The Death of Lincoln


This was Dr. Phillip C. Stone’s presentation at the 2015 Bridgewater College Civil War Institute at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia on March 21, 2015.

He compared the tone of the country at the time of Lincoln’s assassination to the tone of the country at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  He said they were very similar.

John Wilkes Booth originally intended to kidnap Lincoln in 1864 and the early part of 1865.  The idea was to trade Lincoln for confederate prisoners being held in Union prisons.  When they were doing the planning, Lincoln was riding back and forth between the Soldiers’ Home and Washington without attendants.  He walked around Washington without anyone with him.  His reluctance to have security around him was very much affected by the humiliation he suffered when he came into Washington for his first inauguration.  There was such certainty of an assassination plot against him he had to be snuck in on a different train than the one he was supposed to come in on.  He was ridiculed for it, so he didn’t want that to happen to him again.  Secretary of War Stanton really forced security on Lincoln.  Also, Ward Lamon, a lawyer who had been born in Winchester, Virginia and had moved to Illinois and was practicing law there was a good friend of Lincoln’s.  The two had tried cases together in Illinois.  Lincoln made him the US Marshal for the District of Columbia, and Lamon served as a kind of a personal bodyguard.  Lamon was generally fussy about security, but Lincoln generally had no security when this first started.  Because of a time when Lincoln’s hat was shot off that scared them enough, he started having soldiers travel with him.

The plan to kidnap Lincoln was eventually abandoned.  At Mary Surratt’s boarding house on Eighth Street in Washington, the conspiracy was discussed, all the conspirators in the eventual murder at one time boarded there except Booth, but he spent time there talking to people.  John Wilkes Booth did assassinate Abraham Lincoln on April 14 at Ford’s Theatre.  Lewis Powell, who was with him, almost killed Secretary of State Seward and then ran.  George Atzerodt was instructed to kill Vice President Johnson and got far enough to reserve a room in the same hotel where Johnson was staying but chickened out and ran away.  David Herold was supposed to run a kind of shotgun for Powell when he was trying to kill Seward because Powell didn’t know his way around Washington or how to get out of Washington.  Herold heard all the screaming and yelling in Seward’s house and he got scared and ran, joining up with Booth later and never did help Powell get out of town.

Booth, while he was escaping, jumped on stage and said something.  Versions differ, but maybe sic semper tyrannis or maybe the south is avenged.  It’s said he broke his leg jumping off the presidential box because his heel got caught in the bunting.  He was treated by Dr. Samuel Mudd.  Booth and Herold eventually escape and make their way with help over a period of twelve days into Virginia at Bowling Green to the Garrett Farm.  There they spent one night in the house and the next day they were asked to go to the barn because the Garretts had learned of the assassination and they weren’t sure what Booth’s intentions were and what he was up to.  They didn’t want him in the house because of that, and they locked the barn so he couldn’t steal their horses.  He was surrounded by Federal forces and Herold surrendered and came out of the barn.  Booth wanted to have a gunfight.  He was eventually shot by Boston Corbett against instructions.  Corbett said he thought Booth was getting ready to fire a gun at people.  The barn caught on fire.  Booth was pulled out, paralyzed, and died on the scene.

Dr. Stone next asserted that when Grant came east to be the General-in-Chief, prisoner exchanges were halted which caused the number of prisoners to soar.  Here he’s wrong.  The prisoner exchanges were halted by Stanton in the fall of 1863, well before Grant came east.

There were a number of schemes regarding freeing confederate prisoners held in the North.  Booth’s plot originally involved kidnapping Lincoln on his way to the Soldiers’ Home, and he discussed this with Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Lauglin, both from the Baltimore area, but eventually there was too much security around Lincoln.  Booth then came up with the idea of kidnapping Lincoln in Washington, but Arnold and O’Lauglin thought that was a bad idea.  As late as March 17, three to four weeks from the assassination, Booth, Mary Surratt’s son John Surratt Jr., Arnold, and O’Lauglin meet in a restaurant to discuss how they could go to a hospital where Lincoln is scheduled to go to see a play put on to entertain the troops.  They find out at the last minute, though, that Lincoln canceled his plans to go to that hospital because of a competing meeting he has to attend.  By this time the prisoner exchange has been restored, but there are still a lot of confederate prisoners they’d like to free.

