John Wilkes Booth and the Assassination of Abraham

John Wilkes Booth was a well respected actor who also had an interest in politics. He had long been a Confederate sympathizer opposed to the ending of slavery. This was so much so that he attended the hanging of John Brown, an abolitionist leader, with the militia, to ensure no one tried to help Brown escape.

Booth had long talked with others about ways to kidnap leading Union officials, including Lincoln. In fact, Booth had planned to kidnap the president on March 17th, but Lincoln failed to show up at a performance which Booth expected him to attend. Booth found the prime opportunity on April 14, 1865.

Booth had been in Washington and seen celebrations of the Union win of the Civil War just days beforehand as Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. This enraged Booth and he got his gang together when he learned Lincoln would be attending Ford’s Theatre on the 14th. He assigned fellow conspirators to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. He himself would kill Lincoln.

Booth was very familiar with Ford’s Theatre, having performed there many times. He also knew Our American Cousin well enough to know where actors would be during each part of the play. Booth snuck into the presidential box that night at 10 p.m. and used a .44 caliber Deringer to shoot Lincoln in the back of the head. He jumped to the stage, but injured his leg on the way down. He shouted “Sic semper tyrannis,” which means “Thus always to tyrants,” then fled the theatre on horseback.

Thousands were out looking for Booth. The Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, offered a $100,000 reward for information on Booth and his co-conspirators. Federal troops were dispatched as well. Lincoln didn’t die immediately and was taken to the nearby Petersen House where he died nine hours later.

Booth and co-conspirator David Herold, managed to flee to Maryland, hoping to eventually escape to rural Virginia. To get Booth’s leg mended, the two stopped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd on April 15th . The 16th New York Calvary was detached to catch Booth in Virginia. They tracked him to the farm of Richard H. Garrett near Port Royal, Virginia. Garrett and his family had no idea who Booth was, but eventually grew suspicious of the two. When Booth and Herold heard troops coming, they hid in the barn. Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger ordered them to come out. Herold surrounded, but Booth refused. The soldiers set the barn on fire and when Booth came out of the burning fire, he was shot and killed by Sergeant Boston Corbett. Before his death, Booth whispered “Tell my mother I died for my country” then, when asked to have his hands raised before his face he said “Useless, useless.”

Booth had hoped that in killing Lincoln, he would be seen as a hero, but the exact opposite was true. Even Confederate sympathizers found Booth’s cowardly act to be abominable. Newspapers ran headlines calling Booth a “devil,” “monster,” and “madman.” Lee himself uttered regret about Lincoln’s death. Rather than further divide the country, Lincoln’s assassination managed to bring together a wounded country in grief. An estimated 1.5 million people saw Lincoln’s coffin as the funeral train went by.

Public services were held by Confederate veterans to mourn Lincoln and many believed that if Lincoln had not been assassinated, the days after the war might have been easier. Most southerners felt that Booth’s actions only bought about harsh revenge by northerners during reconstruction.