The Lincoln assassination story is well known: On April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, at point-blank range in the head, at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln died the next morning in the Petersen's boarding house directly across the street from the theatre. Booth escaped—temporarily—but was shot 12 days later in Virginia.
What is lesser known is that Booth did not always plan on killing Lincoln. In fact, the actor’s original plan was not to strike a fatal blow. He wanted to abduct Lincoln, take him to Richmond, and exchange him for Confederate soldiers then held in Union prisons.
Booth sent a message to his brother-in-law, John Clarke Sleeper (changed to "John Sleeper Clarke" as his stage name). In 1859 Clarke became part of the Booth family when he married Asia Booth, John Wilkes Booth's sister. On November 25, 1864, Booth wrote: “My love, as things stand today, is for the South alone. Nor do I deem it a dishonor in attempting to make for her a prisoner of this man to whom she owes so much misery.”
In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant had stopped all prisoner exchange between the Union and the Confederacy in an attempt to decrease the Confederacy's military capability. The Confederacy did not have as much manpower as the Union, so every soldier counted. Booth said as much to would-be co-conspirator John Harrison Surratt Jr.: “We cannot spare one man, whereas the United States government is willing to let their own soldiers remain in our prisons because she has no need of the men. I have a proposition to submit to you, which I think if we can carry out will bring about the desired exchange.”
To carry out his plan, Booth enlisted the help of six men: John Surratt Jr., Samuel Bland Arnold, George Andrew Atzerodt, Michael O'Laughlen, Jr., David Edgar Herold, and Lewis Thornton Powell (aka Lewis Paine or Payne).
They all had a specific skill or knowledge, which made them an asset to the team. Arnold and O’Laughlin were old friends of Booth. Atzerodt was known for helping Confederate spies across the Potomac River. Surratt often helped the Confederate secret service and knew all about the secret routes in Southern Maryland used by Confederate spies to enter and leave Washington. Powell (who worked with the Confederate Secret Service in Maryland) had the physical strength to overwhelm the 6’4” president. Herold knew the poorly mapped routes that existed below Washington D.C.
The men were motivated by an undying loyalty to the Confederacy—something to which even those loyal to the Union might relate, as John Surratt opined years later.
“And now reverse the case. Where is there a young man in the North with one spark of patriotism in his heart who would not have with enthusiastic ardor joined in any undertaking for the capture of Jefferson Davis and brought him to Washington? There is not one who could have not done so. And so I was led on by a sincere desire to assist the South in gaining her independence.”
One plan was to capture Lincoln while he was watching a play in Ford’s Theater on January 18, 1865. They would kidnap the President in his box, lower him onto the stage and carry him out of the theater. This plan was never carried out as some of the men deemed it unfeasible. It so happened that Lincoln changed his plans at the last minute, opting to stay at home instead of going to the theater on a stormy night.
Another plot was to capture the President while he was traveling to the Soldiers’ Home. Located several miles from the White House in what was then the rural Washington County part of the District, the Soldiers’ Home was Lincoln’s main residence during the hot summer months. The President would often take a carriage there with little or no protection, making him a vulnerable target.
These were not the only plots to kidnap Lincoln. Two members of the Confederacy army also had plans to abduct the President. One was Joseph Walker Taylor, the nephew of former president Zachary Taylor. The other was Colonel Bradley T. Johnson. Neither was carried out and it is unknown whether Booth knew about them.
By Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4, 1865, Booth was able to get increasingly closer to his target. In fact, he and his would-be accomplices were able to attend the inauguration as personal guests of Senator John Parker Hale’s daughter, Lucy—who also happened to be one of Booth’s girlfriends. During the day’s events, Booth got close enough to lunge at Lincoln and had to be restrained by police. Though he explained that he had simply stumbled, Booth later mused, “What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on Inauguration day!
Even as they schemed, Booth and his conspirators were on the lookout for new opportunities.
On March 17, 1865, Booth was told the President was going to attending a performance of the play "Still Waters Run Deep" at the Campbell Military Hospital.
As Surratt remembered, “The report only reached us about three-quarters of an hour before the time appointed, but so perfect was our communication that we were instantly in our saddles on the way to the hospital.” The group met at a nearby restaurant to iron out the details. They would stop the carriage as Lincoln returned home after the play, and overpower the President and his driver. Both men would be handcuffed and taken across the Potomac River through Southern Maryland.
“We felt confident that all the cavalry in the city could never overhaul us,” Surrat explained. The group had quick horses, knowledge of the countryside, and had planned of getting rid of the carriage once they were out of D.C.
After the meeting, Booth decided to go to the hospital to make sure everything was set. To his surprise and disappointment, Lincoln was not there. It turned out the President was at a ceremony in the National Hotel.
After this failed attempt, some in the group gave up. As Surratt explained, “We soon after this became convinced that we could not remain much longer undiscovered, and that we must abandon our enterprise.” He left Washington and was in Canada by mid-April. Likewise, Arnold and O’Laughlin left D.C. and returned to their homes in Baltimore. Neither was involved in the assassination.
When he was planning the abduction, Booth showed few signs of wanting to kill the President. Only once did he hint at this when meeting with his group. The idea was turned down quickly and Booth excused himself saying that he “had drunk too much champagne.”
However, after the failure to carry out the abduction plot in March and Union’s capture of Richmond in early April, Booth’s attitude apparently changed. In 1865 Colonel and Brigadier General Thomas Thompson Eckert (the assistant Secretary of War from 1866 to 1867), testified that Powell said Booth showed his intent to murder the President during the celebration that followed the fall of Richmond.
“[On April 11th] The President made a speech that night from one of the windows of the White House" where the president voiced his intention to allow educated and all negro veterans to vote. "Powell and Booth were on the grounds in front,” Ecker said. “Booth tried to persuade him to shoot the President while [Lincoln was] in the window, but he told Booth he would take no such risk." They left then and walked around the square, and that Booth remarked: ‘That is the last speech he will ever make.’”
John Wilkes Booth took his last drink at the Star Saloon, across the street from the Ford's Theatre, fifteen minutes before he shot Abraham Lincoln. Booth and the remaining co-conspirators carried out the assassination plot on the evening of April 14, 1865. As he ran from the theater that night, Booth left behind some personal effects, including a letter from Arnold, urging patience:
“Time more propitious will arrive yet. Do not act rashly or in haste,” Arnold wrote. "Weigh all I have said, and, as a rational man and a friend, you can not censure or upbraid my conduct. I sincerely trust this, nor aught else that shall or may occur will ever be an obstacle to obliterate our former friendship and attachment.”
Booth, it seems, felt that the time for patience had passed.
NOTE: While Booth and Lincoln were not personally acquainted, Lincoln had seen Booth at Ford's Theatre in 1863. After the assassination, actor Frank Mordaunt wrote that Lincoln, who apparently harbored no suspicions about Booth, admired the actor and had repeatedly invited him (without success) to visit the White House.
By Laura Castro Lindarte
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.