Why Abraham Lincoln Was Assassinated


The Civil War broke out on April 13, 1861, when Confederate forces under P.G.T. Beauregard captured the Union bastion of Fort Sumter. The attack on Fort Sumter followed the secession of South Carolina from the Union in December of the previous year. Two days later, in response to this attack, President Abraham Lincoln declared that secession was unconstitutional and was, “an insurrection against the laws of the United States.”

During the course of the war, in the aftermath of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This freed the enslaved peoples in the states that were in rebellion. Lincoln also called upon African-American men to serve in the armed forces during the Civil War. In addition to this, Lincoln had many African-American visitors to the White House. This was a tradition that would not be followed by subsequent presidents. However, while Lincoln was in the White House, he welcomed African-Americans into the White House.

Near the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln successfully pushed for the passage of the 13th amendment, permanently bringing an end to slavery in the United States. Finally, Lincoln, when addressing Reconstruction, stated the intent to give African-Americans the right to vote.

This push for suffrage for African-Americans is what ultimately set Booth’s plan in motion and why Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The tragic demise of Abraham Lincoln is one of the biggest turning points in American history. In this article, we will analyze how and why Booth made his plan and how Booth executed it.

A Plan to Capture the President

While the Civil War raged, in August of 1864, John Wilkes Booth began his plot to kidnap President Lincoln. Booth recruited Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen to join his plot to “save the slipping fortunes of the Confederacy.” The goal of the plan was to capture Lincoln and take him to Richmond. The hope was to trade for a large number, or all, of the Confederate POWs in exchange for President Lincoln.

Booth originally planned to capture the president en route from the White House to the Soldiers’ Home. Both of his co-conspirators agree with the plan. Unaware to Booth, however, was the fact that Lincoln had agreed to travel with a security detail. Booth’s plan began to change as he started to plan using a theater to execute his plan. As Booth was formulating his plan, he struggled to find a way to get the president from Maryland to Richmond. To attempt to find someone to help him with this task, he traveled to Montreal, Canada.

A Trip to Canada

Montreal, at that time, was nicknamed “Little Richmond” due to the wealth of Confederate supporters there. Here, Booth gained the backing of two Confederate agents and $1,500. These agents also put Booth in contact with Dr. Samuel A. Mudd to help with the transport of Lincoln. They equipped Booth with a letter to give Mudd which Booth did in November of 1864. Mudd put Booth in contact with John H. Surratt Jr.

Surratt subsequently recruited two more men to join the plot: George Atzerdot and David Herold. Azerdot offered knowledge of the Potomac River and Herold had chloroform to be used during the kidnapping. Herold was also very familiar with southern Maryland. The last addition to the plot was Lewis Powell. Powell was to be used as muscle during the plot to capture the president. Booth then began having meetings in D.C. at a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt, John’s mother.

The Theater

Booth began convincing the others that a theater was the ideal location to execute their plan. Booth’s idea was to kidnap Lincoln on January 18, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre. Due to difficulty in the plan, lack of planning, and Lincoln not showing up at Ford’s Theatre that night, the plan was canceled.

A Far More Sinister Plot

As time passed, the plan morphed from a plan to kidnap to a much more sinister one: a plan to kill. This plan to murder the president really took shape on March 4 after Lincoln’s second inaugural address. After the address, Booth stated, “What an excellent chance I had to kill the president, if I had wished, on inauguration day.” However, the rest of Booth’s crew was not convinced of this plan to murder Lincoln and came up with another plan to kidnap the president on March 17. However, this plan, like the previous one, failed due to Lincoln not showing up at Ford’s Theatre.

Why Abraham Lincoln Was Killed

For Booth, the decision to kill President Abraham Lincoln became clear on April 11, 1865. It was that day that Lincoln gave what would become his last address to the public. In this speech, Lincoln covered his plans for Reconstruction. These plans included giving African-Americans the right to vote. Booth, who was there to hear the speech, was outraged by African-Americans’ enfranchisement and stated, “Now, by God, I will put him through. That will be the last speech he will ever make!”

The Plot Widens

It was that month that the plan originally just focused on Lincoln turned into a plan to get Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and Ulysses S. Grant. The reason the targets expanded was to create panic and disorder by taking out the northern leaders. Then, just three days after Lincoln’s speech, at 11:00 a.m., John Wilkes Booth went to Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. There he picked up his mail and also learned from Henry Clay Ford, the ticket agent, that President Lincoln would be in attendance for the play that night. The play was Our Americans Cousin. Booth immediately set out planning the murder of the president.

