The Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln

Apr 20, 2015 - by Cal Schoonover - 0 Comments

Lincoln Assassination

Five days after General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, ending the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre.

by Cal Schoonover

By the time President Abraham Lincoln and his party arrived at Ford’s Theatre, the play Our American Cousin had already begun. Lincoln, along with his wife Mary and two other guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, had a box reserved for them. As the party made its appearance, the play was stopped and the tune "Hail to the Chief "began. The crowd rose and applauded the President as his group made its way to the awaiting box. Lincoln nodded and waved to the crowd of his admirers.

Once the President was seated, the play resumed. It was just after 8:30 p.m. and Lincoln, although exhausted, was anxious to relax and enjoy the play. The last few years had been rough not only on President Lincoln and his family, but the country as well. In April, 1861 the Civil War began and turned the nation into complete chaos. Brother against brother, father against son and neighbor against neighbor. The devastating effect of the Civil War cost the country over 600,000 lives. The war ended just five days prior on April 9 and the night of April 14, Good Friday, Lincoln was looking forward to putting his thoughts of war to rest.

A few minutes before 10 p.m. the play was near the half-way point and it was around this time that legendary actor John Wilkes Booth entered the saloon next door and ordered a whiskey. After finishing his drink, Booth exited the saloon and walked over to Ford’s Theatre. As he entered he made his way up stairs. Upon arriving at the top of the stairs, Booth saw the balcony was filled with people. There were several people standing against the wall Booth noted and after a few minutes of looking around, he made his way across the rear circle. “I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends,” Booth would later write in his diary.

Nearing the door to the presidential box, Booth encountered Charles Forbes, Lincoln’s personal valet. Forbes had taken a seat just outside of the box and when Booth approached, Forbes stood and Booth handed him something. While it is not known for sure what Booth handed Forbes, it has been assumed by historians and writers that it was Booth’s personal calling card. Either way, Forbes looked at it and allowed Booth to proceed into the box. Booth entered the box and waited for the right moment to strike.

President Lincoln sat in a rocking chair directly beyond the door and was in the perfect position for Booth. Having only a matter of seconds to act, Booth had to make his attempt count and as he took a step forward, he drew his derringer from his vest. He cocked the hammer on the pistol and slowly approached behind Lincoln.

As he stepped forward, he raised the derringer to Lincoln’s head. Booth was less than two feet away when he squeezed the trigger. The loud explosion came and the lead ball the size of the tip of a finger tore through the back of Lincoln’s head. The President slumped in his chair and Major Rathbone leaped from his seat toward the assassin. While the two struggled, the theater grew quite. The sharp scream let out by Mary Lincoln startled the audience and gave an indication something was terribly wrong.

Besides being armed with the derringer, Booth also had a large knife. He drew the knife and began slashing at Major Rathbone as the major tried to stop him from exiting the box. Rathbone received a deep wound between “the shoulder and elbow.” Booth was able to free himself from the major’s grip and he leaped over the banister of the presidential box and onto the stage. History tells us here that Booth broke his ankle as he landed, but there is evidence to contradict this theory and it is more probable that Booth actually broke his leg when his horse fell while making his escape from Washington.

Upon landing on the stage, Booth regained his balance and ran across the stage shouting “Sic Semper Tyrannis” ("Thus always to tyrants") and exited the back door. Booth’s horse was waiting, so his escape was rather easy. Making his way across town, Booth arrived at the Navy Yard Bridge that goes into Maryland and when he was allowed to pass by Sgt. Cobb, Booth was on the run and the chase for Lincoln’s killer was about to begin.

John Wilkes Booth Gun
John Wilkes Booth's gun

Back at Ford’s Theatre, the President was being looked after by a young army surgeon named Charles Leale. Upon entering the presidential box he later wrote, “As I looked at Lincoln he appeared dead. His eyes were closed and his head had fallen forward.” Leale felt for a pulse but could not find one and chose to lay Lincoln on the floor. As he did so, he saw his hand that had been on the back of the President’s head had blood on it. Not knowing where exactly the wound was or for that matter what exactly caused the wound, Leale used a pen-knife and started cutting away Lincoln’s collar and then split his shirt open from his neck down.

When no wound was found, Leale lifted one of Lincoln’s eyelids and noted the left eye was dilated, which is an indication of a brain injury. Leale ran his fingers through Lincoln’s hair and finally found the wound. Behind Lincoln’s left ear was a small round hole which had begun to clot at this time. Leale carefully removed the clot and suddenly Lincoln began breathing again. “The history of surgery fails to record a recovery from such a fearful wound and I have never seen or heard of any person with such a wound, and injury to the sinus of the brain and to the brain itself, who lived even for an hour,” Leale wrote in his 1909 account. He then stated “His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover.”  

