The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth Ends

April 26, 1865 – Federal authorities finally tracked down John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice on a farm in Virginia.

John Wilkes Booth | Image Credit:

After nine agonizing days, Booth and David E. Herold were finally able to cross the Potomac River and land on Virginia soil on the 23rd. Before the men left Maryland, Confederate spy Thomas A. Jones had referred them to a Mrs. Quesenberry as someone who might be willing to help them escape once they reached Virginia. Booth, who was in severe pain from his broken leg, waited in the woods while Herold found the woman’s home.

Mrs. Quesenberry referred Herold to Confederate sympathizer Thomas Harbin, who agreed to help the fugitives after sundown. Harbin sent them to the home of a doctor so Booth could get medical attention, but the doctor wanted nothing to do with the man who killed Abraham Lincoln and turned them away. Booth and Herold finally forced their way into the home of a free black family and stayed there for the night.

On the 24th, the fugitives went to Port Conway, where a man named William Rollins agreed to take them across the Rappahannock River in his fishing boat. A group of Confederate cavalrymen joined them in the crossing, and Herold confessed to trooper Willie Jett, “We are the assassinators of the President. Yonder is J. Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln.”

Once across the Rappahannock, the group sought shelter and ended up at the farm of Richard H. Garrett, just south of Port Royal in Caroline County. Garrett welcomed the men, but only Booth stayed the night. Herold went with the Confederates into nearby Bowling Green to look for supplies. Meanwhile, a detachment of the 16th New York Cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger landed at Belle Plain in pursuit of Booth and his accomplice.

The Garrett Farmhouse | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly; May 20, 1865; Vol. IX, No. 438

Herold returned to the Garrett farm on the 25th and learned that Garrett had left for the day, leaving his son John in charge. John had grown suspicious of these strangers and would not let them stay any longer. John’s suspicions seemed confirmed when the men frantically raced off after a rider announced that Federal cavalry was nearby.

Booth and Herold returned to the farm after the Federals passed, but John refused to let them in the house. John’s father returned that night and agreed to let the men stay in the barn. The barn had once been used to dry tobacco, but now the Garretts used it to store furniture. John feared that the men might be horse thieves, so he padlocked the barn to keep them inside until morning.

Meanwhile, the Federals questioned Rollins, who confirmed from photographs that he had taken Booth and Herold across the river. Rollins also divulged that Willie Jett, whom he knew, was courting a woman in Bowling Green. Conger and two of his troopers stormed into Jett’s room at the Star Hotel and demanded, “Where are the two men who came with you across the river?”

Herold had told Jett who they were, so Jett knew who Conger meant. Jett pulled one of the Federals aside and said, “I know who you want, and I will tell you where they can be found.” Jett told him that Booth and Herold “are on the road to Port Royal,” on the farm of “Mr. Garrett’s.” Jett offered to lead the Federals there, and they left Bowling Green around 12:30 a.m.

The Federals stormed through the gate of the Garrett farm about 90 minutes later. They summoned Garrett from his house and demanded, “Where are the two men who stopped here at your house?” Garrett answered, “Gone to the woods.” Conger said, “Bring me a lariat rope here, and I will put that man up to the top of one of those locust trees.” Garrett’s son interrupted, “Don’t hurt the old man; he is scared; I will tell you where the men are… in the barn.”

Meanwhile, the Garretts’ barking dogs woke Booth and Herold, who quickly discovered that they were locked in. Herold told Booth, “You had better give up.” Booth answered, “I will suffer death first.” John unlocked the barn as the Federal surrounded it. Conger announced that if the men did not come out and surrender, he would burn the barn down. Booth yelled back, “Let us have a little time to consider it.”

After some time, Booth called out, “I am a cripple. I have got one leg. If you will withdraw your men in line one hundred yards from the door, I will come out and fight you.” Conger replied, “We did not come here to fight you, we simply came to make you a prisoner. We do not want any fight with you.” Booth then proposed 50 yards, yelling, “Give me a chance for my life.” But this too was refused. Booth then announced theatrically, “Well, my brave boys, prepare a stretcher for me.”

The Federals started placing kindling against the barn to burn the fugitives out. Herold begged Booth to let him surrender, and Booth replied, “You damned coward! Will you leave me now? Go, go! I would not have you stay with me!” Booth then called out to the Federals, “There’s a man who wants to come out. Upon the word and honor of a gentleman, he has no arms.” Herold came out willingly, and the troopers tied him to a tree. Booth refused to surrender once more, declaring, “I prefer to come out and fight.”

Conger reached into a crack in the barn wall and set fire to the hay, which quickly spread. Booth hobbled to the door on his splinted leg with a carbine in his arm. Sergeant Boston Corbett saw Booth and shot him in the neck. The Federals had orders to take Booth alive, but Corbett later asserted that he fired because he saw Booth raise his carbine to shoot. Corbett stated, “I took steady aim on my arm, and shot him through a large crack in the barn.”

Initially the Federals did not know that Corbett had shot Booth. They merely heard the gunshot and thought that Booth had attempted suicide. They rushed into the barn, saw the gunshot wound to his neck, and carried him onto the porch of the Garrett house. The bullet had traveled through the neck from right to left, pierced three vertebrae, and severed the spinal cord.

Booth lay paralyzed on the porch for three and a half hours. At one point he muttered, “Tell mother I die for my country.” He asked the Federals to kill him, but they hoped he would somehow recover so they could take him alive. At his request, troopers raised his hands so he could see them and say, “Useless, useless.” Booth died shortly after 7 a.m. In his confiscated diary, the last entry condemned Lincoln:

“Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of His punishment.”



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