Lincoln Cottage Conversation with James Swanson

Yesterday – on the anniversary of the day that Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre – I found myself back at the Lincoln Cottage for my first Cottage Conversation.

The Lincoln Cottage - 4.14.11
President Lincoln’s Cottage

It’s a fantastic lecture series held upstairs in the historic home where Lincoln and his family regularly stayed during the Civil War, taking refuge from the heat and stress of the city.

As the evening’s speaker pointed out, Lincoln’s last stay at the cottage was on April 13, a peaceful day before that fateful trip to Ford’s the next night.

Author James Swanson has long been an enthusiast about Lincoln’s life, and has written two critically acclaimed books about his death: Manhunt and Bloody Crimes.

He began the conversation by recreating the stark contrast between April

James Swanson's Lincoln Cottage Conversation - 4.14.11
James Swansons Lincoln Cottage Conversation

13th and April 14th, 1865 in Washington. The 13th was a day like no other in the District – an illumination of the entire city to celebrate the end of the war.

The 14th became a night of shock and outrage as news spread of the first assassination of an American president. The city would soon be draped entirely in mourning black.

Earlier in the evening, we saw a visible reminder of the wounds to the country on display with other exhibits at the Visitor Education Center next door – an American flag that had been hanging in front the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre, and was used to cushion Lincoln’s head after the shooting. The blood stains are still very visible.

Apparently the flag was taken from the theatre that night by an actress from the play and her stage-manager father, and kept by the family until the 1950s. It’s now on loan to the Cottage for just one week to commemorate Lincoln’s assassination, until April 17.

Manhunt, by James Swanson
Manhunt, by James Swanson

Swanson made a slight digression back to modern times to give his thoughts on the Robert Redford movie The Conspirator, which opens in D.C. today. The film, which premiered at Ford’s Theatre last week, follows the trial of accused Lincoln-conspirator Mary Surratt.

There was also a mention of two Hollywood projects that Swanson is involved in. One is an adaptation of the book Manhunt into a nine-part HBO mini-series penned by The Wire’s David Simon, which will follow the 12-day hunt for John Wilkes Booth.The other is a Showtime series with Kevin Bacon about the acting Booth family – sort of like a Tudors about the American stage.

The rest of Swanson’s talk focused on the subject of his latest book, Bloody

Bloody Crimes
Bloody Crimes, by James Swanson

Crimes: a comparison between Abraham Lincoln and his alter ego, Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The similarities between the two are fascinating – they are born less than a year and less than 100 miles apart in Kentucky. They have similar temperaments and early tragedies – even that similar, hollow-faced look.

But as Swanson points out, before the election of 1860, Jefferson Davis was a well-known war veteran and Secretary of War, and a much more likely candidate for the nation’s highest office. Lincoln was a relative unknown, and the thought of him becoming president was considered laughably unlikely.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Through various twists of fate, Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery, became U.S. president with less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Davis, who initially opposed secession but ardently supported slavery, became the Confederate president.

Surprisingly, the two men never met. They lived in the District briefly at the same time, but they moved in entirely different circles, and there’s no evidence that they ever laid eyes on each other. Another interesting comparison – Swanson called them two of the greatest killers in American history, both willing to fight the war until the bitter end to vindicate their principles, no matter the casualties.

Swanson described how, after the war and the shock of the assassination

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis

slowly subsided into history, Jefferson Davis’s fame actually began to eclipse that of Lincoln’s. Davis survived Lincoln by twenty-four years, and he became a symbol to the New South – a living link to Confederate dead, and a promoter of the idea of the Lost Cause.

Davis came to own the rest of the 19th Century, spreading nostalgia for the Confederacy and a vanished way of life. But the 20th Century certainly belonged to Lincoln, with the Lincoln Memorial finally built in the District in 1922. Lincoln’s fame only rose, and according to Swanson, Jefferson Davis became the “lost man of American history.”

Having grown up in the New, New South, not far from the Civil War battlefield of Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond, I certainly knew the name of Jefferson Davis – although not much more about him.

There was the imposing Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond. And Route 1, which runs through Richmond and the town where I grew up, was always referred to as Jeff Davis Highway.

Jefferson Davis Highway Marker
Jefferson Davis Highway Marker in Louisiana

It was built as one of the nation’s early privately-funded highways, starting from the Virginia-side of the 14th Street Bridge just outside the District. It passed through the Southern states of the Confederacy, and out west to San Diego, California (and eventually up the coast to the Canadian border).

It’s designation as Jefferson Davis Highway was encouraged by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, just a year after the completion of the first road to traverse the country, the Lincoln Highway.

That road went from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San

Lincoln Highway marker at Smithsonian Institution
Lincoln Highway marker at Smithsonians American History Museum

Francisco. The Lincoln Highway could be considered the first national memorial to Lincoln, since it predated D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial by almost a decade.

Ironically, as Swanson pointed out, Lincoln himself had never traveled to the West, or even to the South – it was Jefferson Davis who had traversed and knew much more of the country.

But in death, Lincoln’s body made a voyage similar to the Lincoln Highway, through the North and back west for burial in Springfield, Illinois. Swanson’s book Bloody Crimes follows the funeral train, and talks about its significance to the national mourning process.

He concluded his talk referring to the vase of lilacs at his side, and reciting from a poem by District-resident Walt Whitman, written just after the assassination. For Whitman, the blooming of lilacs in April would be a reminder each year of Lincoln’s death.

But Whitman symbolically linked the president’s funeral to the commemoration of all the Union dead.

The deaths were forever entwined, like the blood stains on that American flag from Ford’s Theatre.

One thought on “Lincoln Cottage Conversation with James Swanson

  1. Great piece Bob. Did you see that Sally Field, who will be playing Mary Todd Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg’s movie about the President, recently visited the museum and specifically did not want to see the theater box in which he was shot. I thought that was fascinating – she said there was so much more about the couple than that event and she didn’t want it to overshadow other aspects of her charcter study.

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