Throughout his career as a soldier, Robert E. Lee commanded tens of thousands of men in combat, and thousands died for him. If one starts with Lee’s first combat duty in the Mexican War during the 1840s, a question arises: who was the first person to die under Lee’s leadership? A new fascinating book by Ann Marie Ackermann seeks to answer that, and the journey to the conclusion brings the reader from the southern reaches of modern Germany, to the suburbs of Philadelphia, and to the sandy beaches of Veracruz, Mexico.
Ackermann’s story begins in the late-night hours of October 21, 1835 in the Germanic Kingdom of Württemberg. Within a darkened alleyway, an unknown assailant shoots Mayor Johann Heinrich Rieber of Bönningheim, who soon succumbs to his wounds. Ackermann’s narrative focuses its early attention on recounting the cold case to find Rieber’s killer. Through Ackermann’s solid use of archival sources, readers track the case and share in the investigator’s mounting frustrations as they failed to find the killer. The narrative includes a fascinating look into 19th century forensic testing—among the first instances of such investigations. Alongside the investigation, Ackermann interweaves chapters detailing the early career of Robert E. Lee. The dual storylines bring the reader back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean as the years pass by.
The murderer (you’ll have to read the book for their identity) is introduced roughly halfway through the book. Just as the narrative had followed the investigation, Ackermann brings her reader alongside the killer as he escapes justice and makes his way to Philadelphia. From there, the two stories come together as the outbreak of the Mexican War leads to the mustering of Pennsylvania volunteers, including the fugitive. His military career was not long, however, as he became an American fatality during the Siege of Veracruz in 1847.
It is at Veracruz that Ackermann’s two story lines collide, as Mayor Rieber’s killer works to defend the works of engineer Robert E. Lee and is killed by Mexican artillery. In an appendix, Ackermann quotes a letter from Lee, recounting the death of the first man killed under his command. But the murderer’s death is not the end of the story, because the case outlived him. The rest of the book describes how it was finally solved, bringing an end to one of Germany’s longest cold cases as a family in the United States sought to clear its good name back home in Europe.
In all, Ackermann’s narrative is a great read that at times reads more like a crime novel as opposed to historical nonfiction. Some readers may wish to see more of Lee, but in Ackermann’s book one of America’s most famous soldiers occupies a peripheral role, fleeting in and out of the story.
Death of an Assassin is a great, fun read, spinning intrigue with historical facts Ackermann is an excellent writer, who knows how to spin a good tale, and this resulting monograph is the proof.
Ann Marie Ackermann
Death of An Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2017.
205 Pages including main text, two appendixes, end notes, bibliography, and index.