on a biography kick right now) so I added it to my library list. And I’m glad I wasn’t biased by the author’s name over the title.

To be fair, I don’t know how much was O’Reilly written and how much was the coauthor Dugard.  But from the first chapters of the book, written during the time when my native city of Richmond was being overtaken by Grant, forcing Lee on his way west toward Appomattox, I was intrigued at the way the story unfolded.  Lincoln’s involvement in the last days of the war, what Booth was doing at the time of the fall of the Confederacy, the final battles of the war, etc.  It was a good third of the book before the war was over and Mary Todd Lincoln wanted to celebrate by going to the theater.

I realize that in the interest of good storytelling, you cannot always count as concrete truth the quotes and opinions that are attributed to historical people unless the documentation of their words is also provided (i.e., there are no footnotes or references to sources).  So take all ‘he later said’ statements with a grain of salt.  There are also liberties taken with language more familiar to modern-day story readers than the historically accurate language of the time (i.e., calling Lincoln’s office the Oval Office, though the oval office as we know it was not built until over 40 years after he died.)  But the general truth is there.  I do not feel that the authors are manipulating facts to present a new conspiracy theory or their own agenda.  I simply feel that embellishment was used to make a point, enhancing the historical fact not changing it.

However, Killing Lincoln does a good job of fleshing out the motivations and thoughts of all the major (and minor) players.  What I had always been taught was a single moment of insanity by a gunman was in fact part of a greater conspiracy to simultaneously execute the president, vice president, General Grant, and ailing Secretary of State Seward.  Grant ended up leaving town with his wife, so he was saved.  Johnson was spared due to the ineptitude of his would-be assassin.  Seward and his family were indeed attacked in their home, but all survived.  How was this not taught in my history class?  We were simply told that a guy ran into the theater and shot Lincoln in the back of the head.  I also don’t think that I ever quite realized that the death of Lincoln was so close on the heels of the end of the Civil War.  Sure, I knew it happened soon after, but less than a week?  Never made that connection before.

Regardless of your personal opinions of Bill O’Reilly, or how you feel about his pontificating person on his talk show, I highly recommend the book as a more fleshed-out experience on what that those first few weeks of April were about in April 1865.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Killing Lincoln

    • Honestly, I don’t think that he brought any personal conflict or insight into the book. It’s very well written, and it has a fast pace to it. It would have simply been the association that kept me from reading it, and that’s a shame. It’s not like it was his personal biography. It’s funny though–since I posted in an online book club that I read this, the posting blew up with people attacking me for believing it as truth, etc. Which cracked me up. There is very little to dispute here–Lincoln was the 16th president, he was shot and killed by a man named John Wilkes Booth, etc. Yes, there were some liberties taken. I find it hard to believe that the authors found an exact quote from a kid that cleaned the stables in 1865 (and if he had, he should have cited his work). And the Ford Theater will not sell the book in the theater because of historical inaccuracies–the stage is 11 feet from the box, not 12, depending on where you are in the theater. But the non profit group will sell it in the theater lobby. Little things like that are trivial, and nitpicking at the basic overall truth of the book–there was a war while Lincoln was President. Someone shot him while he was at the theater. He died the next morning from those wounds. It was part of a bigger conspiracy plot to kill others as well as Lincoln. The shooter was able to hide for several days before being captured and killed, and many others that were part of the conspiracy were also captured and hung for their crimes including the first female ever federally executed by hanging. If you keep in mind that minor details may be a bit embellished, it’s a great read!

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