Tag Archives: assassination

Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

1st August 2012

*I bought this book.

A brief timeline of my history with this book:

  • October 2011: Texas Book Fest. Hear author speak. Vow to buy hardback.
  • October 2011: Remember I’m broke.
  • November 2011 – April 2012: Think about the two stories Millard told off and on.
  • July 26, 2012: Remember how much I want to read this book.
  • July 26, 2012: Find out paperback is out Thursday afternoon!
  • July 26, 2012: Buy paperback Thursday evening.
  • July 26, 30, 2012: Read book in two sittings.

It was a book craving, I tell you. I had no control over my actions. So just what about Millard’s story set me on this 9-month voyage to this book? Let me share:

If you’re anything like me, the name “Garfield” is more often used as a way to describe a fat orange cartoon cat, as opposed to a former president of the United States. He wasn’t in office long, and I thought that about wrapped it up. Far. From it.

Garfield became president unwillingly. Slated to introduce one of the possible Republican candidates, John Sherman, at the Republican National Convention of 1880, Garfield spoke with such passion and knowledge that when he asked the crowd what they wanted, they responded: “We want Garfield!” To say he was surprised is an understatement. He had no aspirations to the White House, but after the most tensely-written ballot counting I’ve ever read, Garfield surpassed every other candidate, even the very popular Ulysses S. Grant. And there was a reason for that. Intelligent, hardworking, and disarmingly honest, Garfield was well respected as a Union soldier and politician. He worked as a janitor his first year of college, was asked to teach his second year, and ascended to the college presidency by the time he was 26. This was no ordinary man.

At the same time, Millard introduces Alexander Graham Bell, a frenzied inventor who wanted nothing more than to make real advancements as a teacher of the deaf. Frightened that the telephone would take over his life, Bell worked feverishly on other projects until the president’s assassination, when his penetrating focus turned to a device to find the bullet in the president’s ravaged body – the bullet put there by Charles Guiteau. Garfield suffered terribly, and his death likely could have been avoided. Doctors at the time, though, were unwilling to listen to the advances of science, and Garfield died, his body riddled with abscesses.

Guiteau, too, is interesting, though a much less striking figure than either of the other men. Believing God had ordained him for something special, Guiteau flitted from a free-love colony (where none of the women were interested) to law school and then to a life of evangelism. None worked out well as Guiteau’s speeches and writing were very often hobbled together from others’ work. He regularly skipped out of boarding house bills and any other bills, putting enough money down to gain trust and then leaving the sum. His sister tried to institutionalize him, but Guiteau left town before she could get him to the doctor.

The intersection of these three men’s lives, however, is the real focus of and draw of Millard’s book. Destiny of the Republic isn’t intended to be a true biography of any of them. Instead, she sets the stage for the assassination. The United States was, at that time, built on the spoils system, and it was fascinating to read that hundreds of people poured into the White House day after day, requesting favors and positions from the president. Guiteau was one of them, believing that his previous support for Garfield won him the election and that he was owed a consulship. The audacity and the brazenness of Guiteau and others was shocking, as was the lack of official protection for a president, only a few decades after Lincoln was killed.

Though horrific, Garfield’s death, Millard says, was a healing balm to a nation still torn from war, drawing Northerner and Southerner as well as pioneer to pull together and hope and pray for Garfield’s survival. That unity is no more evident than when Garfield’s train made its way to the seashore, his last request before dying. Over 2,000 people laid train tracks, and a train car was modified for his comfort. When, however, the train could not make it up a hill, hundreds of men went to work, pushing the president’s train up the hill and to the place where he would eventually die. No matter how short his term, that is an inspiring politician.

Eminently readable and filled with well-crafted research, Destiny of the Republic is a must-read for anyone who enjoys true crime, historical fiction and/or nonfiction, and American history.

Check out other opinions on Goodreads. Buy your copy from Barnes & Noble here.

Manhunt by James Swanson

7th February 2011

Back in October, I sat in on a fascinating panel at the Texas Book Festival, Literature on the Lam. There were four authors discussing their new nonfiction accounts of the likes of Al Capone, James Earl Ray, El Chapo, and John Wilkes Booth, and since then, I have wanted to read each of the books. I finally picked up Manhunt at the library last week and raced through it. Manhunt is the story of the assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent 12-day hunt for John Wilkes Booth.

I know what you’re thinking. “Blah blah blah, that was over a hundred years ago, blah blah blah, I already know what happened,” and yeah, you’d be correct. Lincoln still dies; John Wilkes Booth is still found.  The Union still wins. However, I would also tell you to stop your yapping and listen here because this book, start to finish, was riveting and eye opening as to the fullness of the act that took the life of one of America’s most-beloved figures.

The story is in the nuance, though, something Swanson teases out beautifully. For this is not just the story of two men, one, an enigmatic actor, handsome and debonair, loved by the ladies, and another, the noble President of the United States, destined to forever be frozen in the national mind in a series of moments none of us ever experienced. Manhunt is also the story of those characters history has forgotten until Swanson’s pen so deftly brings them back to life: Herold, a co-conspirator who cannot act against his assigned victim but who remains with Booth until the end; Edwin Stanton, secretary of war who takes control at Lincoln’s bedside, all while mourning his friend; Thomas Jones, known as The River Ghost, who gives Booth the means to get across the Potomac.

Swanson, too, humanizes John Wilkes Booth, and there are moments when Swanson nearly crosses the line between fascination and admiration. However, as the reader, it is also difficult to cheer for those hunting Booth – not because I agreed with Booth’s actions but because the author writes in such a way that you really don’t want Manhunt and the manhunt within the story to end. Swanson pieces together extensive primary source documents and accounts to create a truly stunning work of nonfiction, and as soon as possible, I will be picking up his newest book, Bloody Crimes, about Jefferson Davis’s escape and Lincoln’s funeral procession.

Read this one: immediately / asap / when you get a chance / if you’re bored

jenn aka picky girl

Related: Last year I read Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon, and it was a fascinating fictional account (but based on a true story) of the couple in the box seats with President Lincoln and the first lady. To say it piqued my interest is an understatement. Theirs was a tragic story set during an equally tragic time.