By mid-April 1865, the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history, was nearly over. Richmond, the Confederate capital had fallen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, the bane of the Union Army for nearly four years, had surrendered the week before. President Abraham Lincoln had already visited the former Confederate capital. Although Confederates continued to resist in certain places, the Confederacy was finished.
Actor John Wilkes Booth was one of the ringleaders of a scheme to assassinate or kidnap the President and several other members of his cabinet. And on the night of April 14, 1865, Booth snuck into the presidential box at Ford’s Theater and shot the president in the back of the head as he watched a play. Lincoln would linger for a few hours but die early the next morning. Booth’s conspiracy soon fell apart and his co-conspirators arrested.
Booth thought that by removing Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, he could breathe life into a dead cause. Booth was a famous actor from a family of famous actors. However, although his brother was a staunch supporter of the Union, he was a Confederate sympathizer. And with the family being from Maryland, it wasn’t rare to have family members on opposite sides of the conflict.
Lincoln had seen Booth act at Ford’s Theater in 1863 and greatly admired his talent. He had frequently invited him to the White House. All invitations were ignored, however. Yet Booth did attend Lincoln’s second inauguration, for which he remarked afterward that if he had a mind to it he had been afforded a great opportunity to kill the president.
He first planned to kidnap the president in order to restart the prisoner exchanges, but he decided on a more drastic course of action after hearing Lincoln’s speech on April 11. In it, Lincoln promoted giving voting rights to blacks. This, to Booth, was the catalyst that put in motion the terrible event that was to follow.
Lincoln had previously told members of his cabinet that he had a premonition of being assassinated. On the morning of the 14th, he told his wife Mary that he was very happy, to which she replied that it was bad luck to act so.
Booth went to Ford’s Theater that morning and learned that both Lincoln and General Grant would be attending the play “Our American Cousin” that night. Both the play and the theater were well-known to Booth so he was able to plot well.
Booth and his co-conspirators met one final time at Mary Surratt’s boarding house at 7 p.m. Booth tasked Lewis Powell with killing Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home. George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel. David E. Herold was to guide Powell, who was unfamiliar with Washington, to the Seward house and then link up with Booth in Maryland. The plan was for all parties to strike at 10:00 p.m. Booth planned to use his fame to talk his way past Lincoln’s guards then shoot the president point-blank with his Derringer and stab Grant.
However, that night the Grants declined to go as Julia, the general’s wife, and Mrs. Lincoln didn’t get along well. Other generals declined to sit with the President until finally Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris (daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris) accepted and sat with the first family.
The president’s bodyguard William H. Crook was off-duty, so a Washington policeman, John Frederick Parker, was assigned to protect Lincoln. During intermission, Parker left with two of Lincoln’s coachmen, went to a tavern and didn’t return. With no one outside guarding the box, Booth was able to walk in unchallenged.
As he entered the box, he used a stick to wedge the door shut and prevent anyone else from entering. Lincoln was laughing at a line in the play when Booth shot him point-blank in the head behind the left ear. The bullet traveled through the president’s brain and lodged in the right side of his skull.
Rathbone leaped into action and Booth, producing a dagger stabbed him in his left arm. As Booth attempted to leap onto the stage, his spurs caught on the flag that was draped over the balcony and he crashed onto the stage breaking his leg.
At first, the audience believed it was part of the show until Mrs. Lincoln’s screams convinced them otherwise. Booth reportedly yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (“thus always to tyrants”) before exiting from a side door to a waiting horse. Inside the theater, pandemonium ensued.
Doctors rushed inside the box, and they quickly realized that the wound was fatal. Although the president needed to be moved, a carriage ride to the White House would immediately kill him. So, the doctors with the help of soldiers moved the president in the rain to a house across the street.
Physicians poured in but to no avail; they were just playing a waiting game. President Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. Vice President Johnson was sworn in as the new president.
Powell’s attempt on Seward’s life went awry. Seward’s son stopped him in front of his father’s bedroom door after Powell had talked his way into the house. Then Powell drew his revolver, put it to the son’s head, and pulled the trigger. It misfired. He then bludgeoned the younger Seward unconscious. Bursting in the bedroom, he slashed at the Secretary of State with a Bowie knife, slicing open his jaw and then ran for the street. Seward would recover and only a few years later would arrange the purchase of Alaska from the Russians.
George Atzerodt, who was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson, secured lodging on the floor right above the Vice-President. But he then went out, got drunk, and lost his nerve. He wandered the streets until 2 a.m. and then went to another hotel, booked a room and went to sleep.
Meanwhile, Booth crossed into Maryland and an hour later Herold met up with him and they retrieved weapons and ammunition that was stored for them. They then proceeded to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s leg and fashioned a crutch for him.
After moving around for about 10 days, Booth and Herold stopped at Garrett farm on April 26. As they fell asleep, the house was surrounded by members of the 16th New York Cavalry. Herold surrendered, yet Booth vowed not to be taken alive.
As he tried to exit the back of the house armed with a rifle and pistol, Sergeant Boston Corbett came up behind him and shot him in the back of the head. Booth, who because of the shot couldn’t move his hands, was carried to the porch. He asked the soldiers to bring his hands in front of his head. As he gazed at them he uttered his final words, “Useless, useless.”
All of the conspirators were arrested soon afterward with the exception of John Surratt, Mary’s son, who made his way to Quebec and then to Europe. He was finally arrested in Egypt in late 1866.
A military tribunal was held and the trial lasted seven weeks with the prosecution calling 366 witnesses. On June 30, all of the defendants were pronounced guilty. Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were sentenced to death by hanging.
They were hanged in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary (now Ft. Leslie McNair) on July 7. Soldiers of Company A, 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) have reported seeing Surratt’s ghost walking the grounds of the base.
Samuel Mudd, whose only crime was setting Booth’s leg, and two other conspirators, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen, were sentenced to life in prison. A final conspirator, Edmund Spangler was sentenced to six years.
O’Laughlen died in prison in 1867. Mudd, Arnold, and Spangler were pardoned in February 1869 by Johnson. John Surratt was eventually tried but his guilt could never be proved. He was released in 1867.