19th Century US History

Biography John Wilkes Booth

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On the 14th of April in 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot and mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln while the President and his wife watched "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre. Lincoln died the next day and with him died the hope of a relatively peaceful Reconstruction. Without Lincoln to push for leniency in dealing with the post-war South, the radical Republicans in Congress were free to institute a much harsher Reconstruction policy. Those harsh policies left a lasting impact on the South and it could be argued that it is still feeling the effects of those policies and the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination today.

John Wilkes Booth was a professional actor who had an even more famous actor brother by the name of Edwin Booth. John sympathized with the Confederate cause, so worked on a plan to overthrow the Union government through March and April of 1865. He did not originally plan to assassinate Lincoln, however. Originally, he had intended to overthrow the Federal Government by only kidnapping President Lincoln. He hoped that this would disrupt the North's war effort while giving the defeated South a powerful position from which continue fighting and to make demands for a prisoner exchange.

By the time he attended Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, 1865, he had assembled a group of at least eight conspirators who agreed to help him in some capacity in his attempt to kidnap the President. They planned to do this while Lincoln attended a theatrical production of "Still Waters Run Deep" at Campbell Military Hospital on March 17th. The attempt failed, however, when Lincoln failed to attend the production as planned. He attended a ceremony at the National Hotel instead.

Booth was in the crowd when Lincoln delivered a speech on April 11 in which he discussed the possibility of voting rights for freed slaves. Booth was reportedly so angry by this notion that he changed his plans, deciding to kill Lincoln instead of merely kidnapping him. To that end, he formulated a new plan which, if successful, he believed would give the Confederacy time to regather its strength. He meant to assassinate the President, Vice-President, and Secretary of State in the same night.

To do this, Booth had to rely on the help of other people who ultimately proved unreliable. The killer assigned to Vice President Andrew Johnson, George Atzerodt, got a room in the hotel Johnson was staying and loitered around a bit, but he never attempted the assassination. He left after asking a few questions about the President of the bartender. The attempt on Secretary of State Seward did not work out either. The assassin stabbed him and some members of his household in a violent, confusing attack, but failed to kill him.

Booth assigned himself the task of killing Lincoln while his conspirators killed Seward and Johnson. The three attacks were supposed to be carried out simultaneously while Lincoln watched "Our American Cousin." Although the conspirators were not successful in killing the other two men, Booth was successful in his attempt at Lincoln. As an actor at Ford's Theatre, he was able to come and go without arousing suspicion. When Lincoln arrived late along with Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, and Clara Harris, Booth was waiting for him.

Booth crept behind the President who was sitting in a rocking chair and shot him in the back of the head. Rathbone tried to prevent Booth from escaping, but Booth stabbed him and jumped from the balcony to the ground level. His foot got caught on a flag, however, and he fell face first into the audience below. Nevertheless, he jumped up and exclaimed, Sic Semper Tyranis. This is a Latin phrase which means Thus always to tyrants. It also happens to be the state motto of Virginia.

Booth escaped by running across the stage, through an unlocked door, and riding off on his waiting horse. On the way to meet an accomplice, he broke his leg when his horse tripped and fell on it. After receiving medical treatment, Booth and his accomplice went on the run. Union Soldiers eventually caught up with them at a barn. Booth refused to come out, so the soldiers tried to burn him out. In the subsequent confusion, Booth failed to hear the approach of a soldier named Boston Corbett. Corbett shot Booth in the back of the head in almost the same way that Booth had shot Lincoln just a few days earlier. Booth's last words were, Tell my mother I died for my country.....unless.....unless.

By this time, Lincoln was already dead, having died the day after the attack. The death of his assassin several days later did not close the case, however. The government put all eight of the conspirators on trial and ended up hanging four of them. The rest were either pardoned by President Johnson or died in prison.

Lincoln's death was a huge blow to many people. After four years of brutal war, many had believed that the bloodshed was finally over. His death destroyed any chance for a positive approach to reconstruction. His successor, President Johnson, proved a very weak and unpopular president who was unable to reign in the radical Republicans in Congress. These radicals instituted a very harsh Reconstruction that included military occupation and the banning of all former Confederates from serving as elected officials. Rather than healing the wounds of the country, Reconstruction led to a whole host of its own problems. The history of the South may have been very different if not for that one gun that fired after the end of the Civil War.

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