Abraham Lincoln Assassination

American Civil War Homepage

Abraham Lincoln Assassination

Abraham Lincoln Assassination
Abraham Lincoln Assassination.jpg
President Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 - April 15, 1865)

President Lincoln Assassination Summary

On the evening of April 14, 1865, while attending a special performance of the comedy, "Our American Cousin," President Abraham Lincoln was shot. Accompanying him at Ford's Theater that night were his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a twenty-eight year-old officer named Major Henry R. Rathbone, and Rathbone's fiancee, Clara Harris. After the play was in progress, a figure with a drawn derringer pistol stepped into the presidential box, aimed, and fired. The president slumped forward.

The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, dropped the pistol and waved a dagger. Rathbone lunged at him, and though slashed in the arm, forced the killer to the railing. Booth leapt from the balcony and caught the spur of his left boot on a flag draped over the rail, and shattered a bone in his leg on landing. Though injured, he rushed out the back door, and disappeared into the night on horseback.

A doctor in the audience immediately went upstairs to the box. The bullet had entered through Lincoln's left ear and lodged behind his right eye. He was paralyzed and barely breathing. He was carried across Tenth Street, to a boarding-house opposite the theater, but the doctors' best efforts failed. Nine hours later, at 7:22 AM on April 15th, Lincoln died.

At almost the same moment Booth fired the fatal shot, his accomplice, Lewis Paine, attacked Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Henry Seward. Seward lay in bed, recovering from a carriage accident. Paine entered the mansion, claiming to have a delivery of medicine from the Secretary's doctor. Seward's son, Frederick, was brutally beaten while trying to keep Paine from his father's door. Paine slashed the Secretary's throat twice, then fought his way past Seward's son Augustus, an attending hospital corps veteran, and a State Department messenger.

Paine escaped into the night, believing his deed complete. However, a metal surgical collar saved Seward from certain death. The Secretary lived another seven years, during which he retained his seat with the Johnson administration, and purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.

There were at least four conspirators in addition to Booth involved in the mayhem. Booth was shot and captured while hiding in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, and died later the same day, April 26, 1865. Four co-conspirators, Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Mary Surratt, were hanged at the gallows of the Old Penitentiary, on the site of present-day Fort McNair, on July 7, 1865.

President Abraham Lincoln Assassination History

Abraham Lincoln Assassinated!
Last photo of Abraham Lincoln.jpg
Last photo of Abraham Lincoln

When Lincoln and his Cabinet met on the morning of April 14, everyone was anxious to hear news of Sherman. Grant, who was present, expected to receive some word at any moment. Lincoln was sure it would be favorable. That night, he told the Cabinet (and Gideon Welles reported), he had "the usual dream which he had preceding nearly every great and important event of the war. Generally the news had been favorable which preceded this dream, and the dream itself was always the same ... [he said that] he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and that he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore; that he had this dream preceding Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stones River, Vicksburg, Wilmington, etc."

(Right) Lincoln's last photograph. It was taken by Alexander Gardner, April 10, 1865, the day after Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox Court House and five days before Lincoln's death. Four negatives of Lincoln were made by Gardner at this last sitting. Alexander Gardner (American, b. Scotland, 1821–1882). Abraham Lincoln, President, U.S., 1809-1865, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

At this point Grant broke in, rather oddly, to say, "Stones River was certainly no victory, and he knew of no great results which followed from it." Stones River, better known as Murfreesboro in Tennessee, was generally taken to include Halleck's advance on Corinth as well as Bragg's invasion of Kentucky. Lincoln took Grants cavil in good spirit. However that might be, he replied, his dream preceded that fight. "I had," the President continued, in a curiously abstracted way, "this strange dream again last night, and we shall, judging from the past, have great news very soon. I think it must be from Sherman." It was the Friday preceding Easter Week.

That night Welles had just dozed off when his wife woke him with word that someone was at the door with a message for him. Sitting up in bed, Welles heard a voice from the street outside calling to his son, John, whose bedroom was on the floor below. Welles opened the window, and the messenger, James Smith, called up to him that Lincoln had been shot and that Seward and his son Frederick, the assistant secretary of state, had also been assassinated. Welles could not believe the story. "Where was the President when shot?" he asked. At Ford's Theater. Alarmed by Smiths urgency, Welles dressed and accompanied him to Seward's house on Fifteenth Street. A crowd had gathered outside, and Welles had to push his way through. The frightened servants confirmed Smiths story and conducted Welles to Seward's bedroom. "The Secretary," Welles wrote later in his diary, "was lying on his back, the upper part of his head covered with a cloth.... His mouth was open, the lower jaw dropping down." Stanton came in soon after Welles.

