The Assassination of Abe Lincoln

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
The story of President Lincoln’s assassination is largely considered one of the most famous in history. Just five days before his murder, the Confederate leader Robert R. Lee surrendered to Union troops, thus bringing the Civil War to a close with a victory for the North. Lincoln’s death sent shock waves through the country, but little is known about the life of his assassin and the manhunt that followed the attack. Here, we’re taking an in-depth look at the assassination of President Abe Lincoln.
On April 14, 1865, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth entered Ford's Theater, where President Abraham Lincoln was watching a play with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Because of his stature as an actor at the theater, Booth was allowed easy access to the usually heavily guarded halls. Booth snuck into the President’s booth, crept up behind him, and shot him with a single shot from his .44-caliber derringer pistol. Booth leapt from the box, sliding down the stage curtain, yelling “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus ever to tyrants!), and escaped. The crowd applauded, believing it to be part of the act. When Mary let out a piercing scream, they knew this was not part of the play.

Who Was John Wilkes Booth?

Booth grew up in a family of notable actors. He was born in a log cabin on a farm in Maryland in 1838, and was the ninth of ten children. Growing up, Booth was athletic. He was proficient in fencing and horsemanship, but was recalled as never having taken much interest in academics. By age 16, he had forged an interest in acting and politics. He joined the Know Nothing Party for Henry Winter Davis, supporting an anti-immigrant policy during the 1864 elections. At the same time, he was fine-tuning his acting technique and studying Shakespeare.

John Wilkes Booth.His stage debut came at 17 years old, when he played the Earl of Richmond in Richard III. He began performing regularly at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theater under the name “J.B. Wilkes,” hoping to avoid comparison with his family members who were also involved in the theater. In 1858 alone, Booth performed in 83 plays, earning him a steady reputation in the thespian world. By the 1860s, Booth was one of the most popular stage performers. He was just 26 years old. He had visited cities across the country, making appearances in plays where he performed the leading role. His good looks made him widely popular with the crowds. Charming and smart, he was a theatrical heart throb.
 
When the Civil War began, Booth was a strong supporter of the Southern resistance. During a performance in Albany, New York he revealed his admiration for the South’s secession, calling it “heroic.” His audience was enraged, calling his words “treasonous statements,” but their shouts did little to curb his success. When Lincoln was elected, Booth drafted a long statement discrediting the abolitionist movements of the North, but the statement was never published. Booth was reportedly outspoken about his love for the South and hatred for Lincoln within his family, saying he “wished the President and the whole damned government would just go to hell.”
 
When the Civil War broke out, he considered enlisting to fight for the Confederate army. His mother thought otherwise, and eventually convinced him not to. However, as defeat for the South became imminent, Booth took the loss personally. He and a group of co-conspirators decided something had to be done. In late 1864, they devised a plan to kidnap the president. However, the plan was a failure. The president had a last minute change of plans, taking him to a different location than Booth and his cronies had anticipated. After this mishap, Booth forged a new plan, and by April, he was planning to murder the president.

 The Manhunt for Booth

While the nation mourned for their lost president, Union soldiers were hot on the trail of Booth. Badly injured with a broken leg, Booth was in declining health. Despite his physical ailments, he managed to escape the theater. There was no question of his identity, as several people at the theater that night recognized him immediately. Once he fled the capital, he joined accomplice David Herold and fled toward Maryland. They arrived at the home of Doctor Samuel Mudd at four in the morning. The doctor restrained Booth’s broken leg the best he could - an act that would later earn him a life sentence in prison. Mudd had been involved in the plan to kidnap the president, but was not aware that Booth had attempted to murder him.  

The interior of Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C., featuring the infamous presidential box.By now, the largest manhunt in history was well underway with over 1,000 Union soldiers looking for Booth and Herold. The bounty for their capture hovered around $100,000, an amount evaluated at over $2,500,000 today. The fugitives continued on horseback for four days, pausing to hide in Zekiah Swamp when they were alerted to Union soldiers close behind. Herold was familiar with the area due to time spent hunting there and was able to successfully hide the two.
 
The two then hid with Confederate sympathizer Thomas A. Jones. They were gifted food, water, and a place to rest. Booth got his hands on a newspaper that called him “a common cutthroat.” He was dismayed that the report hadn’t called him a hero. They departed, venturing across the Potomac River to Virginia.
 
While hiding out in a farmhouse in rural Virginia, Union soldiers caught up to Booth and Herold. Troops surrounding the building where the two men were sleeping and set fire to it, aiming to force out the runaways. Herold surrendered easily. Booth, however, refused. Finally, when the flames became too much, Booth emerged. He was shot almost immediately. The sergeant who shot him would later claim he saw Booth aiming a gun at the Union soldiers.
 
Booth was removed from the farmhouse alive, but just barely. He lived for three hours following the shooting. His final words were spoken as he looked down at his hands, muttering “useless, useless.” His body was rapidly taken to Washington D.C.’s Old Penitentiary, where he was buried near where his conspirators would be hung not long after. President Andrew Jackson released Booth’s body to his family four years later. Today, he is buried in the Green Mount Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

How We Remember the Assassination Today

Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated. After he was shot, he was carried across the street to a neighboring house, where he died in the early hours of the next morning. He perished just after leading the country through its bloodiest battle in history with more than 620,000 casualties. Today, visitors to Washington D.C. are atounded by the stunning white marble statue of President Lincoln, located at the tip of the National Mall. Tourists gather to pose for pictures with one of the country’s greatest presidents.
 
More books have been written about Lincoln, his presidency, and his assassination than any other president. The life of Booth has sparked immense curiosity over 150 years after the murder took place. Visitors can still visit Ford’s Theater, sit in the main crowd of seats and relive the story of that fateful night as Booth snuck into the President’s box. Booth’s name is forever infamously ingrained in the story of the president’s death. Today, we remember how Lincoln’s presidency was one of the most successful in history, and how it came to a tragic halt.