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  • Writer's pictureEldon Callaway

Behind Lincoln's Assassination - 1) Booth

Updated: Jan 11, 2020

Abraham Lincoln Photo

Everyone in the nation knows of Lincoln's assassination, but many do not know the events leading up to that fateful evening. In this first blog in a series, I will take a look at the ringleader - John Wilkes Booth.

John Wilkes Booth was born May 10, 1838, in Maryland. He was the ninth of ten children born into a distinguished acting family of the 19th century United States. His emotional instability and egocentricity, in conjunction with his brother Edwin's rise as the foremost actor of the time, kept him from fulfilling his potential as an excellent actor in his own right.

Booth was an outspoken advocate of slavery, a vigorous supporter of the Southern cause, and a member of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle in Baltimore. Though it is not known why Booth hated Lincoln as much as he did, there is some speculation it could have been in part due to the rivalry of his more successful brother, Edwin Booth being a loyal Unionist.

After the suspension of exchanging prisoners of war with the Confederate Army in March of 1864, by the commander of the Union armies, Ulysses S. Grant, Booth conceived plans to kidnap Lincoln. The idea was to blackmail the North into resuming prisoner exchanges to the manpower-starved South. To this end, he recruited Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt.

The winter of 1864-1865 had Booth and Lincoln crossing paths multiple times. Booth had attended Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4th, attaining a position above where Lincoln spoke. In his own diary, Booth commented: "What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on Inauguration day!"

In an odd twist of fate, an attempt to abduct Lincoln on March 17th failed. Lincoln was to attend a play at Campbell Military Hospital. Booth and his conspirators had planned to grab Lincoln as he returned from there. Unbeknownst to them, Lincoln instead attended a ceremony at the National Hotel, the same hotel Booth was living in at the time. Had Booth not gone to the hospital, his conspirators might have kidnapped Lincoln at the hotel.

During this time period, the Confederacy was collapsing. The union Army took the Confederate capital, Richmond, on April 3rd. On April 9th, Robert E. Lee, the General-in-Chief of the Confederate States Army and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, the Commanding General of the United States Army and his Army of the Potomac, after the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Though Confederate officials and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis had fled, Booth continued to seek a way to salvage the Confederate cause.

On the fateful day of April 14th, just after midnight starting that day, Booth wrote his mother that all was well, but he was "in haste". His diary noted "our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done." Around noon of that day, he stopped by Ford's Theatre to pick up his mail, learning that Lincoln and Grant were both to attend the Our American Cousin play that evening. Having performed numerous times at Ford's Theatre, Booth new the layout well and was familiar with the staff. His opportunity to attack Lincoln seemed to have dropped into his lap.

Gathering his band at Mary Surratt's boarding house in Washington, D.C., Booth quickly formulated a plan that would bring the Union to its knees. The grandiose plan included the murder of Secretary of State William Seward, Vice President Andrew Johnson, General Ulysses S. Grant, and President Abraham Lincoln.

Booth's Conspirators

At 6:00 p.m., Booth went to the deserted theatre, tampering with the outer door of the presidential box. This tampering would allow him to jam the door shut from the inside. At 7:00 pm., he met up with his co-conspirators to assign their tasks for the night. Lewis Powell would kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home. David E. Herold's task was to guide Powell to the Seward house and then to a rendezvous location in Maryland with Booth, as Powell was unfamiliar with the area. George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel, and Booth would shoot Lincoln and stab Grant at the Ford's Theatre.

All attacks were to happen simultaneously shortly after ten o'clock that evening. With the details ironed out, with little issue, the conspirators set out to change the world.

(Part 2 will continue with the plans leading up to Lincoln's assassination.)

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