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Abraham Lincoln Assassination - Background

The American Civil War, which was waged from 1861 to 1865, took the lives of over 600,000 Americans on both sides of the battlefield. The “War Between the States” also led to the assassination of the nation’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.

Born in Kentucky on February 12, 1809, Lincoln grew up in that state and Indiana. He became a lawyer and served as a legislator in Illinois before entering and winning the 1860 presidential election. Shortly after his swearing-in in 1861, the Civil War broke out, dividing the country into the North, or Union, and South, or Confederacy. Citizens of the Union elected Lincoln to a second term in 1864, and the official end of the Civil War closely followed his second inauguration. The work of reuniting the country, referred to as Reconstruction, would begin under Lincoln.

However, not everyone was satisfied with the outcome of the Civil War. One man in particular, stage actor John Wilkes Booth, was incensed that the South had lost the war. Booth was born in Maryland on May 10, 1838, making him technically a Northerner by birth. During the Civil War, Maryland held the ambiguous status of “border state. “ Since it never seceded from the Union, Maryland was a Northern state; however, many of the values of its population, including the owning of slaves, were more in line with the Confederacy. Booth was one of the citizens of Maryland who favored the Confederacy and worked as a spy for the South for some time.

Originally, Booth planned to kidnap Lincoln and use the President as a bargaining tool to obtain the release of a number of Confederate soldiers taken prisoner during the Civil War. He changed his plans to assassination after Lincoln’s speech on April 11, 1865, during which the President spoke in favor of equal education for blacks and whites and of granting blacks the right to vote. Along with two co-conspirators, George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell, Booth planned to assassinate Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward on April 14, 1865.

The conspirators laid out their plan carefully. Booth was to kill Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre as the President and First Lady attended the play “Our American Cousin.” As a known actor, Booth could gain easy access to the theater, including the areas typically off-limits to the public. Booth planned to kill Union General Ulysses S. Grant as well, but Grant had left Washington, DC and so would be spared. Atzerodt was assigned to kill Johnson and Powell’s duty was to kill Seward. Afterwards, the three were to flee the city and reunite in Maryland. As darkness fell, the killers assumed their positions, readying themselves for a near-simultaneous strike at approximately 10 PM.

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