Only in America:
An Actor Assassinates a President
The Assassination of Lincoln
“Do you know I believe there are men who want to take my life? And I have no doubt they will do it. I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it”
-Abraham Lincoln, April 1865
The end of the Civil War did not bring about an end to the tensions that existed between the North and the South; the hatred that these regions felt for each other was stronger than ever. The assassination of President Lincoln exemplifies how strong that animosity had become.
Biography of An Assassin…
John Wilkes Booth was born in May of 1838 in Maryland. He was an educated man who was involved in politics. He was an active member of the Know-Nothing Party, a political party whose main objective was to make America an “all white, wealthy” nation. He was a successful actor who performed in Shakespearean plays throughout the country. His success as an actor earned him an impressive income (roughly $20,000 a year by some accounts). During his early years as an actor, he developed a strong sense of southern pride. This combination of southern pride and racist-leanings would have a huge influence on his future and that of our nation.
Not surprisingly Booth was a strong supporter of the CSA. It is believed that Booth provided the Confederates with money and information. In the summer of 1864, Booth began to develop plans to kidnap Lincoln and transport him to the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA. He wanted to use the kidnapped president as a bargaining tool with the Union to free Confederate prisoners of war. By January of 1865, Booth organized a small group of co-conspirators. On March 17th the group planned to capture Lincoln at a playhouse he was supposed to be at outside of Washington, DC. Lincoln’s plans were changed at the last minute, foiling the kidnapper’s plot.
Booth attended a speech given by Lincoln a few days later in which the president suggested voting rights be extended to African-American men. Booth was so appalled by Lincoln’s proposal that his plans changed from kidnapping to assassination. On the morning of April 14th, Booth happened to be at Ford’s Theater where he learned that Lincoln and Grant were planning on attending a play in the evening. Later that day he met with his co-conspirators. The group planned on assassinating a group of government officials that evening – sending a clear message to the Union from the supposedly fallen Confederacy. The President, Vice-President, and Secretary of State were all targeted in the plot. Booth hoped that the chaos created by the assassination would give the South an opportunity to rise up again.
Executing the Plot…
President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd arrived at Ford’s Theater that evening to see a performance of Our American Cousin. Booth arrived an hour later, armed with a derringer (gun) and a hunting knife. At 10:15 PM, Booth stormed into the State Box (the section where Lincoln was seated)
and shot the president at point-blank range in the back of the head. Booth jumped from the box and landed on the stage below (breaking his fibula in the process). Booth drew his knife and escaped in front of the 1,000 people seated in the theater. It all happened so fast that no one had time to understand what had just occurred. Lincoln was still alive, but he would not recover. The bullet could not be removed from his brain and Lincoln died on the morning of April 15th. The other conspirators were not as successful in accomplishing their goal – Vice-President Johnson was not harmed in the ordeal and Secretary of State Seward suffered a minor stab wound.
The Fate of Lincoln’s Assassin…
The hunt was on to capture John Wilkes Booth. Outside the theater Booth got on his horse and started on his preplanned journey south. That same evening he was stopped by an army officer who questioned him about being out so late on his horse. Booth explained to the officer that he had been in Washington on an errand and started home later than he expected. The officer accepted his answer and let Booth continue on. Foolishly Booth gave the officer his name and the fact that he was headed for Maryland (information that would be used to aid in his demise). One of the conspirators soon passed the same point and was also allowed to pass by the officer. He soon met up with Booth.
The pain in Booth’s leg had grown so intense that he was forced to seek medical attention. Dr. Samuel Mudd testified that he let him in with some hesitation and set his leg. While Booth and his associate slept, Dr. Mudd traveled to Bryestown, Maryland to do some errands. Upon arriving in the town, Dr. Mudd learned of the president’s assassination. Mudd returned home and ordered Booth off his property. Booth and his friend hid in the woods for five days before making their way across the Potomac River into Virginia. Some Confederates helped them find their way to a safe house on a farm owned by Richard Garret. Garret urged the men to hide in his barn. The New York Cavalry arrived at the Garret Farm on April 22nd. Both men were ordered out of the barn – Booth’s accomplice fled proclaiming his innocence and was taken into custody. Booth refused to leave the barn and was eventually gunned down by the cavalry.
Lincoln’s assassination was the first presidential assassination in American history and the effects were long-lasting. Within weeks of the assassination, theories began to emerge about Booth. Some believed that Vice-President Johnson was working with Booth and the conspirators. Congress set up a committee to investigate the claims, but no evidence was ever found linking the two men in anyway. Others argue that Booth did not develop the plan – he was the man assigned to carry it out. These people believed that the Confederacy had planned the whole thing. Others believed that Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was behind the murder. Stanton was against Lincoln’s mild plan to reunite with the South. Stanton believed that the South should be punished – while some anecdotal evidence exists, Stanton was never officially linked to the crime.
Booth’s goal of breathing new life into the Confederacy never materialized after Lincoln’s murder. In fact, the entire nation was saddened by his death. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee both made public statements about Lincoln’s greatness and expressed sadness over the loss (remember that Lincoln did not want to punish the South for the Civil War, it would not be guaranteed that his replacement would feel the same way). Millions of Americans traveled to cities to view his casket on its way to Springfield, Illinois.
Name: U.S. History
Assassination of Lincoln:
Directions: Use the “Only in America: An Actor Assassinates a President” handout to answer the following questions.
Name the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln: _____________________________
Which of the following statements about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is false?
Lincoln’s assassin originally planned on only kidnapping him. He was going to hold him for ransom to obtain the freedom of some Confederate prisoners of war.
Lincoln’s assassin decided to kill him after hearing Lincoln deliver a speech arguing in favor of giving the right to vote to African Americans.
Confederate leaders were very happy when Lincoln was assassinated. CSA President Jefferson Davis said of the assassination, “This is the single greatest thing that has ever happened in our country.”
Lincoln’s assassination was part of a larger plot of kill off the vice president and the secretary of state. The assassins hoped that by killing them, the CSA would be able to rise up again.
I selected answer choice _____ because in the text it says: _________________________________