On This Day

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Library of Congress
The assassination of President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, an 1865 lithograph by Currier & Ives.

On This Day: Abraham Lincoln Assassinated

April 14, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre; he died the next day.

The Assassination of President Lincoln

On the evening April 14, 1865, five days after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, President Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln decided to attend the comedy “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. They were joined by Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, who were invited after Gen. Ulysses S. Grant changed his mind about going that morning.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Lincoln’s bodyguard had urged him not to go through with the highly publicized theater visit, fearing that disappointed Confederates might try to harm him. Both Lincolns also felt tired and considered canceling their theater plans, but the president insisted on going to cheer himself up.

Confederate loyalist John Wilkes Booth, an actor at the theater, heard about the president’s plans that morning. Booth and a group of conspirators had spent the previous year planning to kidnap Lincoln, but bitterness over the South’s defeat and Lincoln’s plans for black suffrage convinced Booth that a more drastic action was needed. He quickly gathered his conspirators and made plans to assassinate Lincoln, Grant, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.

At about 10:15 p.m., during a comedic highpoint of the play’s third act, Booth burst into the president’s private balcony and shot Lincoln with a derringer. The bullet passed through the left side of the president’s brain. Some said Booth yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis,” Latin for “thus always to tyrants,” while others reported hearing, “the South is avenged!”

Rathbone lunged at Booth, who cut Rathbone’s arm with a knife. Booth leapt off the balcony as Rathbone grabbed him, breaking his fibula when he landed. Nevertheless, he managed to rush outside and escape on horseback.

Lincoln was carried across the street to William Petersen's boarding house, where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next day.

Booth’s Death and Conspirators’ Trial

While Booth was killing Lincoln, conspirators Lewis Powell (or Paine) and David Herold were attempting to kill Seward, who was bedridden in his Washington home after an accident. Powell beat Seward’s son Frederick into a coma and slashed Secretary Seward in the throat. Seward’s metal surgical collar saved him from death. Conspirator George Atzerodt was expected to kill Vice President Johnson at the same time, but he became too scared to carry out the attack.

Booth and Herold escaped to Maryland and Virginia, stopping at Mary Surratt’s boarding house, where the conspirators had frequently congregated and stored weapons, and the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth’s broken leg.

Booth was not welcomed by many locals, and he wrote letters stating how he was astounded that he was not more celebrated for killing Lincoln. Union troops tracked the men to a Virginia farmhouse on April 26 and surrounded them in a barn. The barn was set on fire and Booth was killed by a shot fired by Union soldier Boston Corbett.

Eight conspirators were put on trial for the assassination plot. All of them were judged guilty and four were sentenced to death by hanging: Herold, Powell, Atzerodt and Surratt, the first American woman to receive a federal death sentence.

Biography: Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in Kentucky. He moved to Indiana and to Illinois, working various odd jobs and educating himself. He became a postmaster in 1833 and began to study law around the same time. He soon won a reputation for being an effective lawyer and debater—one that would only be furthered with Lincoln’s showing in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, arguing that slavery should be kept out of the new territories.

“Honest Abe” became the nation’s 16th president in 1861. His term was one of the most tumultuous in the country’s history, seeing the secession of the South, the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. Though Lincoln was unpopular for a long stretch of his presidency, he was celebrated after the Union’s victory and idolized after his death. He is today remembered as one of the greatest presidents in American history.

“Within days of his death, his life was being compared to Jesus Christ,” writes the Miller center of Public Affairs. “Lincoln was portrayed to a worshipping public as a self-made man, the liberator of the slaves, and the savior of the Union who had given his life so that others could be free. President Lincoln became Father Abraham, a near mythological hero, ‘lawgiver’ to African Americans, and a ‘Masterpiece of God’ sent to save the Union.”
John Wilkes Booth
Booth was born in 1839 in Maryland, the son of Junius Brutus Booth, an accomplished Shakespearean actor. Booth was a staunch supporter of the South’s policies and slavery, though he promised his mother never to enlist in the Confederate Army, instead focusing on his acting career. In 1864, he began developing plans to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him hostage.

Historical Context: The Civil War

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Civil War links to the most comprehensive and reliable sources on the war.

Related Topic: Robert Todd Lincoln and Edwin Booth

In a remarkable twist of fate, Edwin Booth, the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, saved the life of Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, in 1863 or 1864. Lincoln had fallen in the gap between a train and the station platform when Booth, who was a Union sympathizer, pulled him up by his coat.

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