John Wilkes Booth Begins His Plan

Booth’s first step was to rent a horse. The horse he rented came from James W. Pumphrey’s stable. This stable was located on C Street. He then visited the house where Vice President Andrew Johnson was staying called Kirkwood House. Here he left a note to determine where Vice President Andrew Johnson was at. After this, John Wilkes Booth met up with others to continue to figure out how they would pull off their deadly plan. Booth met in the afternoon with Mary Surratt. The pair met a minimum of three times and Surratt received a package from him with binoculars. Surratt took the package with the binoculars to the boarding house she owned and told the tenant there, John M. Lloyd, to prepare the package along with a pair of carbine rifles and whiskey to be picked up that day.

At 7:00 p.m. on the evening of the 14th, Booth then met with his co-conspirators Atzerodt, Powell, and Herold at the Herndon House. The plan that came of the meeting was that Booth would kill Lincoln and, possibly, Grant. Atzeroft would kill Johnson and Powell and Herold would kill Seward. Fortunately for Grant, Ulysses and his wife, Julia, did not attend the theater that night and instead went to New Jersey.

Lincoln and Mary Lincoln Arrive at Ford’s Theater

Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln arrived at the theater at 8:30 p.m., half an hour after the play started. The couple’s arrival during the middle of the first act caused the show to stop. The crowd stood and the band played ‘Hail to the Chief.” After this, W. Henry “Harry” Hawk, an actor on stage, stated, “ This reminds me of a story, as Mr. Lincoln says.” President Lincoln sat in a red rocking chair on the left side of the presidential box next to Mary Lincoln. Major Henry R. Rathbone and Clara H. Harris were also there.

John Wilkes Booth Arrives at Ford’s Theatre

John Wilkes Booth got to the Baptist Alley, located in the back of Ford’s Theater, at about 9:30 p.m. He then gave his horse to Ned Spangler and asked him to hold it. Spangler then gave the horse to Joseph Burroughs. Booth then headed next door and got whiskey and water. It was around 10:15 to 10:30 that Booth went over to Ford’s Theater armed with a single-shot .44 caliber Derringer pistol. He also had a 7-inch hunting knife.

While the play was at intermission, John Fredrick Parker, Lincoln’s bodyguard, left Ford’s Theater to get a drink with Charles Forbes, Lincoln’s valet, and Francis P. Burke, the coachman. Forbes certainly returned to the theater after getting a drink, though we do not know if Parker did. Forbes ran into Booth at the door to Lincoln’s presidential box. Booth showed a calling card to Forbes. The two talked briefly and then, at about 10:30 p.m., Booth went into the box during the third act, the second scene. Booth then blocked the door using a wooden brace that he had put in the presidential box earlier in the day.

John Wilkes Booth Executes His Plan

Booth planned to shoot the president during laughter, which he knew would occur due to his familiarity with the play. The shot would happen when Asa Trenchard, who was portrayed by Harry Hawk, would say to Mrs. Mountchessington, “Don’t you know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old man-trap!” When this line was delivered, the laughter began and Booth fired his shot. Lincoln was hit just behind the left ear and the bullet lodged behind the president’s right eye. Rathbone attempted to capture Wilkes Booth but Booth used his knife and cut Rathbone’s left arm.

Sic Semper Tyrannis

Booth then jumped from the presidential box to the stage. However, while doing so, the spurs on Booth’s boots got caught in the Treasury Guard flag. This caused Booth’s landing to be awkward after making the 12-foot jump. It was then that Booth held the knife over his head and stated, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” That was Latin for, “Thus always to tyrants!” It is likely he then also stated, “the South is avenged!” Booth then left out the back of the theater. While making his escape, Rathbone yelled, “Stop that man!” and Army Maj. Joseph B. Stewart nearly caught booth.

Doctors Attend to President Abraham Lincoln

As Booth attempted to escape, an army doctor, Charles A. Leale went up to the president’s box to attend to the wounded Lincoln. They moved Lincoln from the red chair he was seated into the floor. Leale first thought that Booth had stabbed Lincoln. However, upon examining the president, he quickly realized that he had been shot in the head and that the wound was fatal. Another army officer, Dr. Albery F. A. King, second Leale’s opinion.

Believing that Lincoln could not make a trip back to the White House, he was taken to the nearest house. Lincoln was then carried on a makeshift stretcher to the Petersen House across the street. Lincoln was laid on a bed in a room that was situated at the end of the hallway. The occupant of the room was William T. “Willie” Clark. He had been a private in the army but was currently not there.

Lincoln’s Death

Doctors arrived, including Dr. Robert K. Stone, the president’s personal physician. Government officials began arriving and visiting the president and his family. They also began planning the manhunt for Booth. After nearly nine hours, Lincoln passed away at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. When Lincoln died, Stanton then said, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.”

The Attempt on Vice President Andrew Johnson

George Atzerodt, who was supposed to attack Andrew Johnson, took out Room 126 at the Kirkwood House. This was about Johnson’s suite. However, Atzerodt was not able to go through with the plan and drank and wandered through the streets instead.

