Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

Over the next two weeks, two resources related to the Lincoln assassination are scheduled to be released, adding to the titles in that now thriving Lincoln subindustry.  Unlike many of those books, however, these are being released by large university presses.

Releasing March 15

The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft edited by Edward Steers, Jr. and Harold Holzer (Louisiana State University Press, 2009, hardcover, 200 pages)

Ed Steers is currently the foremost expert on Lincoln's assassination, and not coincidentally, he is the author of the best recent book on Lincoln's assassination, Blood on the Moon (2001).  However, he is not a big name Lincoln scholar, so he is paired with the much better known Holzer, who has edited a previous volume on the assassination among his many Lincoln books. Between them, they should capably edit this volume.

This book marks the first time the detailed notebook of Hartranft, the military commander of the jail where the eight conspirators were jailed in 1865, have been published.  By all accounts, Hartranft kept meticulous records of the weeks these eight were jailed under his oversight.  Previous writers have quoted from Hartranft, whose letterbook is in the collection of the National Archives.

Here Holzer and Steers offer context and comment around Hartranft's records. The cynical part of me wonders if Steers carries the majority of the load given his expertise in this material, but there is little reason to believe that Holzer is just a marquee name put on the project to improve sales.  Together, they have plenty of insight and knowledge to flesh out the meaning of Hartranft's notebook.

This is not a book for all Lincoln students.  Even within the particular world of the Lincoln assassination, this book will probably mostly focus on the experiences of the conspirators between their arrest and sentencing, meaning that there is less about the assassination itself.  But for people with collections on the assassination, it will be a significant addition.


Roger D. Curry said...

Why wouldn't Steers be one of the big guns?

The conditions in which the conspirators were held (if my memory is correct - rigid hand restraints, blindfolds) presents interesting moral implications. Does killing someone unquestionably revered merit that treatment?


Joshua Patty said...

Steers is a big gun, he just doesn't seem to be a big name in the Lincoln field, partially because there is still a belief that people who write about the assassination are at best non-academics or at worst conspiracy wackos.

The conspirators were treated harshly, which certainly has moral implications. By all accounts, John Surratt, a conspirator who fled the country and was not tried until four years later, was much better treated in jail (a civilian, not a military prison). He also was not convicted, but released after a mistrial.

On the other hand, the harsh treatment of the alleged conspirators might have been necessary in the public eye. There are stories of public violence against those who spoke harshly of Lincoln in the days immediately following his assassination; there are even reports of deaths. The harsh treatment of the conspirators was very public (pictures in Harper's Weekly, descriptions in newspapers), and might have been seen as a deterrent to vigilante justice.

My favorite story of this public attitude is of a pastor who neglected to mention Lincoln's assassination in his April 15 Easter sermon. The outraged congregation, through the elders, gave the clergyman 15 minutes to leave town, under threat of violence.