Assassination of Lincoln
Three days before John Wilkes Booth fatally shot the President, Lincoln relayed a dream he had to his wife in which he was wandering through the rooms of White House hearing sobs and crying as he went. When he reached the East Room, he noticed a casket. He asked a soldier who was in the casket and the soldier replied that it was the president – killed by an assassin. Lincoln woke up from that dream but failed to sleep for the rest of the night.
Little did the president know that as he dreamed of his own assassination, the actual plot was being formulated by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer? Booth’s original plan was simply to kidnap the President, but as his anger grew over Lincoln’s support for former slaves, he resolved to kill the president, Secretary of State William Seward, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, and Vice-president Andrew Johnson. To help in his nefarious plot, Booth recruited George Atzerdot to kill Johnson and David Herold and Lewis Powell to kill Seward. Herold would lead Powell to Seward’s house because Powell was unfamiliar with the layout of the city. Booth directed Mary Surratt, another Confederate sympathizer, to deliver a package of “field glasses” to her tavern where Booth could pick them up after the assassination. In addition, she was to instruct the innkeeper to give Booth whiskey and several guns she had stored for him for his escape into the South.
On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was to attend the performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. It was a perfect opportunity for Booth, who was acting in the play, and was familiar with the building. Lincoln’s presidential box was supposed to be manned by a police officer named John Frederick Parker. Parker, however, left his post to visit a tavern, and may or may not have returned. He might have fallen asleep on the job. Booth, with easy access to the President’s box, waited for the right moment during the play, rushed into the box, and shot the President in the back of the head. As the President fell over, Mary Todd Lincoln caught him then began screaming. Soon, chaos broke out as the audience attempted to flee the theater. Booth vaulted from the box to the stage below but caught his boot spur in a treasury flag and broke his leg. Before he escaped from the theater, a visibly limping Booth was said to have yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” which means “Thus Always to Tyrants” in Latin. It is also the motto of the state of Virginia.
Meanwhile, Booth’s co-conspirator, Lewis Powell, had gained entry into the Seward house and stabbed the Secretary of State in the face with a dagger after beating his son Frederick over the forehead with a gun. Seward, who had been bedridden since a carriage accident, was lucky to survive. George Atzerdot, who had been assigned by Booth to murder vice president Johnson, decided against the plans and drank the night away in a tavern.
Charles Leale, a doctor who was at Ford’s Theater at the time of the assassination, was the first to respond to the shooting. He examined the president and found the bullet hole in his head and removed the blood clot. Lincoln’s breathing reportedly improved temporarily, but Leale knew the wound was mortal. Leale and two other doctors had Lincoln moved to the boarding house of William Peterson, across the street from the theater. Soon, Lincoln’s son Robert, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles were summoned to the house. Stanton quickly took control of the scene and ordered the removal of Lincoln’s hysterical wife, Mary. From the Peterson House, Stanton ordered the search for Booth to commence. As the night wore on, however, the President’s breathing became shallower. At 7:22 A.M. on April 15, 1865, he was pronounced dead, at which point Stanton uttered his immortal words “Now, he belongs to the ages.”
What happened to Booth?
Following the fall that broke his leg, Booth made his way out of theater by slashing his knife at anyone who got in his way. Booth had meticulously planned his escape and rode to the outskirts of Washington D.C. shortly after the assassination. When he reached the Navy Yard Bridge, which led out of the city, Booth managed to convince the guard Silas T. Cobb, who was under orders not to let anyone pass, to let him cross the bridge. Booth eventually met up with John Herold and the pair retrieved their weapons from Mary Surratt’s house before visiting the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who would set Booth’s broken leg. Booth and Herold, aided by other Confederate sympathizers, hid out in a swamp for five days until it was determined they could safely cross the Potomac River into Virginia. The two managed to persist for twelve days until they were tracked down by Union soldiers at a farm in Virginia. Booth barricaded himself inside a barn and refused to surrender. Union soldier Boston Corbett shot Booth in the neck, paralyzing him. After being shot, soldiers dragged him to the barn steps where he died two hours later.
What Happened to Booth’s Co-Conspirators?
Execution of Lincoln Conspirators at Fort McNair, Washington D.C.
Lewis Powell, George Atzerdot, David Herold, and Mary Surratt were all eventually detained and sentenced to hang. Mary Surratt became the first woman in U.S. history to be hanged, though several of the jurors signed a petition requesting her pardon after it was too late. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the broken leg of the assassin, was sentenced to life in prison.