As the American Civil War looked to be coming to an end, famed actor and Southerner John Wilkes Booth determined that he must do something to help the cause. He had sworn to his concerned mother that he would not join as a soldier, yet he wrote her, “I have begun to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence.” While he would not go back on his word, he decided that the war could be fought with civilian hands in a more untraditional fashion. He began a conspiracy with fellow sympathizers to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln in March of 1865. The plans to kidnap Lincoln had all gone awry due to poor intelligence, and, upon hearing a speech by Lincoln encouraging the extension of the vote to freed slaves, Booth decided to go all out.
Booth wrote in his diary that “something decisive and great must be done.” Not only would he assassinate the president, but his coconspirators would kill the vice-president and secretary of state as well, decapitating the government. On Good Friday, picking up his mail from his box at Ford’s Theater, he happened to learn from the owner’s brother that the president and General Ulysses S Grant would be attending Our American Cousin that night.
Booth called his the band of assassins together and ordered Alabaman Lewis Powell, just days shy of his twenty-first birthday, to kill Secretary of State William Seward. Powell refused, saying he had only volunteered for kidnapping. Booth began a long and passionate speech, noting the horrors of war that the Union had performed upon the South and the duty of vengeance for them. Powell conceded, and the other conspirators were fired up by Booth’s rhetoric. George Atzerodt, a German immigrant who had settled in Maryland as a child, was to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Fellow Marylander David Herold would act as guide for Powell and then manage the escape after the quartet reached the rendezvous outside of Washington, D.C.
The assassinations were performed with intensity and efficiency. Powell and Herold went to the Seward residence just after 10 PM, knocking as casually as a messenger. Powell talked his way past the butler, claiming to have medicine for Seward, who had recently been treated after a carriage crash. Seward’s son Frederick tried to stop him, and Powell leaped forward with his Bowie knife, stabbing Frederick deeply in the chest. Frederick’s sister Fanny opened the door to complain of the noise disturbing their father and found Powell in a sudden bloodlust. Powell shoved her aside and stormed into the room, drawing his revolver to shoot Seward as he lay in bed. He meticulously shot the other patrons in the room, Seward’s nurse Sergeant George F. Robinson and his other son Augustus. On the way out of the house, Powell found Herold scuffling with a legitimate late-night messenger. Powell killed the messenger, and the two escaped Washington with Herold at the lead.
Before the assassinations, Atzerodt had rented a room at the Kirkwood Hotel, Johnson’s residence while the vice-president was in Washington. Atzerodt was tempted to spend the evening in the bar but, as he lived precisely one floor above, determined to wait until 10:15, listening for the Johnson’s movement. When the prescribed time arrived, he walked calmly downstairs and knocked on the door. Johnson himself answered, and Atzerodt stabbed him with his knife. He then fled, leaving the knife where it had struck the vice-president.
Booth was the only hiccup in the evening as his intelligence once again had proved faulty. Due to Mrs. Grant’s dislike of the First Lady, the Lincolns had gone to the theater with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. Nonetheless, Booth struck at 10:25, giving a card to the usher, who showed him to the presidential box. Booth barricaded the outer door to the box and waited for the cue “sockdologizing” to act: the roar of laughter from the crowd covered up the sound of his derringer’s shot. Major Rathbone jumped to stop Booth from escaping, but Booth planted his knife firmly into Rathbone’s arm before leaping from the box to the stage. One of his spurs became caught, making him land off-balance. Always the performer, Booth cried out “Sic semper tyrannus!” to the 1,700 people in the crowd and fought his way through the chaos to his horse.
The assassins met successfully at their rendezvous and fled into Maryland. Herold guided them in the night, going on even as Booth refused to stop for treatment to his leg after the fall. They crossed the river into Virginia and disappeared.
The Union was filled with despair over the lost leaders and anger that the assassins had escaped. Any connections to the conspirators were arrested and thoroughly interrogated, leading to the execution of Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where many of the conspiracy meetings had taken place. Many called the execution unfair, but the North howled for blood. The new government, largely Radical Republicans under Lafayette Foster, treated the South as an area of military occupation rather than states in reconstruction. Freedman laws and punishments for former Confederates were enforced by Federal troops, who themselves turned corrupt with power.
While many Southerners initially despised Booth and his men for their cowardly actions, they came to hate the North further. Secret societies such as the Ku Klux Klan began guerrilla raids prompted by Booth, who became a wandering speaker whose left-legged limp became a trademark and a clandestine sign for fellow rebels. The violence earned more ire from the North, who began relocating criminals to camps in the Dakotas. As the South burned, many Southerners fled, ex-Confederates to Latin America or South Africa and Freedmen to the North or to protected cities where soldiers stood guard against routine attacks and arson. The violence turned generational with deadly bombings and costly sabotage lasting well into the twentieth century until purges and propaganda during the World War finally ended the Southern revolt.