American Military History: The Murder of John Wilkes Booth

April 26, 1865 — -Twelve days after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Union soldiers tracked John Wilkes Booth to a Virginia farm. Booth, a popular actor, was also a strong supporter of the Confederacy. He had originally conspired to abduct the president to aid the Confederate effort, but changed his plan to a simultaneous assassination of President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward after the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. By assassinating the president and the next two individuals in line for the presidency, Booth hoped the Union government would be thrown into a state of panic and disarray. Booth’s plan was only marginally successful. Only Lincoln was actually killed; Seward was stabbed, but he survived. The man tasked with assassinating Johnson did not carry out his assignment.

After fatally wounding President Lincoln on the night of April 14, Booth fled the Ford Theater on horse and crossed the Anacostia River into southern Maryland. Booth found refuge for several days at the home of Confederate agent Thomas A. Jones before securing a boat to cross the Potomac River. Once in Virginia, Booth found shelter at the farm of Richard Garrett, who did not recognize Booth. Garrett allowed Booth to rest in his tobacco barn, but instructed his son to lock the barn from the outside to prevent Booth from stealing horses, thus trapping Booth inside. A tip led Union soldiers to the Garrett farm, where they set the barn on fire in order to flush Booth out of the building. Booth refused to surrender and was shot in the neck by a Union soldier in the ensuing scuffle. He lived for three hours after Union troops dragged him from the barn. In his final moments of life, Booth allegedly gazed at his hands and muttered, “Useless, useless,” as he died. He was buried in the floor of the Old Penitentiary in Washington.

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