The two Cabinet members decided it was their responsibility to go to the bedside of the desperately wounded President. Lincoln had been carried across the street from the theater to the house of a Mr. Peterson. The two men rode in Stanton s carriage through streets already filled with crowds of quiet, anxious people who had heard the news, most of them hurrying in the direction of the theater. At the Peterson house they climbed a flight of stairs to the room where Lincoln lay surrounded by doctors. One of them, whom Welles knew, told him that the President was in practical fact dead, although he might linger for a few hours. "The giant sufferer," Welles observed, "lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not large enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. . . . His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hours, perhaps, that I was there. After that his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored." Soon Sumner appeared, and then Schuyler Colfax, the Speaker of the House, and other members of the Cabinet filed into the small room until it was crowded to the point of discomfort. Mrs. Lincoln came and went, weeping and distraught, and Robert Lincoln lingered in the hallway.

The night was gloomy and dank. Some of those present drifted away. Others kept the death watch. At six o'clock of a dreary, overcast morning, Welles, feeling faint, took a short walk. Small clusters of people stood about in the somber streets. It began to rain. Here and there a person, recognizing Welles, stopped him to ask the condition of the President. "Intense grief was on every countenance," Welles noted, "when I replied that the President could survive but a short time. The colored people, especially--and there were at this time more of them, perhaps, than of whites--were overwhelmed with grief." Back at the Peterson house, Welles took a seat in the parlor with the other Cabinet members, some of whom were asleep in their chairs. Around seven he returned to the room where Lincoln lay. The death struggle had begun. Robert stood by his father's bed, half supported by Sumner. At twenty-two minutes past seven on the morning of Saturday, April 15, the labored breathing stopped. Stanton pronounced the dead Presidents most enduring epitaph: "Now he belongs to the ages."

The Cabinet members then assembled in the parlor once more and drafted a letter to the Vice-President informing him that the duties of president had devolved on him. James Speed, the attorney general, took the communication to Johnson. Salmon Chase was summoned and administered the oath of office in front of a handful of Johnson's friends.

President Lincoln Assassinated!
President Lincoln Assassinated.jpg
President Abraham Lincoln Assassinated!

(Right) This broadside was printed after the assassination attack, but before the news was telegraphed confirming that Secretary of State William Seward had survived.
After breakfast Welles went to the White House in the "cheerless rain." On Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Executive Mansion were several hundred colored people, mostly women and children, weeping and wailing their loss." Through the cold, wet day, they kept the vigil; "they seemed not to know," Welles wrote, "what was to be their fate since their great benefactor was dead, and their hopeless grief affected me more than almost anything else, though strong and brave men wept when I met them."

At twelve o'clock, by Welles's arrangement, the Cabinet met with the new President. Someone raised the question of whether Johnson should give an inaugural address, and he replied that "his acts would best disclose his policy. In all essentials it would . . . be the same as that of the late President."

Sidney George Fisher, hearing of Lincoln's assassination, wrote: "I felt for some time a mere dull & stupified sense of calamity. What disasters, what wide-spread misfortune may not these events produce." A vague feeling of coming ill & real sorrow for Mr. Lincoln, deprived me of the power to think & reason on the subject. I felt as tho I had lost a personal friend, for indeed I have & so has every honest man in the country. . . Mr. Lincoln's character was so kind, so generous~ so noble, that he inspired personal attachment in those who can appreciate such qualities.... He was indeed the great man of the period. On his integrity, constancy, capacity~ the hopes of the country rested. He possessed the entire confidence of the people. His perfect uprightness & purity of purpose were beyond all doubt. His ability to comprehend all the questions before the country & to deal with them in an efficient, practical manner, his firmness & purpose & strength of will, were equally well known, whilst his frank, easy, animated manners and conversation, his entire freedom from vanity, or pride, or self seeking or apparent consciousness of his position, except as to its duties, won all hearts. His death is a terrible loss to the country, perhaps an even greater loss to the South than to the North, for Mr. Lincoln's humanity & kindness of heart stood between them and the party of the North who urge measures of vengeance & severity."

