On April 14, 1865, the 16th President of the United States of America – Abraham Lincoln – was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln’s assassination was part of a larger plot meant to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward, ultimately throwing the government into disarray.
Read on to learn more about the series of events that surrounded the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The Last Speech
A few weeks prior to Lincoln’s assassination, the Confederate army suffered two major blows. On April 3, Richmond, Virginia – the Confederate capital – fell to the Union Army. On April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant after the Battle of Appomattox Court House.
The crumbling of the Confederacy deeply affected John Wilkes Booth, at the time a prominent actor and well-known Confederate supporter. A member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, Booth was said to have been in the audience when Lincoln gave a speech promoting the right for African Americans to vote. In a letter, Booth responded to Lincoln’s speech: “…That is the last speech he will ever give.”
Booth had already convinced a group of supporters to plan the kidnapping of Lincoln; however, it was at this point Booth decided something more decisive needed to occur. According to Booth’s plot, he was to kill Lincoln and Grant at Ford’s Theatre. Lewis Powell was assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home. George Atzerodt was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel. Booth recruited David. E. Herold to help guide the group to a rendezvous point. Only Booth was successful.
Shortly after 10:00 p.m. on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth snuck into the President’s box and fired into the back of Lincoln’s head. Booth then stabbed Major Henry Rathbone, a guest of Lincoln, before escaping over the balcony and across the stage. Once in the alleyway, Booth fled on horseback. Neither Powell nor Atzerodt were successful in their attempts. Powell was unsuccessful due to a faulty firearm and Atzerodt due to getting too intoxicated at the bar in the Kirkwood Hotel.
The Flight and Capture
Lincoln’s assassination would lead to the largest manhunt in U.S. history. After killing Lincoln, Booth escaped the theatre and fled into Maryland. Thousands of federal troops were employed to capture Booth, as he fled south into Virginia. Booth, along with co-conspirator David Herold, were ushered through Zekiah Swamp and were given sanctuary by a tobacco farmer in King George County, Virginia.
On April 26, as Booth and Herold were asleep in a barn, the 16th New York Cavalry surrounded both men and set fire to the barn. Herold surrendered immediately. Booth escaped through the back door. As he was planning his next move, Sergeant Boston Corbett snuck around to the back of the barn and shot Booth in the back of the head. As he lay dying, Booth muttered, “Tell my mother I die for my country.”
In the proceeding weeks, many more conspirators were arrested. While many would be released on lesser charges, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt were sentenced to death. On July 7th, all three were hanged.
Lincoln’s death was felt across the nation—a testament to Lincoln’s legacy and the major mark his assassination left on American history.