The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth

April 26, 1865 – A platoon of Federal cavalry cornered famous actor John Wilkes Booth on a Virginia farm.

John Wilkes Booth | Image Credit: cj-worldnews.com

John Wilkes Booth | Image Credit: cj-worldnews.com

After shooting Lincoln on the evening of April 14, Booth fled Ford’s Theatre through a stage door to the alley, where he rode off on a waiting horse. Booth and his accomplice David Herold slipped out of Washington and rode some 25 miles southeast to Bryantown, Maryland. By early morning, dispatches had already been released naming Booth as Lincoln’s assassin, and U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton authorized Lieutenant Colonel Lafayette Baker to deploy a Federal cavalry unit to hunt Booth down.[1]

At Bryantown, Booth and Herold sought refuge at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s broken leg with a wooden splint. The next day, Mudd learned of Lincoln’s assassination when he went into town for supplies. He returned home and ordered Booth and Herold out of his home. Moving through swamps and marshes, the men reached the home of Samuel Cox, who kept them fed and hidden in the nearby woods for several days.[2]

By April 21, Booth had learned the national reaction to Lincoln’s murder from newspapers provided by Cox’s foster brother, Confederate agent Thomas A. Jones. The lack of sympathy for Booth’s action shocked him, as he thought he would be celebrated for murdering a tyrant. Booth wrote in his journal, “For six months we had worked to capture (Lincoln). But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill.”[3]

Booth and Herold finally crossed the Potomac early on the 22nd, but they inadvertently landed on a river island and not Virginia. Staying the night with a Confederate sympathizer, Booth wrote: “With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for… And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”[4]

The men crossed in a fishing skiff and landed on the Virginia shore on the 23rd. After receiving horses from another Confederate sympathizer, Booth and Herold crossed the Rappahannock River the next day and arrived at the farm of Richard H. Garnett just south of Port Royal, Caroline County, Virginia. On the afternoon of the 24th, a detachment of New York cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger left Washington and steamed down the Potomac and landed at Belle Plain in pursuit of Booth and his accomplice.[5]

Before dawn on April 26, the Federals tracked Booth and Herold to a tobacco barn on Garrett’s farm. Herold quickly surrendered and was tied to a tree. Booth refused, declaring, “I prefer to come out and fight.” Conger reached into a crack in the barn wall and set fire to the hay, and the fire quickly spread. As Booth hobbled to the barn door on his splinted leg, he was shot in the neck. Sergeant Boston Corbett admitted to shooting Booth despite orders to take him alive.[6]

The troopers dragged Booth out of the barn and placed him on Garrett’s porch. The bullet had pierced three vertebrae and severed the spinal cord, leaving Booth paralyzed for three and a half hours. At his request, troops raised his hands so he could see them. He said, “Useless, useless,” and died shortly after 7 a.m. Authorities confiscated his diary; the last entry read: “Our country owed all her troubles to him (Lincoln), and God simply made me the instrument of His punishment.”[7]

Federals covered Booth with a blanket and brought the corpse and David Herold back to Washington, imprisoning Herold aboard U.S.S. Montauk in the Washington Navy Yard. Aboard Montauk, over 10 people who had known Booth positively identified the body as his. Identifying features included a tattoo on his left hand with his initials J.W.B., and a scar on the back of his neck.[8]

Booth’s body was entombed in the brick flooring of the Old Penitentiary and later interred in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. While there was much government secrecy and inefficiency due to the hysteria surrounding the Lincoln assassination, most historians generally agree that John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators committed the crimes without the knowledge of Jefferson Davis or any other Confederate officials.[9]

—–

[1] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-39; Pitman, Benn (ed.), The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (Cincinnati, OH: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1865), p. vi; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 174

[2] Balsiger, David and Sellier, Charles Jr., The Lincoln Conspiracy (Buccaneer, 1994), p. 24; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-17; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 677

[3] Balsiger, David and Sellier, Charles Jr., The Lincoln Conspiracy (Buccaneer, 1994), p. 24; Kunhardt, Dorothy and Philip, Jr., Twenty Days (North Hollywood, CA: Newcastle, 1965), p. 178

[4] Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 197-98

[5] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-17; Kimmel, Stanley, The Mad Booths of Maryland (New York: Dover, 1969), p. 238-40; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 680; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 197-98, 203-04

[6] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-39; Johnson, Byron B., John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis—A True Story of Their Capture (Boston: The Lincoln & Smith Press, 1914), p. 35-36; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 682-83; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 210-13; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 391

[7] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-39; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 597; Goodrich, Thomas, The Darkest Dawn (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 2005), p. 195; Hanchett, William, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 140-41; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 210-13

[8] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-39; Kauffman, Michael W., American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 393-94; Kunhardt, Dorothy and Philip, Jr., Twenty Days (North Hollywood, CA: Newcastle, 1965), p. 181-82; Townsend, George Alfred, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth (New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1865, 1977 ed.), p. 38

[9] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-39; Freilberger, Edward, “Grave of Lincoln’s Assassin Disclosed at Last,” The New York Times (February 26, 1911, retrieved February 10, 2009); Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 682-83; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 239-41

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4 thoughts on “The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth

  1. […] Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth and accomplice David Herold crossed the Potomac River into […]

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  2. […] Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth and accomplice David Herold crossed the Potomac River into […]

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  3. […] this morning, the steamship carrying the body of John Wilkes Booth arrived at Washington. At least 10 people who had known Booth identified the body as his. Federal […]

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  4. […] this morning, the steamship carrying the body of John Wilkes Booth arrived at Washington. At least 10 people who had known Booth identified the body as his. Federal […]

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