The Civil War Connections Blog

The First Assassination

So, if you haven’t already been able to tell, I find Abraham Lincoln one of the most fascinating presidents that we have ever had.  For Christmas I received two books on Lincoln, and for my birthday I received a copy of the new Lincoln movie that I discussed in a blog a long time ago. For those of you who don’t know, the anniversary of the day that Lincoln was shot is quick approaching, and April 14th, 2013 will mark 148 years since John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger in Ford’s Theater. Lincoln was the first United States President to be assassinated, and the events of the assassination are fascinating.

John Wilkes Booth was Confederate sympathizer, who remained in the North working as an actor during the war. Interestingly enough, Lincoln had gone to see one of Booth’s performances prior to the assassination and Booth’s brother Edwin had saved the life of Lincoln’s son Robert, a couple years earlier. Edwin was also a famous actor, and was standing on a train platform near Robert when he slipped and almost fell in the way of an oncoming train. Edwin grabbed Robert and pulled him back onto the platform, saving him from certain injury and possible death. In contrast, John Wilkes Booth had a number of opportunities where he considered kidnapping or killing President Lincoln prior to his actually assassination. Booth was at Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4th, 1865, and is thought to have considered drawing his gun then and shooting the president during his speech. Following the inauguration, Booth had come up with a plan to kidnap Lincoln on March 20th, and take him to Richmond. However Lincoln didn’t appear at the anticipated kidnapping time, and the Confederacy fell apart not long after.

 

[John Wilkes Booth, half-length portrait, facing left and holding a cane], Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

[John Wilkes Booth, half-length portrait, facing left and holding a cane], Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

With the surrender of Robert E. Lee on April 9th, Booth decided to take matters into his own hands. Booth came up with a plan to not only assassinate Lincoln, but also the Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. This would not only take out the President, but also his first two successors. However, the only successful assassination was the one of President Lincoln, because Booth managed to enter President Lincoln’s box at the theater and shot him in the back of the head, before jumping out of the box and onto the stage. (I’m sure many of you are wondering why there was no Secret Service agent there to prevent this – my next blog post will discuss why!) Booth broke his leg in the leap from the box to the stage, but shouted “Sic simper tyrannis! [Thus always to tyrants] – the South is avenged,” before escaping on horseback. Lewis T. Payne, one of Booth’s fellow conspirators managed to get into Seward’s home and seriously injure him, but Seward did not die from the attack. The man in charge of killing Vice President Johnson, George A. Atzerodt, was unable to follow through with his assigned killing.

 

Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Lewis Payne, in sweater, seated and manacled. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Lewis Payne, in sweater, seated and manacled. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 

As Booth embarked on a wild escape attempt through Maryland and Virginia, President Lincoln was taken to a house across the street from the theater. While he survived the night, Lincoln passed away on the morning of the 15th, officially becoming the first President to be assassinated. Booth was eventually found a few days later, and died from a bullet wound, though it is unsure if it was suicide or the officials that found him. Meanwhile eight people who aided him along the way were placed on trial for taking part in the conspiracy, and four were hung, including Mary Surratt, who was the first woman executed by the United States government. Along with her, Lewis Payne, David Herold and George Atzerodt were also hung for their involvement.

The thing I find most interesting in the Lincoln assassination is the fact that so many other things could have occurred. Booth could have decided to kill Lincoln and his inauguration, or kidnap him before the war was over, and perhaps change the overall outcome. His brother Edwin could have been unable to save Robert Lincoln, resulting in the death of another child of the President, which also could have had immense effects on the President. If Booth’s other conspirators had been successful in their attempted attacks on Vice President Johnson and Steward, the country would have faced even more extreme upheaval. It’s always interesting to look at history and consider the way things turned out, and how different our history could have been if major events went differently than they did.

 

Washington, D.C. The four condemned conspirators (Mrs. Surratt, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt), with officers and others on the scaffold; guards on the wall. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Washington, D.C. The four condemned conspirators (Mrs. Surratt, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt), with officers and others on the scaffold; guards on the wall. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.