April 14, 1865 saw a tragic first in American history. An assassin shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head as he, his wife and friends watched a production of "Our American Cousin" in Washington D.C.'s Ford's Theater. Never before had a cold-blooded murder of the nation's leader taken place, and the assassination put the entire country, just emerging from the Civil War, in a further state of shock.
The Political Situation
President Lincoln had just begun his second term in office. His swearing-in occurred on March 4, 1865. Prior to his second inauguration, Lincoln had begun work on the reconstruction of the country, anticipating victory in the Civil War. He began appointing his supporters to govern Southern states as they surrendered. Lincoln had drafted his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and had championed an amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery during his re-election campaign.
Abraham Lincoln had a difficult role as president during the Civil War. Although beloved by many in the Union, he was the object of hatred by much of the Confederacy. His policies going into his second term as president were unpopular with many.
One of these malcontents was John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate spy and anti-abolitionist who was outspoken in his beliefs. He had previously spent time in a Saint Louis jail for treasonous remarks against the Lincoln administration.
Abraham Lincoln's Assassin
John Wilkes Booth, born May 10, 1838, was the son of Junius Brutus Booth, a noted Shakespeare play actor. The family lived on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland. By the age of 17, Booth was an actor with a healthy interest in politics. By many accounts, he was classically handsome with an athletic build.
Ealier in his career, John Wilkes Booth played the title role in Shakespeare's Richard III. The play tells the story of a despotic ruler who is overthrown and murdered in the final scene, and it was a strangely prescient part for Booth, who would go on to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
When Lincoln touted a Constitutional amendment that put an end to slavery once and for all, the idea of abolition infuriated John Wilkes Booth, and he determined to take action. He recruited some political allies, and they hatched a plot to kidnap the president. The group included David Herold, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and John Surratt.
When Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending a play at Ford's Theater the evening of April 14th, he told his conspirators he was changing their plan. Booth now tasked Powell and Herold with murdering the Secretary of State, William H. Seward. He assigned Atzerodt to kill the Vice President. He wanted to ensure that they completely decimated the Lincoln administration.
The Scene of the Lincoln Assassination
At approximately 10 p.m., with the play underway, Booth entered the presidential box where Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris were seated. Booth drew a .44 Derringer handgun and shot the president from behind. He also stabbed Rathbone, who had leapt to Lincoln's defense.
The assassin then jumped from the box to the stage and shouted "Sic semper tyrannis," which means "thus ever to tyrants." He alone accomplished his mission that night. Booth's co-conspirators did not succeed in their assignments, although Powell did manage to wound to the Secretary of State, who was resting at home.
The Aftermath of the Ford's Theater Shooting
The gunshot did not immediately kill President Lincoln. A group of soldiers carried him across the street from the theater to a boarding house where he could lie down. Paralyzed and struggling to breathe, Lincoln died the next morning, April 15. He was 56 years old.
After fleeing through the stage door, Booth mounted his getaway horse and set off at a gallop. He made his way to a farm in Virginia. Intelligence officer Everton Conger and a regiment of Union soldiers caught up with him on April 26, 12 days after he shot Lincoln. They killed John Wilkes Booth when he refused to surrender. He was 26 years of age. Co-conspirators Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Mary Surratt went to the gallows for their roles in the assassination plot.
President Lincoln and his son Willie now rest in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Ill., along with Mary Todd Lincoln and sons Edward and Thomas.