The book begins with several notes on its content and inspiration. First, it notes that all the quotes used in the book are drawn from primary sources. James Swanson, the author, then adds a biographical note, explaining that his interest in John Wilkes Booth sprang from a gift his grandmother gave him for his tenth birthday: a picture of the Deringer pistol Booth used to shoot the president, along with an incomplete newspaper article from the day after the assassination. From that time on, Swanson wanted to learn and tell this history.
The author of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, James L. Swanson, was inspired to tell the story of John Wilkes Booth when he was still a child and received an incomplete newspaper account of the assassination from the time of Lincoln’s death. This gift gave the author a sense of the uncertainty surrounding Lincoln’s killing at the time and prompted his interest in getting to the bottom of the story.
Next, the book gives a brief overview of the Civil War. The North and South were at war from 1861 until 1865. The North had a more industrial economy and was against slavery, while the Southern economy depended upon slavery. Southerners thought that they should either be allowed to own slaves or be allowed to form their own new country. After 600,000 deaths, the war seemed at an end when Southern General Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. Many soldiers began to return home. Other soldiers continued to fight, however, and many Southerners still hoped to win the war. In this climate, Washington, D.C., the capital of the Union forces, was full of people of different allegiances and backgrounds, some of them spies and Southern sympathizers.
This overview of the situation in the United States at the time of Lincoln’s killing emphasizes the uncertainty that gripped the country as the war slowly came to an end. People were moving from place to place and there was little way of knowing who was an enemy and who was a friend. There were many who were not ready to accept Southern defeat and might, as John Wilkes Booth did, still seek to change the outcome of the war.