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Author InterviewEdward Steers, Jr., Author
Blood on the Moon
Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
University Press of Kentucky, November 2001
344 pages, hardcover; $30
With this book, Ed Steers draws heavily from primary and private sources to explain the assassination of Abraham Lincoln rather than simply describe it as most writers have done. Steers maintains there are a number of significant pieces of evidence that previous writers simply missed or ignored.
He sheds new light on the Lincoln assassination, including the background and connections of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Steers answers questions such as whether or not Booth was an insane gunman who acted alone to avenge his beloved Confederacy.
Steers, who has researched many Lincoln topics over many years, has produced other books and articles about the assassination, including His Name is Still Mudd: The Case Against Doctor Samuel Alexander Mudd and The Escape and Capture of John Wilkes Booth. Those familiar with the Lincoln field recognize him as a popular speaker and writer, and regular readers of Abraham Lincoln Online know him as a contributor to the Friends of Lincoln Mailbag. He is a retired research scientist with the National Institutes of Health who now lives in West Virginia.
ALO: How did you get started in the Lincoln field?
Ed Steers: When I was in graduate school, I came across one of the volumes of Lincoln's writings and began to read it. I was studying molecular genetics at the time and was struck by the scientific qualities I saw in Lincoln. He would have made a marvelous scientist because of his ability to clearly define problems, which is the leading attribute of a good scientist.
I continued to study Lincoln during my career as a scientist because I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, which is so rich in history. I used to to get on the Metro over my lunch hour and go the National Archives to look up things. Everything was close at hand. And when I retired, I did so with the idea of starting a second career as a writer, so you could say I'm an avocational historian.
ALO: Your books seem to indicate a particular interest in Lincoln's assassination. Is that the case?
Ed Steers: Actually, it's Lincoln's life that interests me the most, although this is my third book on the assassination. I went on one of the first John Wilkes Booth Escape Tours sponsored by the Surratt Society (covering the route that Lincoln's assassin took after he fired the fatal shot), and was fascinated. At the time, that part of southern Maryland was almost unchanged from the 1860s -- you could see the same houses, the same farms, even some of the same names on the mailboxes.
The Lincoln assassination and Lincoln's religious beliefs are two topics that academic historians have largely shunned. There are 103 books or monographs on the assassination, and all but a few have been written by avocational historians, mostly journalists like Jim Bishop.
ALO: Where did you get the title of your book?
Ed Steers: The original title was going to be Sic Semper Tyrannis, which is what Booth uttered in Ford's Theatre after shooting Lincoln (it is the state motto of Virginia and means "thus ever to tyrants"). But I'm also a fan of biblical archaeology, and I ran across the phrase "blood on the moon" in the Old Testament in passages about apocalyptic events. The Lincoln assassination was a tragic event that wasn't momentary -- we are still paying the price of it today in race relations and other respects. I look at it as a apocalyptic event because it altered the course of American history.
ALO: Why did you decide to write Blood on the Moon?
Ed Steers: Most books on the assassination are dated, and one of the best (George Bryan's The Great American Myth) was published 60 years ago. A second book, Come Retribution, published in 1988, is clearly the most authoritative on the subject. Bryan's book relies heavily on secondary sources and lacks up-to-date findings while Come Retribution is devoted mostly to the Confederate Secret Service. It seemed like the time was right to pull everything together in a single volume. My book is based on the most up-to-date research and draws on all the known sources, both public and private. I condensed this information to make the book as readable as possible.
ALO: Do you cover some of the myths that surround the assassination?
Ed Steers: Definitely. For example, I explain that without support from people like Doctor Mudd, Booth could not have done what he did. In my mind, Mudd is the key to Booth's success, dating back to October of 1864, several months before the assassination. The problem with Mudd is that most of the media have bought into the family legend that Mudd was an innocent victim, but the facts show otherwise. Mudd's daughter started this family defense in 1906 with her book on her father, and Mudd's grandson still continues the effort today at age 101. You can't get the media interested in the true story of Dr. Mudd's guilt because they see an innocent Mudd as the more fascinating story.
Another great myth is that the military trial of the conspirators was illegal. It wasn't, of course, and has been upheld in court twice since 1865. But it's very hard to put down these myths, which are very powerful. People want to believe certain things, and Americans in general love a conspiracy.
ALO: What about the story which tries to implicate Secretary of War Edwin Stanton with the assassination?
Ed Steers: There is no substance to it, even though it is a widely circulated story. I have led between 40 and 50 Escape Route Tours and even after they are over and people have heard all the facts, at least one of them will come up to me and say, "That was an interesting tour, but we both know that Stanton was really behind this." Stanton actually was one of the true heroes of the Civil War. Lincoln wanted to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion, and he did so largely with the help and close cooperation of Stanton. By the end of the war, these two men had become extremely close.
ALO: As far as conspirators go, why was John Surratt acquitted but his mother was hanged?
Ed Steers: The case against John Surratt was strong, but not strong enough to try him for first-degree murder. By the time his trial was held, the country was trying to put the war and the assassination behind them. Also, the jury was filled with Southern sympathizers. I think it was a case of jury nullification. Mary Surratt, of course, has been portrayed as an innocent victim of the government, even though she certainly was involved in the capture scheme.
ALO: Do you touch on the matter of Lincoln's protection or lack of it?
Ed Steers: Yes, I have a chapter entitled "You are in Danger," taken from a letter by Ward Hill Lamon. It includes incidents such as the time Lincoln was shot at when returning to the Soldier's Home. You have to remember that the type of protection Lincoln had was really meant to help him coming and going to places -- not while he was in a particular place.
There are many well-documented plots against Lincoln, beginning with the famous Baltimore plot. I think if Lincoln had taken the original route through Baltimore in 1861 he would have been assassinated then, before becoming president. The plots continued through the war and included such schemes as the thwarted attempt by Thomas Harney to blow up the White House. This was alluded to in George Atzerodt's confession (one of the conspirators who was executed). All the plots are suggestive, and some can be tied to the Confederate government in Richmond. The Confederacy had to have been aware of Booth's activities, but they obviously did nothing to stop him. Both sides of the contest supported activities outside the normal boundaries of warfare.
ALO: What is your next Lincoln project?
Ed Steers: I'm planning to take the Pittman book on the conspiracy trial and annotate it. I've asked several Lincoln assassination experts to contribute in their areas of expertise, and I'll be the editor.
ALO: Where can readers obtain your newest book?
Ed Steers: I'm happy to say that the book is off the press early and is available online and at other locations. Anyone who wants a signed copy may contact the Surratt Society book shop in Clinton, Maryland. I'll be there for a book signing on Saturday, October 27, 2001 from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Those who want to read excerpts from the book and comments by other Lincoln authors may click here.
Read a review from the Washington Post
Related Books by Edward Steers
His Name is Still Mudd: The Case Against Doctor Samuel Alexander Mudd
Lincoln: A Pictorial History
The Escape and Capture of John Wilkes Booth
The 'Quotable' Lincoln
Lincoln Assassination Links
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