It was suggested by someone in the crowd to move Lincoln to the White House. However, fearing the long and bumpy ride back would cause more damage to Lincoln, that idea was disregarded. Leale knew he had to get Lincoln out of the theater and fast. When Lincoln’s breathing became steady, he would have Lincoln moved “to the nearest house.”

While Leale was tending to Lincoln, two other doctors arrived to help. They were Dr. Charles S. Taft and Dr. Albert F. A. King. Dr. Leale “expressed the desire to have the President taken, as soon as he had gained sufficient strength.” When that time came, Dr. Taft was assigned by Leale to “carry his right shoulder, Dr. King to carry his left shoulder and detailed a sufficient number of others” to assist in carrying the President. They lifted Lincoln’s body and made their way through the heavy crowd and once outside the theater, Lincoln’s body was brought across the street to the home of William Petersen. Petersen had been standing on his porch as Lincoln’s body was brought out and he yelled for them to bring Lincoln inside. Once inside the house, the men carried Lincoln into a small bedroom located at the far end of the hallway.

The bed located in the room was too small for Lincoln’s 6-foot 4-inch frame so he was laid diagonally. The bed was pulled away from the wall as well, making it easier for the doctors to maneuver around the bed since the little room had filled with members of Lincoln’s cabinet. Dr. Leale did his best to make the President as comfortable as possible, knowing there was nothing more that could be done. “It is not probable that the President will live through the night,” wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

The room was ordered cleared by Dr. Leale except for medical personnel who needed to continue to treat Lincoln. When Lincoln’s breathing became labored again another clot was removed from Lincoln’s wound. In Dr. Leale’s 1909 account, he doesn’t say how he removed the blood clots, but in his original 1867 report Leale writes “I passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball…” He continued with “when I removed my finger which I used as a knife an oozing of blood followed…”

Shortly after the assassination, Mary Lincoln sent word to have the President’s personal physician, Dr. Robert King Stone, examine her husband. Dr. Stone stated in May, 1865, “I proceeded to examine the President, and found that he received a gun-shot wound in the back part of the left side of his head, into which I carried my finger.” Historians and students of modern medicine today debate weather Lincoln could have survived his wound had treating doctors not stuck their fingers into his brain. While fingers to the brain most definanitly caused damage and likely infection, chances are the President would have died given due to the medical profession's limited knowledge about brain injuries.  

Secretary Stanton moved to the back parlor and began issuing orders and taking witness statements. Within two hours of taking testimony there was enough evidence to order the arrest of John Wilkes Booth. “It is now ascertained with reasonable certainty that two assassins were engaged in the horrible crime, Wilkes Booth being the one that shot the president,” Stanton wrote. The other assassin, who at this time was not known, was Lewis Thornton Powell, who had attacked Secretary of State William H. Seward the night of Lincoln’s assassination.

As the night wore on, Lincoln’s breathing became labored. At 7:22 a.m., April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died. He was the first President to be assassinated.

The people in the death room were in grim silence. It wasn’t until Stanton asked the doctor to say a few words that the silence was broke. Stanton then spoke his famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Some people closest to Lincoln blamed themselves for allowing him to be killed. General James H. Van Alen, in a letter to the President, asked him not to attend the theater. Lincoln, on the day of the assassination, responded to Alen with a letter. “My Dear Sir: I intend to adopt the advice of my personal friends and use precaution…”

The Chase

The manhunt was well under way by the time the public was notified of Lincoln’s death. Booth along with his co-conspirator David Herold, rode their horses about 13 miles into Maryland to their first stop. The destination was Surratt’s Tavern, owned by Mary Surratt. It was at Surratt’s Tavern that Booth, along with Herold, Powell and John Surratt, Mary’s son, plotted kidnapping Lincoln as recently as March 1865. There Booth and Herold picked up supplies; included were two carbines and shells. Whiskey was also a must for the ailing Booth.

John Wilkes Booth Wanted

After picking up what they needed, the two men rode on and sought out medical treatment for Booth. They arrived at a small community called Beantown and two miles beyond that, was the farm of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth and Herold arrived at the farm around 4 a.m. and knocked on the door, waking the Mudd family. When the door was answered by Mudd, who was dressed in a long nightshirt and holding a candle. Herold spoke first, he explained to the doctor his friend was hurt after his horse fell. A few feet away, sitting on his horse sat Booth.

The two men were asked to step inside and upon examining Booth’s leg, Mudd determined it was broken and asked Herold to help get the injured Booth upstairs to one of the bedrooms. Mudd set Booth’s leg with a splint and allowed him to rest for the night. The two men rested for the night and later in the day of April 15, Dr. Mudd had to ride into town. According to Mudd, it was there he learned of Lincoln’s assassination and then it may have clicked to him about his 4 a.m. visit. Leaving town as quickly as possible without causing suspicion, Mudd went back to his farm.

