Ed Steers locks horns with Bill O’Reilly
Historian and author Edward Steers, Jr. of Morgan County was recently quoted in a Washington Post article criticizing Bill O’Reilly of Fox News for errors and inaccuracies in O’Reilly’s new book, co-authored by Martin Dugard, Killing Lincoln:
The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever.
Steers, a Lincoln historian and author of a number of critically acclaimed books on the assassination including Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was quoted by The Post from a story in the November edition of the Civil War Society’s magazine North & South.
Citing numerous errors made by O’Reilly and Dugard, Steers asked, “If the authors made mistakes in names, places, and events, what else did they get wrong? How can the reader rely on anything that appears in Killing Lincoln?”
O’Reilly’s book was recently banned from the National Park Service’s museum store at Ford’s Theater, the location where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.
Rae Emerson, Deputy Superintendent of Ford’s Theater Historic Site told the Post, “The book suffers from factual errors and lack of documentation.”
Steers said the Washington Post did not contact him before publishing the story.
O’Reilly strikes back
Steers said he has written a dozen major articles for North and South over the years. Keith Poulter, the magazine’s editor called Steers and asked him to write a review of O’Reilly’s book.
“I said okay fine, but because of who he is and the subject matter, it should be more like an essay. I can’t write a 400 word review on that book,” Steers said. Poulter agreed.
“So I went ahead and wrote the review and then forgot about it.” The review turned out to be about 2,800 words long, Steers said.
A friend in Florida emailed a link to a video on the Internet where O’Reilly referred to Steers and Emerson as “his enemies” and “gutter snipes.”
Errors big and small
Steers was surprised by O’Reilly’s words.
“The review is not nasty. I even say it is a pleasant read. It’s well written. It’s just got terrible errors in it,” Steers said.
One of the main criticisms of the book in the North and South review is O’Reilly’s and Dugard’s reliance on what has been written before by other authors rather than the historical record which Steers said is readily available.
Some of the errors Steers cites are minor, such as the misspelling of names and the misrepresenting of times and places. Other errors are more serious.
For example, the book states that on the morning of Lincoln’s assassination, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was absent from a cabinet meeting, when in fact, Stanton was there and made a major presentation to the cabinet and General Ulysses S. Grant on his plans for reconstruction, Steers said.
Another section Steers objects to is the characterization of the treatment of the lone woman conspirator Mary Surratt.
O’Reilly and Dugard write that Surratt was forced to wear a padded hood when not on trial, that she was imprisoned in a cell aboard the monitor Montauk in “barely habitable” conditions and she suffered from claustrophobia and disfigurement because of the hood.
“None of this is true. It is just false history,” Steers said.
Surratt was never shackled or hooded. During the trial she stayed in a private room adjacent to the trial room where she was attended to and cared for by her daughter, he said.
“It’s a shame that people are so ignorant about this history. And when it is presented, it’s misrepresented,” Steers said.
The plot to kill Lincoln
“The assassination is an afterthought. That’s not what was planned. What was planned was to kidnap Lincoln,” Steers said.
He explained the conspirators wanted to kidnap President Lincoln and spirit him away to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, to use as a bargaining chip and to gain more time for the South’s war effort.
Before the plot could be set in motion, the situation changed. Richmond fell to Union forces on April 3, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.
The plot then became a plan to “decapitate” the federal government by killing Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Steward and Grant, thus destroying the Presidency and the immediate lines of secession to the Presidency.
Steers said most historians have characterized the eight Lincoln conspirators as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”
“The bottom line is this was not a hair brained scheme. It was well thought out. It was well planned,” Steers said.
Steers was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His father was a science professor at Moravian College. Steers attended the University of Pennsylvania for both his graduate and post graduate work and received a PhD in Molecular Biology.
He worked 31 years at the National Institute of Health. Steers worked with Dr. Christian B. Anfinsen who won the Novel Prize for Chemistry in 1972.
Steers became the Deputy Director of the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
“Ever since I can remember I have been interested in history. That was sort of my hobby on the side,” Steers said. He credits his years researching science at the NIH with preparing him to switch to researching and writing history.
Steers retired to Morgan County with his wife Pat in 1994. They have been married 54 years and have three daughters, 10 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.