An Illinois soldier, who had known Lincoln in Springfield, said to Walt Whitman, "The war is over, and many are lost. And now we have lost the best, the fairest, the truest man in America. Take him altogether, he was the best man this country ever produced. It was quite a while I thought very different; but some time before the murder, that's the way I have seen it."

"I have been expecting this," George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary; ". . . I am stunned, as by a fearful personal calamity, though I can see that this thing, occurring just at this time, may be overruled to our great good. . . . We shall appreciate him at last." And so the country felt--as if a beloved relative or a dear friend had been suddenly struck down. "Above all," Strong wrote, "there is a profound, awe-stricken feeling that we are, as it were, in immediate presence of a fearful, gigantic crime, such as has not been committed in our day and can hardly be matched in history."

Whatever feelings of compassion Strong may have felt at the news of Lees surrender were quickly dissipated by the assassination of Lincoln, which was widely believed to be the consequence of a conspiracy supported and encouraged by the leaders of the Confederacy. "Let us henceforth deal with rebels as they deserve," he wrote. "The rose-water treatment does not meet their case. I have heard it said fifty times today: 'These madmen have murdered the two best friends they had in the world!" (It was incorrectly thought that Seward could not survive his wounds.) A feeling began to emerge that "Lincoln had done his appointed work; his honesty, sagacity, kindliness, and singleness of purpose had united the North and secured the suppression of the rebellion," Strong wrote, adding, "Perhaps the time has come for something besides kindliness, mercy, and forbearance, even for vengeance and judgment. Perhaps the murdered Presidents magnanimity would have been circumvented and his generosity and goodness abused by rebel subtlety After the first great wave of anguish passed, Strong wrote: "What a place this man, whom his friends have been patronizing for four years as a well-meaning, sagacious kind-hearted ignorant old codger, had won for himself in the hearts of the people! What a place he will fill in history! I foresaw most clearly that he would be ranked high as the Great Emancipator twenty years hence, but I did not suppose his death would instantly reveal--even to Copperhead newspaper editors--the nobleness and glory of his part in this great contest. . . . Death has suddenly opened the eyes of the people (and I think the world) to the fact that a hero has been holding high place among them for four years, closely watched and studied, but despised and rejected by a third of this community, and only tolerated by the other two-thirds."

When Strong heard that Lincoln had dreamed the night before his assassination of "a fine ship entering harbor under full sail," he wrote in his diary: "A poet could make something out of that." A poet did. Whitman wrote:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weatherd every rack, the prize
we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel
grim and daring;
But 0 heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

It was all too much to take in, too sudden, too traumatic. Charleston had been occupied by Federal troops at the end of February; Lincoln's inauguration followed a week later. On April 3 Richmond was abandoned. Lincoln visited Richmond on the fourth and fifth. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. Five days later, on the anniversary of the surrender of Sumter, Lincoln was assassinated.

President Abraham Lincoln Assassinated
Dead Lincoln in casket.jpg
This is the only photograph of Lincoln in a casket and it was never meant for circulation

That same day the Union flag was raised once more over the ruins of that fort by none other than Major (now General) Robert Anderson, who had four years earlier been forced to strike those same colors. William Lloyd Garrison was there as one of the official guests of honor, and Henry Ward Beecher gave the principal address. Having been met at the Charleston docks by a crowd of some three thousand blacks and carried on their shoulders to his hotel, Garrison visited Calhoun's grave and pronounced slavery to be buried deeper than its famous champion. A week later, in Boston, one of his son's reported that "father has [not] quite 'come to himself yet, his trip was so crowded with delightful wonders. It was like dreamland."

The city and indeed the country were meanwhile given over to mourning for their leaders death. Almost every house displayed some piece of black cloth as a mark of the grief of its occupants. Such signs were especially noticeable on the houses of the poor. To Welles "the little black ribbon or strip of black cloth from the hovel of the poor negro or the impoverished white" was most moving. From Sunday through Tuesday of Easter Week, the dead Presidents body lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol while thousands of citizens filed by to look for the last time on that strangely beautiful face. The funeral was on Wednesday, the nineteenth, "imposing, sad and sorrowful." As the procession formed in front of the White House to move down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, all businesses were closed, and the streets were thronged with silent, often weeping people, black and white, sharing a common sorrow. The procession took two hours and ten minutes to pass a given point and was estimated to be more than three miles long. Welles and Stanton rode together, two not very congenial men, wrapped in their own thoughts. The casket, now sealed, was placed once more in the rotunda. Mr. Ralph Gurley gave a brief prayer, and, Welles wrote in his diary, "we left the remains of the good and great man we loved so well."

