67 pages 2 hours read

Bill O'Reilly, Martin Dugard

Killing Lincoln

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever is a popular nonfiction historical narrative recounting the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The book was written in September 2011 by New York Times bestselling author and controversial conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly, former anchor of The O’Reilly Factor. The book is also authored by New York Times bestselling author Martin Dugard, whose book Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone has been adapted into a History Channel special. Killing Lincoln is a part of the duo’s ongoing series that includes Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus. A film version aired in 2013 on the National Geographic Channel and was narrated by Tom Hanks.

Killing Lincoln addresses the themes of patriotism, reunification, loyalty, jealousy, and revenge, as well as crime and punishment. These themes are folded into the book’s four parts. The first part of the book deals with the Civil War and the bloody reality of warfare. The second part of the book addresses the early plots against Lincoln and how they morph into John Wilkes Booth’s assassination plot. The third part of the book centers around Lincoln’s assassination as it’s carried out. The last part of the book addresses Booth’s escape, as well as the fates of him and his co-conspirators once detectives begin their search. As nonfiction wrapped in a creative narrative, the book is fast-paced. O’Reilly himself mentioned that he intended the book as a thriller, albeit a thriller that details actual historical facts.

The first part, “Total War,” addresses the battle to gain the upper hand in the four-year-long Civil War between Union general Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The Union forces are far superior in numbers and morale, and Lincoln wants the war over so that he can begin the arduous task of reunification. He faces a demoralized nation, including a North that doubts the purpose of the war and a South who hates him for infringing upon their rights. Lincoln wants nothing more than to reignite patriotism by winning the war and then heal the nation through reunification. Lee, however, has been outsmarting Grant with his ragtag band of soldiers. The South’s forces are malnourished, diminished, and constantly on the run, yet they believe in their causes of states’ rights and pro-slavery and refuse to surrender to the North. The first part of the narrative focuses on the tactical decisions made by each man and summarizes key battles (as well as showing the horrors of warfare) that led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

The second part, “The Ides of Death,” addresses John Wilkes Booth’s growing hatred with Lincoln, and his decision to move his plot against the president from kidnapping to assassination. As a Confederate sympathizer and spy for the South, Booth gets paid to engage in acts of espionage, but he isn’t allowed to engage in what is known as black flag warfare, or murder. After the South’s loss to Grant and Lincoln, Booth realizes that he has no one to guide him and that the rules of war—he does believe killing is immoral but not during war—apply to his situation. He decides to kill Lincoln to preserve the old ways of the South, adding his well-known flair for drama (Booth is a popular actor) to his plotting. Booth recruits co-conspirators Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold to help with the assassination, while other Confederate sympathizers, like the doomed Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd, also come into play, underscoring how intricate the plot was against Lincoln.

The third part, “The Long Good Friday,” details Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre and Booth’s flight into the Maryland Countryside, while the final part, “The Chase,” delves into Booth and Herold’s attempt to flee to Kentucky and then on to Mexico while being pursued by Federal agents. The denouement also details the fate of all those who conspired against Lincoln. Punishment includes execution by hanging, including Mary Surratt’s, who becomes the first and only woman to be hanged by the United States government, and imprisonment for others. What history is left with is a bundle of conspiracy theories surrounding the events leading up to Lincoln’s assassination, some that the author posits will never be untangled. Although Lincoln’s killers are eventually brought to justice, the narrative makes it clear that Lincoln’s assassination changed America and sent it on a course different than the one imbued with leniency and union that Lincoln sought while alive.