The Attempt on Secretary of State William Seward

Lewis Powell, unlike Atzerodt, attempted to go through with his plan. Around 10 p.m., with David Herold standing guard, Powell went inside the Secretary of State William Seward’s home. Powell pretended that he was there to give Seward medicine. Powell hit Seward’s son with his gun and knocked him down. He then went upstairs. Powell then hit Sgt. George F. Robinson in the head with the handle of his knife and pushed Fanny A. Seward aside. He then tried to stab Seward four to five times but missed. After this, he cut Seward on the neck and face. Seward, however, was wearing a metal brace on his neck to heal his broken jaw. In response to the fighting, Augustus H. Seward came into the room. Augustus and Powell began to fight. Hearing the yelling from inside, Herold left Powell behind.

While attempting to leave Seward’s home, Powell stabbed Robinson twice in the shoulder and Augustus seven times. While fleeing the scene, Powell stabbed a State Department messenger in the back. No one at Seward’s home died. They all recovered from their wounds.

The Manhunt

After Lincoln was shot, Booth began his getaway attempt. In response, a large movement to find and capture Booth began. The manhunt that followed the shooting of President Lincoln was the largest in the history of the United States. Members of the military began to search for Booth, in addition to civilians. The District of Columbia and Maryland were searched looking for the murderer.

Following the shooting of Lincoln, Col. Lafayette C. Baker helped to restore order. No one was allowed in or out of the city and soldiers were stationed at all forts. The next day, units of soldiers were given the task of catching “all rebel deserters or any suspicious persons.” The army also worked with the police to ensure safety and to catch the conspirators.

A Reward

Then, on April 20, the United States government offered up a reward of $100,000 in total if Booth, Herold, and Surratt were captured. Then, on April 15, Edman Spangler, who was a stagehand at Ford’s Theatre, was placed under arrest. This was due to his connections to Booth. Spangler had formerly worked on Booth’s family’s farm. He also had taken care of Booth’s horse at the theater.

Arrests Are Made

Following Spangler’s arrest, on April 17, Mary Surratt and Lewis Powell were also arrested. It was on the 17th that Smaiel Arnold was also arrested. That day, Michael O’Laughlen also turned himself in to the authorities. Then, police captured George Atzerdot. On April 24, Dr. Samuel Mudd was placed under arrest. John Surratt managed to escape back to Canada.

John Wilkes Booth and Herold Escape

While their co-conspirators were being placed under arrest, Booth and Herold met in Maryland. They planned their escape into Virginia. Half an hour after Booth had killed the president, he had made it to the Navy Yard Bridge. here, he talked his way through the guards and crossed the bridge. Herold followed and they met up around Soper’s Hill. They then traveled to Mary Surratt’s tavern in Surrattsville. It was at this point that Booth picked up the rifles, binoculars, and whiskey. On the morning of April 15, the two arrived at Samuel Mudd’s home around Bryantown, Maryland. Mudd gave Booth medical attention for his leg. After a day at Mudd’s house, the two then went to Zekiah Swamp. Here they received aid from Oswell Swann, a freed African-American tobacco farmer, who guided them to Col. Samuel Cox. Cox showed them to Thomas A. Jones who helped hide the two runaways. They hide in a swamp near Bel Alton from April 16 to 21. 

When they crossed the Potomac, the two accidentally went farther north than they were supposed to. They ended up back in Maryland, near John J. Hughes’ home. Hughes housed the two in his former slave quarters. Here they stayed for 36 hours. Booth and Herold then went across the Potomac River once more and went back to Maryland. They then found Elizabeth R. Quesenberry, Thomas H. Harin, and finally Dr. Richard Stuart.

Stuart would not house the two so they forced William Lucas and his family to abandon their cabin and occupied it. The following day, Charlie Lucas took Booth and Herold to port Conway. Here they met three Confederate soldiers. One of whom, William S. “Willie” Jett, took the pair to Randolph Peyton’s home. He was not there so they traveled to Richard Garrett. They stayed in the farmer’s tobacco shed.

John Wilkes Booth and Herold Are Discovered

On the 24th of April, Colonel Baker put 1st Lt. Edward P. Doherty and twenty-five of the 16th Regiment Cavalry under Everton J. Conger’s command. They knew that Booth and Herold were “somewhere between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers.” Two days later, Doherty and his men reached the tobacco farm where Booth and Herold were stationed. Herold surrendered right away. booth, however, refused.

John Wilkes Booth Dies

They decided to light the barn on fire, hoping to lure Booth out. Booth still refused and as the barn was on fire, Sgt. Thomas “Boston” Corbett “fired his Army-issue Colt revolver into the barn, shooting Booth in the back of the neck and severing his spinal cord.” Corbett claimed he believed that Booth was armed. Booth was removed from the barn and died nearly two hours later on Garrett’s front porch at about 7 a.m.

Works Cited

The Lincoln assassination / by Joseph A. Beard and Shane D. Makowicki

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