STOP, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop . . . . Bill O’Reilly’s book on the Lincoln assassination continues to be discussed, analyzed, twittered, and all manner of completely unnecessary debate that only keeps his cynical attempt to cash in on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War alive and well.
Fine, the book was banned by the National Park Service. . . fine, O’Reilly attributes criticisms to the “forces of darkness” . . . fine he overlooked the detail that it was impossible for Lincoln to have had meetings in the Oval Office for the simple reason it did not exist . . . fine, he repeats the ancient canard that Stanton was involved in the conspiracy . . . .fine, he got names wrong, misrepresented prison conditions, took some liberties with some facts . . . .
It’s all beside the point – the guy has the unmitigated hubris to write a book on the subject of more historical research and study (56,530 books listed on Amazon today) than anybody not named Jesus Christ and he does it without a single footnote and he cites internet research. Internet research, I needlessly remind everyone, was also cited in the ‘Stonewall-Jackson-had-a-brigade-of-black-troops-with-him’ Virginia middle school history book debacle. If he was going to use the Internet as a primary source, the least he could have done was come up with a second gunman in the orchestra pit scenario and an umbrella toting usher.
I read the first few pages via a Google free-look, was further appalled by (1) the book is written in the present tense; (2) the back-story intro describing Lee’s intentions to form a guerrilla army in the Bruce Catton, someone O’Reilly desperately needs to discover, wrote it best 50 years ago:is spectacularly wrong – it was Grant and Sherman’s greatest fear, Lee never had any intention of doing so.
Unquenchable guerrilla warfare was perhaps the one thing that would have ruined America forever. It was precisely what Federal soldiers like Grant and Sherman dreaded most — the long, slow-burning, formless uprising that goes on and on after the field armies have been broken up, with desperate men using violence to provoke more violence, harassing the victor and their own people with a sullen fury that no dragoons can quite put down. The Civil War was not going to end that way — although it was natural to suppose that it might; because civil wars often do — and the conquered South was not going to become another Ireland or Poland, with generation after generation learning hatred and the arts of back-alley fighting. General Lee ruled it out, not only because he was General Lee but also because he had never seen this war as the kind of struggle that could go on that way. He understood the cause he served with complete clarity. His South had meant neither revolution nor rebellion; it simply desired to detach itself and live in its own chosen part of an unchanging past, and Mr. Davis had defined it perfectly when he said that all his people wanted was to be let alone. Borne up by that desire, the Confederacy had endured four years of war, and it was breaking up now because this potential for inspiring the human spirit had been exhausted. With unlimited confidence the Confederacy had fought an unlimited war for a strictly limited end. To go on fighting from the woods and the lanes and the swamps might indeed plague the Yankees and infect a deep wound beyond healing, but the one thing on earth it could not do was give the South a chance to be left alone with what used to be.
That the first lines of the book utterly distort Lee’s intentions on the retreat from Petersburg casts a pall over everything the guy has to say; that it is clear from the first paragraphs that O’Reilly has predicated his ‘story’ on the premise that Lincoln further saved the Union by stopping Lee from carrying out his ‘lets turn the Blue Ridge Mountains into 1940s Yugoslavia’ plan makes the remaining pages irrelevant.
Please understand, I’d have no problem, obviously, had O’Reilly written an historical fiction about Lincoln’s last days (provided, of course, he stayed away from putting thoughts in Lincoln’s head). But to purport to write a history and not even meet the standards of a high school term paper while trading on his celebrity simply to sell books (that had to be the sole reason for writing, right? I mean, if he was writing in the hopes of joining the pantheon of Lincoln and Civil War writers he presumably would have hired someone to do some research) is really reprehensible.
The term is not used lightly, everything O’Reilly does with this book is magnified and exacerbated ten fold for the simple reason that by virtue of his name thousands of people (as a host of comments on Amazon attest) will read their first book on Lincoln and the Civil War and will take it as gospel. They’ll tell others, “Hey, did you know General Lee was going to form partisan bands in the mountains and …..”, (or some other almost fact) that will be regurgitated into blogs, tweets, Tumblrs, columns, articles, more, for years and eventually become accepted by any number of people as historical fact . . God forbid, it may even become the stuff of bar bets.
It goes the way of all half-assed researched half truths and, with luck, it will end up in a Pennsylvania fourth grade history test book under more ways Lincoln saved us all.
Sic Semper O’Reilly.