When Dr. Mudd arrived he told the two men about the soldiers in town and asked the men to leave his farm. Abraham Lincoln was not poplar in the Mudd home, but Mudd did not want to be tied to Lincoln’s murder. However, not wanting to betray Booth, Mudd gave the two men a few names of people that could aid their escape. The two men left and it was not long after that the  Federal authorities had been on the move south and they soon learned Dr. Mudd had treated a person fitting Booth’s description. A search of Mudd’s house revealed a boot with the initials J.W.B scratched on the inside. Dr. Mudd was later arrested and taken into custody for his role in harboring the assassin.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth

Herold, who knew the country better than Booth, led them toward Virginia where they thought they would be safe. Over the next several days, the two men stopped at one of the houses Dr. Mudd had mentioned to them. It was the home of Samuel Cox. Herold knocked on the door while Booth waited on his horse. When Cox answered, he claimed he had a sense something was wrong. After talking to Herold for a few minutes, Cox did not believe what Herold told him. Booth pleaded with Cox for help and finally Cox invited the two men in for rest.

A few hours later, Cox knew it was not safe for his two guests to stay, so he told them he would hide them in a pine thicket. Cox assured the two men they would be safe there and no one would think to look for them there. It had been two days since the assassination and the two fugitives knew they could not stay in one location for long. Cox had his overseer lead the two men to safety and assured them someone would be along to help aid their escape.

At the pine thicket, Booth and Herold tied off their horses and rolled out their blankets on the damp ground. The two men were exhausted from their travels and could not do anything now but wait. When the sun started shining, Booth woke and started writing in his diary.

Thomas Jones, a friend of Samuel Cox, arrived at the pine thicket to aid Booth and Herold. Jones, during the Civil War was a master at navigating the Potomac River. On more than one occasion Jones ran Confederate spies, supplies and mail across the river. Avoiding detectionfrom the patrolling Union Army, Jones was considered one of the better Confederate agents in the Maryland area.

Jones told Booth and Herold he would help them, but they needed to wait until he felt it was safe enough to cross into Virginia. Jones stressed to the two men they must wait in the pine thicket for however long it takes. Booth did not like hearing this, but knew he had little choice.

After five days in the pine thicket, Jones saw the time was right and put his plan in action. After dark on April, 20, Jones met up again with Booth and Herold. He led the two fugitives out of the pine thicket and down a public road, walking slowly and carefully doing their best to avoid detection. Finally, Jones arrived back at his own farm and retrieved food for the men. The men ate and Jones then led them down to the river where a small boat was waiting.

Jones and Herold helped Booth get settled into the boat. Once Herold was in, the two men started off again on their own. Herold grabbed the oars and rowed toward the Virginia shore, two miles away. Herold rowed the boat for more than five hours before realizing something was wrong. At the mouth of a creek the two men could see a farm Herold recognized. The bad news was they were still in Maryland. The two fugitives had been turned around and Herold was exhausted from rowing all night.

Booth was frustrated. Like he had done just after the assassination, he wrote his thoughts down in his diary: “After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun boats till I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every mans (sic) hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; for doing what Brutus was honored for... And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

Herold ended up going ashore and meeting up with a friend, who provided food and sent them on their way. This was Friday, April 21. One the evening of April, 23, Herold made another stop at a person’s home who his last contact mentioned. She was a 39–year-old widow named Elizabeth Quesenberry and she was a Confederate signal agent during the war. She prepared food for Herold, never setting eyes on Booth, and sent Herold away.

After Booth and Herold finished their meal, the two men met up with a man named Thomas Harbin, who arranged to get horses for them. Harbin led the two men to a few more locations before parting company. Booth and Herold were finally in Virginia.

The End of the Chase

 Their next stop was at a small tobacco farm near Port Royal, Virginia, owned by the Garrett family. The farm's owner, Richard Garrett, met the two men and allowed them to take shelter in his barn. However, as the night continued, fearing the two men who he felt acted odd, would steel his horses he locked the barn door. Booth and Herold were trapped. Little did anyone know, Federal troopers were only three miles away.

The 12-day chase was finally drawing to the end for the escaped assassin and his co-conspirator. On April 26, 1865, Federal troops arrived at the Garrett farm before sunrise. Booth and Herold remained hidden in the barn refusing to come out. Finally, Herold surrendered, but Booth would not. Given several chances to surrender, a trooper set the barn on fire. Booth, who had in his hands a carbine, raised it as if to shoot. Sergeant Boston Corbett, who was peering into the barn was able to see Booth raise the rifle, fired his pistol and struck Booth in the neck. Booth dropped to the ground, seriously wounded.