During the time they’re working on the kidnapping plot, Booth makes contacts they’ll need to have a path of escape.  Southern Maryland is his choice because there are a lot of confederate partisans in that area.  It was a hotbed of confederate sympathizers, Samuel Mudd among them.  When Booth was trying to set up safe houses and contacts one of the places he went to was Lloyd’s Tavern in Surrattsville, which actually belonged to Mary Surratt.  Her husband had died in 1862 and she had tried to run the tavern after he died.  She decided it wasn’t going very well so she moved into Washington to another property her husband had owned.

In early March, Booth went to New York and bought multiple guns and daggers, took them to Lloyd’s Tavern, and had them kept there.  He met with Samuel Mudd at least three times before the assassination.  One time was December 23 in Washington where Mudd met with Booth and John Surratt Jr. to discuss the kidnapping scheme.

Booth had two characteristics that would impact his decision making.  First, he was a blatant racist.  Second, he loved the south.  At the end of March, Booth realizes he’s losing a couple of conspirators.  John Surratt Jr. brings in Atzelrodt who is a ferryman and can take them across the water.  Then they found Lewis Powell, sometimes called Paine, who was a drifter at the time, about 21, strong and athletic-looking.  Booth realizes Arnold and O’Lauglin weren’t really part of the plot anymore.  Booth manipulated them to let them know that he had planted evidence to incriminate them, but tells them the plot is off.

Richmond falls and Lincoln goes to Richmond.  Then Lee surrenders.  Booth gets more panicked because he’s looking for something to do.  He attends Lincoln’s inauguration.  He also hears Lincoln’s final public address where he calls for limited black suffrage.  Booth is outraged, saying “That means [n-word] citizenship!”  He sends Mary Surratt and her daughter to Lloyd’s Tavern.  She claimed it was only to collect debt, but one of the boarders said he went with her and testified she said, “Have the guns ready for later.”  That was the 11th of April.  Mary Surratt was about 42 years old.  Atzelrodt was about 40.  Samuel Arnold was about 31.  They were very much subject to a magnetic personality like Booth’s.

It was an amazing coincidence the assassination came off because Booth didn’t know what Lincoln was doing.  He happened to go by Ford’s Theatre that day to check on his mail and heard Ford say Lincoln was going to be there that night.  With that, the murder plan started.  Lincoln had a busy day meeting with the Cabinet, talking with Grant.  Lincoln asked the Grants to go to the theatre that night, but Grant made the excuse that they wanted to visit their children in New Jersey.  They asked a number of others, but finally, Clara Harris and Major Rathbone agreed to go.

Booth goes to the anteroom of the Presidential box and makes a hole in the door with his knife so he can look in to see where Lincoln is sitting.  He finds a board he can use to jam the door to the outside balcony.  He calls Atzelrodt and Powell together and gives then their assignments.

Lincoln is a bit late, people stand to applaud.  Lincoln has no security.  There is a person there but he’s just a messenger.  Booth shows him his card and the person waves him in.  The marshal assigned to Lincoln is only responsible for getting Lincoln to and from the theatre, not to provide security in the theatre.  Lamon is out of town.  Booth had no difficulty.  Booth knew the theatre well enough he left his horse in the back, having Edman Spangler hold the horse.  When he jumped, there was not one opinion about what happened.  People couldn’t get it straight.  Some people thought the shot was part of the play.  Some said Booth said sic semper tyrannis, other said he said the south is avenged.

Lincoln was taken across the street to the Peterson House, which is where he died.  Booth gets across the Anacostia Bridge into Southern Maryland.  He meets up with Powell and they get to the tavern.  Booth got to Samuel Mudd to get his leg fixed.  Mudd claimed he didn’t know who Booth was, but he had met Booth three times.  Mudd took Booth’s boot off to fix his leg and JWB was inscribed on the boot.  Booth makes it across the Potomac to Virginia, makes his way to the Garrett Farm where he’s shot and he dies.

There’s a claim that Booth wasn’t in the barn and lived past 1900.  That’s nonsense.  Mary Surratt had some guilt but whether she deserved to hang is problematic.  The evidence at that time overwhelmed everyone.  The military tribunal voted to recommend clemency for her, but Andrew Johnson claimed he never saw it.  Samuel Mudd was sent to prison and Johnson paroled him on his way out of office in 1869.  All the surviving conspirators were paroled in 1869.

There are a number of conspiracy theories that don’t hold water, including the idea that it was a conspiracy of Catholics.  So right now we’re left with the orthodox view of the assassination.

The best researcher on the assassination is Ed Steers.  Michael Kauffman wrote a great book on Booth and the conspiracy, American Brutus.  James Swanson also has an excellent book, Manhunt.

This was a pretty good presentation delivered in a folksy, easy manner.


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