Original plan: Kidnapping the presidentJohn Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth, originally from Maryland, was a proud Southerner and an outspoken Confederate sympathizer. In late 1860, Booth was initiated in the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle in Baltimore. Born into a family of well-known stage actors, Booth had become a famous actor and a nationally recognized celebrity in his own right by the time of the assassination.
In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of all the Union's armies, decided to suspend the exchange of prisoners-of-war with the Confederate Army. As harsh as it may have been on the prisoners of both sides, Grant realized the exchange was prolonging the war by returning soldiers to the outnumbered and manpower-starved South. John Wilkes Booth conceived a plan to kidnap President Lincoln and deliver him to the Confederate Army, to be held hostage until the North agreed to resume exchanging prisoners. Booth recruited Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell (also known as "Lewis Paine"), and John Surratt to help him. Surratt's mother, Mary Surratt, left her tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland and moved to a house in Washington, D.C., where Booth became a frequent visitor.
While Booth and Lincoln were not personally acquainted, Lincoln had seen Booth in The Marble Heart at Ford's on November 9, 1863. Subsequently Lincoln sent a invitation backstage inviting Booth to visit the White House. Afterwards, actor Frank Mordaunt stated that Booth evaded multiple invitations from the president. "Lincoln was an admirer of the man who assassinated him. I know that, for he said to me one day that there was a young actor over in Ford's Theatre whom he desired to meet, but that the actor had on one pretext or another avoided any invitations to visit the White House. That actor was John Wilkes Booth."
Booth attended Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, 1865, as the invited guest of his secret fiancée Lucy Hale, daughter of John P. Hale, soon to become United States Ambassador to Spain. Booth afterwards wrote in his diary, "What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on Inauguration day!"
On March 17, 1865, Booth informed his conspirators that Lincoln would be attending a play, Still Waters Run Deep, at Campbell Military Hospital. He assembled his men in a restaurant at the edge of town, intending that they should soon join him on a nearby stretch of road in order to capture the president on his way back from the hospital. But Booth found out that Lincoln had not gone to the play after all. Instead, he had attended a ceremony at the National Hotel in which officers of the 142nd Indiana Infantry presented Governor Oliver Morton with a captured Confederate battle flag. Booth was living at the National Hotel at the time and could have had an opportunity to kill Lincoln had Booth not been at the hospital.
Meanwhile, the Confederacy was falling apart. On April 3, Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, fell to the Union Army. On April 9, 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia, the main army of the Confederacy, surrendered to the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Court House. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the rest of his government were in full flight. Despite many Southerners giving up hope, Booth continued to believe in his cause.
There are various theories about Booth's exact motivations for assassinating Lincoln. Booth wrote a letter to his mother Mary Ann in which he speaks of his desire to avenge the South. In the foreword to Nora Titone's My Thoughts Be Bloody, Doris Kearns Goodwin agrees with Titone that much of John Wilkes' motivation was sibling rivalry with his well-known older brother, the actor Edwin Booth, who was a loyal Unionist. The historian David S. Reynolds wrote that part of Booth's motivation was admiration for the abolitionist John Brown, with Asia Booth Clarkequoting her brother John Wilkes as saying "John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of the century!". On April 11, 1865, two days after Lee's army surrendered to U.S. forces under Ulysses S. Grant and three days before the assassination, Booth attended a speech at the White House in which Lincoln promoted voting rights for blacks. Booth is quoted as then saying to Lewis Powell:
- "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give."
It is widely believed that Lincoln anticipated his assassination. According to Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln's friend and biographer, three days before his assassination Lincoln discussed with Lamon and others a dream he had, saying:
On the day of the assassination, Lincoln told his bodyguard, William H. Crook, that he had been having dreams of himself being assassinated for three straight nights. Crook advised Lincoln not to go that night to Ford's Theatre, but Lincoln said he had promised his wife they would go. As Lincoln left for the theater, he turned to Crook and said, "Goodbye, Crook." According to Crook, this was the first time he said that; before, Lincoln had always said, "Good night, Crook." Crook later recalled: "It was the first time that he neglected to say 'Good Night' to me and it was the only time that he ever said 'Good-bye'. I thought of it at that moment and, a few hours later, when the news flashed over Washington that he had been shot, his last words were so burned into my being that they can never be forgotten."
After Lincoln was shot, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln was quoted as saying, "His dream was prophetic."
|Assassination of Abraham Lincoln|
|Part of the American Civil War|
The Assassination of President Lincoln (Currier & Ives, 1865), from left to right: Major Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and the assassin, John Wilkes Booth
This print gives the impression that Rathbone saw Booth enter the box and had already risen as Booth fired his weapon. In reality, Rathbone was unaware of Booth's approach and reacted after the shot was fired.
|Location||Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C.|
|Date||April 14, 1865|
10:15 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time)
|Deaths||1 (Abraham Lincoln)|
|Perpetrators||John Wilkes Booth and co-conspirators|
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., as the American Civil War was drawing to a close. The assassination occurred five days after the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac.
Lincoln was the third American president to die in office, and the first to be murdered. An unsuccessful attempt had been made on Andrew Jackson 30 years prior, in 1835, and Lincoln had himself been the subject of an earlier assassination attempt by an unknown assailant in August 1864. The assassination of Lincoln was planned and carried out by the well-known stage actor John Wilkes Booth, as part of a larger conspiracy in a bid to revive the Confederate cause.
Booth's co-conspirators were Lewis Powell and David Herold, who were assigned to kill Secretary of StateWilliam H. Seward, and George Atzerodt, who was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson. By simultaneously eliminating the top three people in the administration, Booth and his co-conspirators hoped to disrupt the United States government.
As the President was watching the play, Booth shot Lincoln from behind at a distance of perhaps three or four feet, hitting him in the back of the head. At 7:22 a.m. the following day, Lincoln died in the Petersen House across the street from the theater. The rest of the conspirators' plot failed; Powell only managed to wound Seward, while Atzerodt, Johnson's would-be assassin, lost his nerve and fled. Booth made a dramatic escape, resulting in a lengthy manhunt that ended in his death. Several other conspirators were later tried and hanged. The funeral and burial of Abraham Lincoln was a period of extended national mourning.