The Joint Resolution of Congress upon Lincoln's death dated April 17, 1865, contained a paragraph that read: "Whereas Abraham Lincoln's originality of manner, his humor, wit, sarcasm, and wondrous powers of ridicule, were weapons peculiarly his own, which no one else could imitate. Add to these qualities courage, will, and indomitable persistence of purpose, which never flagged or faltered, and he was a power felt and acknowledged by the nation. Take him all in all, it will be long ere we look upon his like again:

"Whereas he is dead; but the days of his pilgrimage, although in troublesome times, were full of honor, love, and troops of friends. The nation mourns. Peace be with him."

Jack Flowers, a Sea Island black, told a Northern teacher, "I 'spect its no use to be here. I might as well stayed where I was. It 'pears we can't be free, nohow." A community of blacks at Hilton Head held a meeting and resolved: "That we. . . look upon the death of the Chief Magistrate of our country as a national calamity, and an irrepressible loss beyond the power of words to express, covering the land with gloom and sorrow, mourning and desolation." It was "Almighty God" who had chosen Lincoln for the work of liberation and "crowned the career of this great and good man with a blessed immortality, sealed by his blood, and embalmed in the memory of future generations."

Edgar Dinsmore, a black soldier from New York stationed in South Carolina, wrote: "Humanity has lost a firm advocate, our race its Patron Saint, and the good of all the world a fitting object to emulate.... The name Abraham Lincoln will ever be cherished in our hearts, and none will more delight to lisp his name in reverence than the future generations of our people."

Charles Sumner wrote his English reformer friend John Bright: "Family and friends may mourn but his death will do more for the cause than any human life, for it will fix the sentiments of the Country--perhaps of mankind. To my mind few have been happier." George Templeton Strong noted in his diary: "No prince, no leader of a people, was ever so lamented as this unpolished Western lawyer has been and is. His name is Faithful and True. He will stand in history books beside Washington, perhaps higher."

There was a curious appropriateness in James Russell Lowell's Harvard commemoration "Ode," delivered three months after Lincoln's death. It was in praise of Lincoln, most un-Harvard like of men, a new human type, "Not forced to frame excuses for his birth, / Fed from within with all the strength he needs." The nation had "Wept with the passion of an angry grief" at his death. In him Nature had shaped a "hero new," / "Wise, steadfast in the strength of God, and true / How beautiful to see / Once more a shepherd of mankind indeed." It was presumptuous to praise him.

He knew to bide his time,
And can his fame abide,
Still patient in his simple faith sublime,
Till the wise years decide.

Our children shall behold his fame.
The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man,
Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,
New birth of our new soil, the first American.

"The first American" had been a phrase reserved for Washington. At least Washington had been praised as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." So different in so many ways, the two men were perhaps most alike in their patient enduringness; their courage and perseverance in the face of what often seemed insurmountable adversities. It is difficult to doubt that America would not have, in time, won its independence from Great Britain if there had been no Washington or if he had been mortally wounded in his first major engagement with the British forces--say, at the Battle of Kips Bay, where he so recklessly risked his life, trying to rally his fleeing soldiers. Certainly it is as safe as any historical generalization to say that the nation which would have emerged from a Washington-less revolution would have been very different from the one that did, indeed, it might well not even have been a single nation. By the same token it is very hard to believe that the North could have won the Civil War, restored the Union, and ended slavery without Lincoln's leadership. Washington was as essential to the nation's birth as Lincoln to its rebirth. Seen in another perspective~ Lincoln finished the work that Washington had begun in the sense that, as we have argued, the nation could not truly "begin" until the cruel paradox of slavery in "the land of the free" had been eradicated.

