The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Few events in American history have become so ingrained in the public consciousness as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His murder by actor John Wilkes Booth, coming literally at the end of the Civil War, plunged an already weary nation into deep sorrow. For many Americans, it was the ultimate tragedy following four years of overwhelming anguish and suffering. Tears at the loss of a great and noble leader flooded the land.

John Wilkes Booth Photo courtesy of the National Archives (64-M-19)

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was not the act of a single disgruntled Confederate sympathizer. Booth and several associates spent months planning an attack on Lincoln, and his attendance at the theater finally gave them the perfect opportunity. Originally, they had planned to kidnap the president and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war and possibly a peace treaty between the warring sides. However, as the Confederacy itself started to fall, Booth changed his plans and decided to kill Lincoln instead. Also on the conspirators' hit list were Vice President Johnson, General Grant, and Secretary of State Seward, who was seriously wounded by a conspirator named Lewis Powell.

Lincoln and Booth at Ford's Theatre

A week after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, an exhausted Lincoln decided to relax by attending a production of a light comedy, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Nearly a dozen people were invited to join the Lincolns at the theater, but only two — Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris — did so. Among those who declined were General Grant and his wife — a decision that probably saved Grant's life.

At approximately 10 P.M., John Wilkes Booth walked into Ford's Theatre. He was well known to the theater staff, and the ticket taker let him in gratis as a professional courtesy. Though Lincoln's life had been threatened repeatedly over the course of the war, security surrounding the president was light. Only a White House footman stood guard outside Lincoln's box; the Metropolitan policeman assigned to protect the president had left his post for a few moments. Booth was admitted to the box upon showing his calling card. He quietly slipped in behind Lincoln and shot the president in the back of the head with a small single-shot derringer. Rathbone quickly stood up to grab Booth, but Booth stabbed him in the arm with a seven-inch dagger, then leaped from the box to the stage below. He landed awkwardly, breaking his leg. Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”) before the stunned audience, then hobbled to the exit.

The first doctor to attend to Lincoln was a young army surgeon named Charles A. Leale, who had only recently graduated from medical school. Lincoln showed signs of life and was quickly transported to a home across the street from the theater, but there was little Leale or any of the dozens of physicians who flocked to Lincoln's bed could do. He was declared dead at 7:22 A.M.

Booth's Escape and Rumors of Conspiracy

After shooting Lincoln, Booth escaped to the countryside and sought aid for his broken leg. He stayed a week with a Southern sympathizer, then moved to a farm in Bowling Green, Virginia. There, he and an accomplice were surrounded by Union cavalry, who called for them to surrender. The accomplice did but Booth refused. The barn was set afire, and Booth was shot and wounded by Sergeant Boston Corbett. Pulled from the flames, Booth died three hours later.

Not surprisingly, rumors of a large Confederate conspiracy in the death of Lincoln and attacks on his cabinet swept through Washington. Some rumors suggested that Jefferson Davis and other prominent Confederate officials were in on the plot, but such was not the case; Booth and his cadre of Union haters had worked alone. In trials that reeked more of revenge than justice, all of the conspirators were found guilty, and four of them were executed by hanging. Three others, including Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set Booth's broken leg, were sentenced to life imprisonment, though Mudd served only four years before being pardoned and released.

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