Escape of an Assassin: Following the Trail of John Wilkes Booth
As a lifelong resident of Illinois I have always had a fascination with the life and times of Abraham Lincoln. Beginning with an eighth grade field trip to New Salem, I have since visited his birthplace in Kentucky; his childhood home in southern Indiana; all the Springfield sites; and, of course, stood in awe looking up at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. But one part of his story is still a mystery to most Americans- his tragic assassination and the reasons why seemingly one of our most beloved Presidents met his untimely death.
On the evening of April 14, 1865 there was a tremendous sense of relief in our nation’s capital. The nightmare of the Civil War was effectively over as General Lee had surrendered to General Grant five days earlier at Appomattox Court House and President Lincoln and his wife had decided to catch the popular play “Our American Cousin” that evening at Ford’s Theater.
Wilkes Booth PlanPresident Lincoln had originally asked General Grant and his wife to attend with them but because of a personality conflict between the spouses it didn’t happen. Lucky for Grant, because that night a madman named John Wilkes Booth would take the life of Abraham Lincoln with a single gunshot wound to the head.
Booth was a well known stage actor and a vocal Southern sympathizer. He had performed at Ford’s Theater before so he knew exactly where and when to make his move. He even planned his gunshot to coincide with a point in the play that always produced a loud ovation to cover the sound of his derringer.
He and his band of conspirators had previously planned to kidnap Lincoln and take him to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va but when that plot failed and the war was over he decided the only way to exact some sort of revenge would be to assassinate the President and escape through southern Maryland to the South where he would be welcomed as a hero.
Ironically, his plan backfired on him in every way. First, as he leapt from the Presidential box onto the stage after shooting Lincoln, he broke his leg as the audience observed in stunned silence. No one in the audience was sure as to what had happened and he was able to hobble backstage where he had a horse waiting for his flight.
Second, he was so bold as to give his real name to a guard as he crossed into southern Maryland where he expected to have safe haven but instead left a trail for Union calvary.
Third, and most certainly the worst, he had just killed the one man who would have been most sympathetic to the South during Reconstruction.
Following the Trail and the End of John Wilkes Booth and the ConspiracyThe State of Maryland established a John Wilkes Booth Civil War Trail to follow his escape route and invited me to retrace his steps with noted historians. Maryland was technically listed as a Union or border state during the war but it’s Southern sympathies were so great in the southern part of the state that during the presidential election of 1864 Lincoln received a grand total of one vote in Charles County.
Most landowners there were slaveholders but Lincoln knew if he allowed Maryland to secede that Washington would be surrounded by confederate territory (Virginia to the West had seceded early on). Lincoln imposed a series of laws and orders that forced many Marylanders to remain in the Union- thus his extreme unpopularity there.
So, it was in to this “friendly” territory that Wilkes Booth had planned his escape. He first stopped at the Surratt House and Tavern in Clinton Md to retrieve weapons and supplies. Mary Surratt, the owner and later convicted conspirator, was the first woman hanged by the federal government. To this day, her role remains in question.
But not as much as the role of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the doctor who set Booth’s broken leg and sent him on his way. Dr. Mudd admitted having previously met Booth but denied knowing that the man who came to his home at 4am with a broken leg was Booth. He claimed the man never spoke (he was with accomplice David Herold) and wore makeup and beard to disguise himself.
This testimony is probably what saved him from the gallows but earned him a life sentence at Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida. Dr. Mudd was actually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869 after he learned Dr. Mudd had saved many men at the fort from yellow fever. To this day, relatives of Dr. Mudd are working to clear his name. Personally, I think he was guilty based on the facts. But even top historians still waiver on his guilt or innocence.
With Federal calvary now in hot pursuit, Wilkes Booth and Herold hide out in the swampy Pine Thicket area for several days until eventually rowing across the Potomac River in a small boat in the middle of the night to Virginia. However, they are soon cornered in a barn on Garrett’s farm near Bowling Green where Herold surrenders but Booth refuses to give up. The barn is set afire and Booth is fatally wounded by a sharpshooter.
All of the sites I have mentioned here, and more, are open to the public Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House across the street where Lincoln died in DC). Each offers a fascinating glimpse into history on that fateful day so long ago. For more information about John Wilkes Booth trail visit Heritage-History. There's other Civil War Trails at VisitMaryland.org or call 1-888-248-4597.
Mark H. Bradley is a freelance writer living in the tiny historic village of Maeystown, IL. A former President and CEO of his own advertising/PR company, he chose to check out of the rat race at the beginning of the new millennium and pursue his pent up desire to see the world. A self proclaimed "semi-retired international playboy" he has traveled the world in search of the unique, the unusual, and the undiscovered.