Photo of Abraham Lincoln dead
Abraham Lincoln Assassinated.jpg
Only photo of President Abraham Lincoln in casket

How much Lincoln bore! Foremost, the Army of the Potomac. That was his cross. One thinks of the Peninsula campaign alone, of McClellan's arrogance and insolence, his numerous dispatches implying that Lincoln had sabotaged his efforts and that the lives of thousands of men had been sacrificed in vain by a heartless and indifferent government. The hours of waiting for news, so often bad, from one battlefield or another were undoubtedly the most wearing hours of his presidency. In addition to the incompetence of successive commanding generals of the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln had to endure the petty rivalries and bickerings in his own Cabinet, disputes that set Chase against Stanton and Welles against both, and the intrigues within his own party as congressional leaders attempted to undermine his authority and usurp his powers; the remorseless venom of the Democratic press, the subversive activities of the Copperheads, and the angry clamors of the abolitionists at his dilatoriness in proclaiming emancipation. Horace Greeley set himself up as the publicly proclaimed conscience of the President, and even such staunch supporters as Carl Schurz burdened him with their doubts and criticisms. It is probably not too much to say that at one time or another during the course of the war virtually every American living north of the Mason-Dixon Line questioned either Lincoln's motives or his ability to discharge the vast and complex duties of his office, sometimes both.

In addition to the tribulations that fell upon him in consequence of his formal political responsibilities, Lincoln suffered in his personal life, first and most acutely in the death in 1862 of his adored son Willie and then in the erratic behavior of his wife. Mary Todd, always a difficult and demanding woman, became increasingly eccentric after the death of her son. Her eccentricity took the form, among others, of running up wildly extravagant bills for her personal wardrobe and for furnishings for the White House, bills that exceeded Lincoln's ability to pay. His wife's state of mind was more distressing to the President than the embarrassment of the bills themselves, which were given wide publicity by his political enemies.

Finally, it has been often noted how much Lincoln suffered over the terrible casualty lists that followed every major battle. They perhaps took the most terrible psychic toll of all. Not surprisingly his health was often bad, and he was frequently troubled by nightmares. Indeed, his dreams were a special source of interest to him, and as we have seen, he often reflected on their meaning. Undoubtedly his humor, so often criticized as coarse or inappropriate, preserved his life and sanity. It was an essential antidote to the strain of morbidity in his nature.

There is no end to the telling of Lincoln's greatness (the Library of Congress catalogue lists five thousand books about him); it is woven into the fabric of our history. It is palpable: in the ground beneath our feet; in the air we breathe. He was the Whitmanesque hero, feeling the greatness of the land, the power of common labor, the surge of humanity across the inconceivable landscape. His words are evocations of our dearest dreams and best aspirations. He was Father Abraham, the Lords anointed, who stirred the profoundest memories of the race, who elicited with an unerring touch those "mystic chords of memory" that he promised would reunite all Americans when we were at last moved "by the better angels of our nature." Patient and enduring, compassionate, suffering, and at the same time as rough and unfinished as the famous rails he split, he promised a deeper and wiser humanity. He was the paschal lamb, the sacrifice, the bearer of the manifold sins of America, the leader of an "almost chosen people." He was, with all that, an unblinking realist. John Hay spoke of his looking through a fraud "to the buttons on the back of his coat," and his law partner. William Herndon, who knew him perhaps better than anyone else, stressed his "cold" intelligence. "To some men," Herndon declared, "the world of matter and of man comes ornamented with beauty, life, and action, and hence more or less false and inexact. No lurking illusion--delusion--error, false in itself, and clad for the moment in robes of splendor, woven by the imagination, ever passed unchallenged or undetected over the threshold of his mind. . . . He saw all things through a perfect mental lens. There was no diffraction or refraction there. . . . He was not impulsive, fanciful, or imaginative, but cold, calm and precise." Herndon's analysis is one of the most remarkable that we have of Lincoln. It has the ring of truth about it; it confirms what we already know. Such men as Herndon describes are typically cynics; Lincoln's greatness was that seeing the world as he did, utterly without illusion, he loved it and its odd inhabitants with a remarkable passion.

The fact was that no simple idealist could have made his way through the quagmires of provincial Illinois politics to the presidency of the United States. The extraordinary strategic sense with which Lincoln mapped the campaign that was to carry him to the highest office in the Republic and the implacable will with which he made poor Douglas carry him there tell volumes about the quality of his mind--about, as we used to say, his character.

