Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever (Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard)

I read Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever this week. The book is a combination of fact and fiction, with the fiction serving primarily to fill gaps where facts are not known–especially regarding motives and emotions. It is intended to be a thriller, with short chapters and frequent foreshadowing.

Over the years I’ve read many books and seen many documentaries on the Civil War and President Lincoln. Due to this, most of this book contained things familiar to me. The things that were new to me were the fact that the White House first floor was open to the public during Lincoln’s presidency, Major Henry Rathbone would eventually marry and murder Clara Harris, Robert Lincoln and Lucy Hale knew each other, and Mary Surratt was kept hooded and held on the Montauk after her arrest (it appears this “fact” about Mary is not true, and that my prior understanding of her imprisonment was more accurate than what was presented in this book–several other factual errors occur in the book as well).

Knowing most of the plot developments reduced the suspense. Suspense can serve as a distraction, preventing a reader from dwelling upon character development and the substance of the writing. Lacking this distraction I found myself becoming more and more critical of the book as it progressed.

Several minor typos did not help, making me wonder about the editor. Grandiose statements like “. . . the greatest crime in the history of the United States” and ” . . . the most spectacular assassination conspiracy in the history of man” sound too much like hyperbole to me. Shades of gray were rare in this book. Characters like President Lincoln and General Grant were lionized. For Lincoln I expected this, but to see Grant presented this way surprised me. At times the focus on the moral shortcomings of the conspirators seemed forced.

I do my best not to judge a book by its cover, but this book had me fighting back preconceived ideas. When an author’s name is written in a larger font than the title of the book it means to me that the name is supposed to sell the book as much as the content. I’m not a big fan of Bill O’Reilly as a pundit. Since his name is front and center on this book, it gave me pause.

It was interesting to read this book now since just a few weeks ago at The Henry Ford I  saw the rocking chair Lincoln was sitting on when he was shot. Seeing that chair and a playbill from that evening made the events in the books seem more recent and on some level more real.

My verdict is this: as entertainment and a casual introduction to the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln this book is acceptable. It is not tedious to read at all, it feels like a light novel.


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