29 March 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 8 comments

In February, James L. Swanson published his book Manhunt, which is a narrative of the pursuit and ultimate killing of John Wilkes Booth by Federal forces. The book covers a period of twelve days, and is the most detailed narrative of these events yet written.

This book has lots of problems. First, and foremost, the author states specifically that he takes liberties with sourcing. He adopts the old “I don’t want to bog down the reader with frivolities like notes” trick, which many do when they’re trying to cover up the lack of depth of their research. This book fails to meet my tests for academic standards, which makes it difficult for me to endorse it.

At the same time, it’s a fabulous read. Swanson’s style is easy and fast-moving, and it really reads more like a novel than it does history. The best way to describe it is to call it pop history. From my perspective as a serious researcher, I always have trouble endorsing that sort of a work. At the same time, well-written pop history will probably help to bring new readers to the Civil War, just as the Ken Burns film generated new interest in the war when it debuted.

I think that the thing that bothers me the most about this book is that it was obviously written as a means of boosting interest in the forthcoming film that is going to be made. It’s almost like this book was written to drive movie ticket sales, and not the other way around, as most books that are turned into films usually work. I have already addressed the most interesting aspect of this forthcoming film: how 64 year old Harrison Ford is going to pull of playing 31 year old Lt. Col. Everton Conger, the secret agent who commanded the force sent to hunt down booth.

The way I see it, this book is, at best, a very mixed bag. I can only hope that it won’t generate an whole new generation of poorly researched pop history.

Scridb filter


  1. Wed 29th Mar 2006 at 10:48 pm

    Your surmise is correct. IIRC, the author mentioned that the movie rights were purchased before the book was even written. I’d never heard of Swanson before and that surprised me. I bet many writers would like to get to know his editor/agent.

    Yeah, I know we are supposed to suspend disbelief when it come to age, but I agree that Ford playing Conger is ridiculous…like that guy in his 60s (or at least he looked that old) playing John Bell Hood in the Turner Gettysburg movie.

  2. Wed 29th Mar 2006 at 11:16 pm

    Thanks for the info, Drew. Just as I suspected.

    Boy, I sure would love to sell the rights to one of my books before I went to the bother of writing it…..


  3. Harry
    Wed 29th Mar 2006 at 11:17 pm

    Yeah, try to figure out how they get a starring role out of a very minor character in the book – Conger doesn’t even appear in the book until it is 2/3 over, notable only because he was with Booth in his final hours. The “stars” of this book are Booth and Herold. Conger was a bit player.

  4. Wed 29th Mar 2006 at 11:43 pm

    If I can pick my female “aides-de-camp”, I would love the role of Judson Kilpatrick in the movie adaptation of your Monroe’s Xroads book. I am much better looking than JK but I am the same age.

  5. Thu 30th Mar 2006 at 8:54 am


    LOL. For your sake, I’m very glad to hear that you’re better looking than Kil-Cavalry. Then again, that doesn’t take much. 🙂


  6. Russell Bonds
    Thu 30th Mar 2006 at 3:19 pm


    My approach for an enjoyable book like Manhunt, which runs swiftly but not too deep, is to purchase the audio version and listen to it on my long Atlanta commute. That way I can enjoy the narrative flow without being troubled by the lack of references, etc.

    I agree with the Harrison Ford/Conger concerns expressed above–not just the age difference, but unless they are going to change the script a good deal from what actually happens (and Hollywood NEVER does that, right?), then Conger is a minor character at best. The main character, of course, is Booth. And who plays him? Someone said Johnny Depp–hmmm. Too bad C. Thomas Howell is too old now . . . Or how ’bout Joey from “Friends”? [insert smiley face thingie here]

  7. Thu 30th Mar 2006 at 3:49 pm


    Books on Tape is about the best thing for a book that lacks depth, as this does.

    Matt LeBlanc is too old. I vote for Orlando Bloom. He’s actually about the right age.


  8. Rob Wick
    Mon 03rd Apr 2006 at 3:03 pm


    Just wanted to fill in a little for the other posters.

    In the book Conger, et al are portrayed as minor characters. Up until the time they set out aboard the John S. Ide on their way to find Booth, no one had heard of any of them, other than Lafayette Baker (who oversaw the operation from the friendly confines of Washington). But in terms of the manhunt itself Conger (more so than Byron Baker-who is Lafayette’s cousin-and to a lesser extent Edward P. Doherty, who had command of the detachment of the 16th New York Cavalry) was a major character. I believe he was put in charge because of several reasons, not the least of which is his familiarity with the Virginia countryside which he got as commander of the First District of Columbia Cavalry as well as the confidence that Lafe Baker had in him. It should be noted that of all the people on the manhunt Conger had the least business being there because he had been shot through the hips twice and almost had his left arm cut off with a Confederate saber during the war. I don’t want to make this a book but Conger’s role in the manhunt was so great he was given the bulk of the reward money ($15,000). Swanson’s book is tripe, but given the reception it has garnered, unfortunately we will be hearing of it for years to come.

    Best wishes
    Rob Wick

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