Whitman celebrated him in one of the most moving and mysterious of American poems--"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd":

For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands--
and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant
of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars
dusk and dim.

And what of the strange company of conspirators who, it appeared, had plotted the deaths of Lincoln, Seward, Stanton, Grant, and Johnson? John Wilkes Booth was the youngest son of the famous tragedian Junius Brutus Booth. His older brother, Edwin, was one of the most admired actors of the day, famous for his Shakespearean roles. John Wilkes Booth was twenty-six when he assassinated Lincoln. He was a Marylander by birth and an ardent secessionist. Lincoln appeared to him (as he did, of course, to hundreds of thousands of Southerners) as the most malevolent of tyrants, and in his sentimental and romantic imaginings, Booth came to see himself as a modern-day Brutus, freeing the country from an evil dictator, becoming, in consequence, the hero of a real-life drama. A charismatic and compelling figure, with hot, luminous eyes, Booth was able to assemble and dominate as odd a bag of conspirators as ever plotted. Their headquarters in Washington was the home of Mary Surratt. Mrs. Surratt was a member of a well-known family and owned, in addition to her Washington house, a tavern at Surrattsville. In addition to Mary Surratt, those most directly involved in the plot were her own son, John, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (Paine), Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlin, and Edward Spangler. Ben: Perley Poore later described them as follows: "Samuel Arnold was of respectable appearance, about thirty years of age, with dark hair and beard and a good countenance. Spangler, the stage-carpenter, was chunky, light-haired, rather bloated and whisky-soaked looking man. Atzerodt had a decidedly lager beer look, with heavy blue eyes, light hair, and sallow complexion. OLaughlin might have been mistaken for a native of Cuba, short and slender, with luxuriant black locks, a delicate moustache and whiskers, and vivacious black eyes. Payne [Powell] was the incarnation of a Roman gladiator, tall, muscular, defiant, with a low forehead, large blue eyes, thin lips... with much of the animal and little of the intellectual. Davie Herrold was what the ladies call a pretty little man with cherry cheeks, pouting lips, an incipient beard, dark hazel eyes, and dark, long hair." Mrs. Surratt was a stout middle-aged woman with, again the phrase is Poores, "feline gray eyes."

Mrs. Abraham Lincoln
Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.jpg
In an instant, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln became a widow

After shooting Lincoln, Booth, his leg broken, hobbled to the stage door, where a horse chosen for speed and endurance awaited him. Herold, who had been acting as a lookout, joined him, and the two men rode ten miles to Surrattsville with Booth in great pain. At Surrattsville they stayed at the tavern owned by Mrs. Surratt, where they picked up two carbines left for them, and then made their way to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth's leg. For nearly a week Booth and Herold hid in the vicinity while a dragnet of detectives and U.S. Cavalry closed in on them. Booth, dismayed to discovered that far from being hailed as a deliverer, he was almost universally execrated, confined his feelings to a diary. "Until to-day," he wrote, "nothing was ever thought of sacrificing to our country's wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture; but our cause being lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, and was stopped~ but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted, "Sic semper!" before I fired. In jumping, I broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all our troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. . . . I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to outlive my country." Booth deplored the fact that despite his brave and noble act, he was "hunted like a dog through swamps, woods . . . wet, cold, starving, with every man's hand turned against me. ... And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a hero. And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cut-throat. My action was purer than either of theirs. . . . God can not pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong, except in serving a degenerate people. . . . So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy; brought misery upon my family, and I am sure there is no pardon in Heaven for me, since man condemns me so. I have only heard of what has been done, except what I did myself, and it fills me with horror. God, try and forgive me, and bless my mother." Abandoned by the world, he "felt the curse of Cain upon --" The sentence was unfinished as though he could not bear to add the ''me."

On April 25, Booth and Herold were run to ground in a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia. With the barn surrounded, the two men were called on to surrender. Herold came out, but Booth refused, calling that he only wanted "fair play." The barn was set on fire, and as Booth tried to escape, he was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was carried out of the flaming barn still conscious. He asked for water, and when it was given to him, he murmured, "Tell mother I died for my country." lie fainted, revived, and said, "I thought I did for the best." Then he asked that his hands be raised so that he could see them and said, "Useless! Useless!"

