One of the significant benefits of being a writer is that I can learn so much! For instance, I always knew that President Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated and that he was killed by John Wilkes Booth. Yet I never understood why Booth wanted to kill him, and I certainly never knew that it was a part of a larger conspiracy! So, why was Abraham Lincoln Assassinated?
John Wilkes Booth was part of a group of Confederate sympathizers who were upset about how the war was going. Together they devised a plot to kidnap President Lincoln and bring him to the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, with the intent to revive the Confederate cause. They were unsuccessful. When Richmond fell to the Union troops and General Robert E. Lee surrendered, Booth became desperate and devised a plan to shoot the president while he was attending a play.
The Beginning: Who Was John Wilkes Booth?
John Wilkes Booth was born near Bel Air, Maryland, and part of a family made up of distinguished theater actors. He was very well-known as an actor and, at one time, was considered the most handsome man in America. He was admired by those who frequented the theaters, including President Lincoln.
Booth was also known as a Confederate sympathizer and had been initiated into a pro-Confederate group known as the Knights of the Golden Circle. This was a secret society that began in 1854 by a man named George W. L. Bickley. Their primary desire was to create a new country and call it the Golden Circle, where slavery would be legal. The country was to consist of the Southern United States, Mexico, and other parts of South and Central America, as well as a few of the Caribbean islands.
How Did His Assassination Plan Evolve?
In 1864 the commander of the Union, Ulysses S. Grant, halted the exchange of prisoners of war with the Confederate Army. They were down a number of troops, and Grant did not want to return more soldiers to the enemy side.
Booth reasoned that if he were to kidnap President Lincoln, he could blackmail the Union into releasing Confederate prisoners. So he got together several other men, Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt, to aid him in executing his plot.
Booth knew that Lincoln planned on attending a play on March 17 at Campbell General Hospital in Washington, and he and his gang planned to abduct him as he returned when the play ended. However, Lincoln changed his plans and attended a ceremony elsewhere.
A couple of weeks later, the Confederate capital lost the battle to the Union Army, and General Robert E. Lee and his army surrendered. Booth still did not give up.
The Plot to Kill the President Develops
Just five days after the Confederate Army fell, Booth and his co-conspirators devised a plan that was even worse than kidnapping. They agreed to assassinate not only President Lincoln but also Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Ulysses S. Grant, who was supposed to attend the play with the Lincolns, but he backed out. They assumed that killing the president and his two successors would cause the U.S. government to crumble.
What Was Booth’s Motive for Assassinating the President
Theories circulate concerning Booth’s motives. A letter was discovered that Booth wrote to his mother saying he wanted to avenge the South.
There is another theory about a long-term dispute Booth had with his brother, Edwin, who was a loyal supporter of the Union and President Lincoln. It was assumed that his anger at his brother fueled his hatred toward the president.
The truth is, Booth was a Southern sympathizer through and through, and it crushed him when the Confederacy lost the war and slavery was going to end. It’s entirely possible that after hearing the last speech Lincoln made from the balcony of the White House to a small gathering below, his wrath intensified, and it pushed him over the edge.
In this speech, Lincoln outlined his ideas about reconstructing the nation and bringing the South back to the Union. He also mentioned his support for black people, especially those who fought in the war, and he felt that those who were literate should get the chance to vote.
Booth’s reply to this? “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
The Fateful Day
Booth heard that the president and his wife were planning to see the play, Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. Being an actor, he was very familiar with the layout of the building and felt it was an excellent opportunity to carry out his plan.
Lincoln was supposed to be accompanied by Ulysses S. Grant, but having heard that Mary Todd Lincoln would be there, Grant declined. It seems he and Mary Todd had some words, and he was in no mood to be on the receiving end of her wrath again.
Eventually, the Lincolns were accompanied by Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris, and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone.
While Booth was working his way to the theater to kill the president, his co-conspirators were also making their way to assassinate their targets. Lewis Powell was able to break into the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was recuperating from a carriage accident. He proceeded to stab him several times yet failed to kill him.
During the time that Booth was assassinating the president and Powell was stabbing Seward, George Azterodt went to the hotel where Vice President Johnson was staying, armed with a gun and a knife. However, he took a detour into a bar, got drunk, and lost his nerve.
Booth, who was known in the theater, knew he would be granted easy access to the theater’s upper floor, where the Presidential Box was located. He entered the box, drew out his .44-calibre Philadelphia Deringer pistol, and shot President Lincoln through the back of the head. He then wrestled with Union officer Major Henry Rathbone before leaping from the balcony and taking off.
However, when Booth leaped from the balcony, he broke his leg. He met up with David Herold, stopped to have his leg treated, and then fled to Maryland. Together they hid for days as a massive manhunt took place with the offer of a huge reward of $100,000 for Booth’s capture.
The two hid in the woods by the Zekiah Swamp in Maryland before ending up at a Virginia tobacco farm, where they hid in the barn.
Once Union soldiers caught up with them, they tried to get them to surrender. Booth and Herold weren’t sure who had found them but hoped they were Southern sympathizers. When Booth asked them to identify themselves, they refused.
Negotiations went back and forth until finally, Herold went to the door and surrendered. After calling him a coward, Booth continued to stand his ground as a soldier snuck over to the barn and set it on fire.
As the fire spread, a shot went off. Detective Baker was with Booth by the barn door and had shot him, though Booth did not die right away. He lingered for several hours on the farm porch before finally dying.
Did Booth Really Die?
Though Booth’s body was examined by Army doctors, who assured everybody that it was indeed the president’s killer, many doubted this fact. Knowing he was an actor, they suspected that Booth had accomplished the performance of a lifetime.
As time went on, many people claimed to have seen Booth all over the world, from Mexico to India, to Germany and other places around the globe. To this day, the controversy as to whether or not that was really Booth who was killed at the farm lives on.
Related Articles – Why Was Abraham Lincoln Assassinated?
Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.