The bullet passed through a cervical vertebra, severing the spinal cord and paralyzing Booth. The troopers had no orders to kill Booth, so every effort was to be made to make sure he would be brought back to Washington and stand trial. A doctor was sent for and he arrived shortly after dawn. Booth was still alive, but was fading fast. After examining Booth, the doctor determined there was nothing that could be done. The assassin of President Lincoln was going to die from this wound. Shortly after 7 a.m. John Wilkes Booth died.

Meanwhile back in Washington, while awaiting news from the troopers about Booth, several arrests had been made. Mary Surratt, the owner of the bar where the kidnap plot against Lincoln was planned, had been arrested on April, 17, along with Lewis Powell who was assigned by Booth to kill Secretary of State William Seward. Seward survived the attack, but just barely.

Vice President Andrew Johnson was also a target of assassination. His would-be assassin, George Azterodt, backed out at the last minute and instead of killing Johnson, got drunk. Five days later, in the early morning hours of April 20, Azterodt was arrested. One thing that gave Azterodt away was he talked in depth of Lincoln’s assassination to several people and seemed to know more than what had been reported by the press.

With Booth dead and Herold, Surratt, Powell and Azterodt now in custody at the Old Capitol Prison, the government had the task of building its case against the conspirators.

The Trial

Assassinating Abraham Lincoln was only part of Booth’s plan to cripple the United States government in revenge for his beloved southern states. By the time the trial of all the conspirators began, it was revealed that not only was President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward a target, but so was Vice President Andrew Johnson and General of the Armies Ulysses S. Grant. Out of the group of conspirators, Booth was the only one who carried out his part of the plan.

What saved Grant from his own attempted assassination was he had a change of plans on the afternoon of April 14, and instead left town with his wife to see their kids. Secretary William Seward barely survived his attack by Lewis Powell. Powell, who had viciously attacked Seward along with several people in Seward’s house, disappeared into the night after he thought he killed his target. He was arrested the same night of Mary Surratt when he showed up at her tavern as she was being questioned by Federal authorities.

The trial of the conspirators took place in front of a military commission at the order of Edwin M. Stanton. Rather than take the time and try them one at a time, it was chosen one trial for all the conspirators would be quicker. Stanton argued by using a military tribunal the government would be in total control of the proceedings and deliver the much needed justice the people wanted for the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.

The trial commission met for the first time on May 10, 1865, at 10 a.m. During the opening remarks by the commission, President Andrew Johnson’s executive order establishing the commission was read followed by the charges being brought against the defendants. Each one of the defendants had specific charges but all of them were charged with conspiring to murder Abraham Lincoln.

The taking of testimony began on May 12 and continued until June 29. A total of 49 days and over 366 witnesses gave testimony about what they knew either about the defendants or what they had been witness to.

On the third day of trial, two lawyers for the defendants rose and spoke against the use of a military trial when the civilian courts were open. It was argued by Mary Surratt’s attorney, Reverdy Johnson that the military had no jurisdiction and since all of the defendants were civilians, not soldiers and the trial should not be heard in front of the military. The commission overruled the objections and ordered the trial to continue as scheduled.

On June 30, 1865 the military commission ruled as follows: Lewis Thornton Powell, charged with conspiracy and the attempted assassination of Secretary William Seward, was found guilty and sentenced to death. David Herold was charged with conspiracy and aiding Booth on his 12-day escape after the assassination, was found guilty and sentenced to death. George Atzerodt, charged with conspiring with Booth to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson,was found guilty and sentenced to death. Mary Surratt, the boardinghouse owner, was charged with conspiring with Booth and according to Vice President Andrew Johnson, “keeping the nest that hatched the egg,” was found guilty and sentenced to death. All four were hanged on July 7, 1865.

Dr. Samuel Mudd was charged with conspiring and aiding Booth, during his escape. Mudd was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Two years after starting his prison sentence and outbreak of Yellow fever broke out. Mudd, who was the only doctor did his best to treat all the sick people, which included guards. After the epidemic subsided, all the people who survived petitioned President Andrew Johnson to release Dr. Mudd. President Johnson in February of 1869, granted the pardon and Mudd returned home in Maryland where he lived until his death from pneumonia on January 10th, 1883.




Basler, Roy P., ed- The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. 9 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

Leale, Charles. Lincoln’s Last Hours. 1909 account.

Rhodehamel, John, and Louise Taper, eds. Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Schoonover, Cal. In Jumping broke my Leg: Another look at the Lincoln Assassination Legend., 2014.

Steers, Edward. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

--The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. The University of Kentucky Press, 2003.

U.S War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1890-1901.

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