As Booth was making his assault on Lincoln, Powell had gone to Seward's house, forced his way in, rushed up the stairs, and, when Seward's son Frederick tried to intercept him, fractured his skull with a blow from his pistol, and, drawing a knife, began stabbing at the already injured Seward. Seward's attendant, a convalescent soldier named Robinson, grappled with Powell, while Seward's daughter threw open a window and screamed, "Murder!" Powell broke away from Robinson and fled, heading for Mary Surratt's house. There he was intercepted by the police, who had already arrested Mrs. Surratt and her daughters.

John Surratt, Mary's son, escaped to Canada and then to Italy and finally to Egypt, where he was arrested and returned to the United States for trial.

Atzerodt's assignment was apparently to kill Johnson. He had taken a room at Kirkwood House, where Johnson was staying, and a loaded pistol and several bowie knives were found in his bedroom, but he evidently lost his nerve and fled to Middlesburg, Maryland, where he was captured several days later. The conspirators were tried by a military commission and sentenced on July 6. Atzerodt, Herold, Powell, and Mrs. Surratt were hanged. Dr. Mudd, O'Laughlin, and Arnold were given life sentences, and Spangler was sent to prison for six years. There remains a question of the degree of the complicity of the defendants. Several of the accused insisted that the assassination had been Booth's own scheme and that they had not even known of his intention until a few hours before the act. Powell had clearly tried to kill Seward, and though he had failed, he was deeply implicated in the plot. Mudd had done little more than set Booth's leg, but the court was not in a frame of mind to make such distinctions. With Booth dead, public sentiment demanded some severe measures of revenge. See also President Abraham Lincoln.

Personal belongings found on Lincoln, 14 Apr. 1865
Personal belongings found on Lincoln.jpg
Lincoln realia, 1865. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

April 14, 1865
When Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865, he was carrying two pairs of spectacles and a lens polisher, a pocketknife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a five-dollar Confederate note and eight newspaper clippings, including several favorable to the president and his policies. Given to his son Robert Todd Lincoln upon Lincoln’s death, these everyday items, which through association with tragedy had become relics, remained with the Lincoln family for more than seventy years.

Abraham Lincoln Assassination Timeline


March 17: A plot hatched by John Wilkes Booth to kidnap President Lincoln is aborted when the President fails to make a scheduled trip to a soldiers' hospital. The possibility of political assassination increasingly enters the mind of the bitter and restless Booth.

April 14: While attending an evening performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre, the President is shot by John Wilkes Booth . After a medical examination by Dr. Charles Leale, Lincoln's body is carried to a bedroom in the nearby Petersen House. Booth and his accomplice David Herold escape Washington into southern Maryland.

Confined to a sickbed at his home on Lafayette Square, Secretary of State William Seward is nearly killed from a vicious knife attack administered by co-conspirator Lewis Paine. George Atzerodt fails to follow through on a plan to assassinate Vice President Johnson. 

April 15: President Lincoln dies at 7:22 a.m. At his bedside, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton remarks, "Now he belongs to the ages."

Having broken his right fibula while jumping to the stage at Ford's Theatre, Booth stops at the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd near Bryantown, Maryland, to have his leg splinted and bandaged.  

April 21: Lincoln's body departs Washington in a nine-car funeral train. The 1,700-mile trip back to Illinois would essentially be over the same tracks that carried the then President-elect east in 1861. Cities along the route that hold funeral processions include Philadelphia, New York City, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago.

April 26: Booth and Herold are apprehended in a tobacco barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, by a cavalry detachment under the command of Lieutenant Edward Doherty. After Herold surrenders, Booth is shot and killed by Corporal Boston Corbett.

May 4: Abraham Lincoln's body is finally laid to rest in a tomb at Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery.

May 10: An army military commission is convened to try Mrs. Mary Surratt, David Herold, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, Edman Spangler, Michael O'Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, and Dr. Samuel Mudd for their parts in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. Surratt, Herold, Paine, and Atzerodt will eventually be given the death penalty, while the remaining defendants are sentenced to imprisonment.

July 7: George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Paine, and Mary Surratt are executed by hanging at the Old Penitentiary in Washington, for their part in the assassination conspiracy.

Return to President Abraham Lincoln Homepage.

Sources: A People's History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Volume 5, Trial by Fire, by Page Smith; Library of Congress; National Archives; National Park Service.


Return to American Civil War Homepage

Return to top