On this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth in Washington whilst attending ‘Our American Cousin’ at Ford’s theatre.
The assassination occurred just 5 days after the surrender of General Robert E Lee in an attempt to revive the Confederate cause after the victory of the North. Alongside the assassination of the president, co-conspirators Lewis Powell and David Herold were assigned to kill William H Seward whilst George Atzerodt was assigned to target Andrew Johnson; only Booth was successful.
Lincoln was an admirer of the man who assassinated him. I know that, for he said to me one day that there was a young actor over in Ford’s Theatre whom he desired to meet, but that the actor had on one pretext or another avoided any invitations to visit the White House. That actor was John Wilkes Booth.
– Frank Mordaunt
Booth, a proud Confederate sympathiser and famous actor in the north, initially planned to kidnap Lincoln and hand him over to the Confederate army in protest at the suspension of prisoner exchanges that had been initiated in March. On March 17th, Booth became aware of the President’s intentions to attend ‘Still Waters Run Deep’, assembling men to capture the President upon his exit however, the President failed to appear. Deteriorating conditions for the Confederate forces in the following weeks led to the acceleration of plans; shifting to assassination as opposed to abduction. On April 3rd, the Confederate capital of Richmond Virginia fell, signalling the beginning of the end for the Confederate cause. Despite many southerners giving up hope, Booth continued to believe that a solution was possible, with plans to assassinate Lincoln and heads of government to destabilise Union forces and dominance.
That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.
-John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s status as a prominent actor meant access to the President’s booth caused little concern, aided by the lack of bodyguard presence on the night in question. Booth waited until the line thought to be the ‘funniest’ in the play to burst in and shoot the President in order for the gunshot to be muffled by the audience response; opening the door and shooting the President from close range behind his left ear, thus mortally wounding him. Response was delayed, with the audience initially unaware as to what exactly had occurred and allowing for a rapid escape for the perpetrators.
Booth and his fellow conspirators were able to escape as a result of the clear organisation and consideration of events, stimulating the largest manhunt in US history with over 10 000 federal troops alongside civilian volunteers participating in the search. A reward of $100 000 was advertised for the apprehension of conspirators as well as rewards for any information leading to their arrest.
Booth and Herold crossed the Potomac on April 22nd, remaining at Garett’s Farm until April 26th when they were found and identified. Union soldiers surrounded the barn, giving 15 minutes before the barn would be burned down, Such an offer drew Herold out of the barn, yet Booth declared ‘I will not be taken alive!’ before attempting to flee once more; a futile attempt to escape resulting in Booth being shot and killed.
Lincoln was the first US President to be assassinated, holding a long term impact upon the USA, the loss of his presidency mourned throughout the nation across both the north and south. The legacy of Lincoln was of particular significance, proving monumental in forging a path, albeit a long one, towards a more inclusive America.