With the end of the Civil War, many of the Confederacy felt a relief of no longer having to fight, but also a righteous indignation of not having their needs met—or at least heard—by the Federal Government. One such man, a noted Shakespearean actor, chose to take matters into his own hands. His voice would be heard, and he would make sure that history would remember him.
John Wilkes Booth was a strong proponent of the cause against abolition. In fact, on December 2, 1859, Booth attended the hanging of John Brown, noted abolitionist. When the War broke out in 1861, Booth’s home state of Maryland gave murmurings of secession. If Maryland had successfully left the Union, that would have left the Nation’s capital a veritable island in the midst of the Confederacy—something that could have given the Confederacy a distinct upper hand. Realizing the situation, Lincoln removed the writ of habeas corpus, and instituted martial law—arresting any and all Marylanders who were in favor of Maryland cessation.
Booth, himself, was very pro-Confederacy; the rest of his family, however, were divided on the matter. He continued to be a prominent actor in the south, travelling into North and South Carolina and as far west as New Orleans, Louisiana, refusing to work in the Northern states. His hatred for Lincoln was well known, and, upon an arrest in St. Louis, he was quoted as saying he “wished the President and the whole damned government would go to hell.”1 He was later released after he took an oath of allegiance with the North and paid a hefty fine.
The Kidnap Plot
Booth blamed Lincoln for the War and, subsequently, the rest of the South’s problems. Booth also had made a promise to his mother that he would not enlist in the army, therefore, he felt helpless to do anything for the Southern cause. With those thoughts in mind, the looming election of 1864 (which seemed to favor Lincoln), and the imminent end of the Civil War (which also seemed to favor the North), Booth became increasingly frustrated and agitated. He began to devise a plan in which he would kidnap Lincoln from his summer home and smuggle him into Richmond. Once behind the Confederate lines, negotiations could open up that would see the release of southern POW’s, as well as a redress of southern grievances before Congress. When Lincoln won re-election in 1864, Booth traveled to Montreal—a hub of secret Confederate activity.
Lucy Hale had caught Booth’s attention and the two started up a love affair. Booth kept their romance a secret and they became engaged to be married. Not only was their romance less than public knowledge, but Booth managed to keep his political views a secret from his lovely fiancé. Why would he do such a thing, you may wonder. Because Lucy Hale was the daughter of U.S. Senator John P. Hale, of New Hampshire. When Lincoln won re-election in 1864, Booth was at the inaugural address as the guest of his secret fiancé, Lucy Hale. No attempt was made at the inauguration, however, Booth remarked that he could have assassinated the President, had he desired.
March 17, 1865, Lincoln was to attend a performance of the play Still Waters Run Deep at a hospital near Soldier’s Home, his summer residence. Booth assembled his team with the intent to intercept and kidnap Lincoln on his way to the hospital. Lincoln, however, never showed. He had changed his plans last minute. Booth later learned that Lincoln had been staying at the National Hotel in Washington where Booth also had a room.
The Assassination Plan
April 9, 1865, saw the end of the Civil War with the surrender of Lee to Grant in Virginia. Grant and the Army of the Potomac had captured Richmond, rendering the kidnap plan no longer feasible. Enraged, Booth confided in his friend, Louis Weichmann, that he was giving up theatre and the only play he would pursue was Venice Preserv’d. Weichmann did not understand the significance at the time, but Venice Preserv’d was a play about an assassination.
April 11, Lincoln gave an impromptu speech from the White House regarding his granting suffrage to the slaves. Booth declared that speech would be Lincoln’s last. April 14, Booth went to Ford’s Theatre to get his mail and learned that the President and Mrs. Lincoln along with General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant would be in attendance that night for the play, Our American Cousin. Booth began to put his plan into effect. He informed three others of his plan and assigned one to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, another to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson, and the third to assist in their escape to Virginia.
Because Booth was a well known and popular actor, he had been granted access to every part of Ford’s Theatre. Earlier in the day of April 14, he had drilled a hole in the door of the Presidential box in order to view that his target had, in fact, arrived later in the evening. About 10pm, he went to the box, checked his target, then entered and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Major Henry Rathbone had accompanied the Lincolns that night and lunged at the assassin. Booth stabbed him and lept from the box to the stage, then retreated to his horse into the South.
The assassination threw the theatre and the Nation into chaos. A $100,000 reward was issued for the capture of Booth. The government wanted to take him alive. Finally, on April 26, Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger learned that Booth was hiding at the Garrett Farm along with the one assigned to assist in his escape, David Herold. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused. To that end, the barn was set on fire and Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him in the neck. Booth was pulled from the inferno and later died on the steps of the Garrett house.
Aftermath & Conclusion
Booth’s goal was for immortality and Southern domination. He thought, originally, by kidnapping the President, he would be able to assist the South in negotiating terms for the President’s release and gain the redress the South desired. When that plan was thwarted, his plan of assassination—were it completely carried out—would have left the Union severely crippled and may have given the South an upper hand in having their issues acknowledged, if not resolved. Of course, many have speculated on what the Nation would be like today if the South would have won the war or if Booth’s assassination plot had been fully executed. We will never know.
For further reading, please see the following articles:
John Wilkes Booth
The Lincoln Papers
Eye Witness History