1861 through 1865 were the most troubling and deadly years in America’s history. Around 620,000 Americans died from wounds and disease during the Civil War. That was around 2% of the total population of America at the time. Not only was the nation torn apart, but many families were also torn apart as brothers and fathers fought against each other on opposite sides of the battle.
One man, more than any other carried the burden of the Civil War on his back and he paid dearly for it. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, was elected in November 1860 and was targeted for assassination before he could be sworn into office.
The first assassination attempt was planned to take place on February 23, 1861 while Lincoln was travelling from Illinois to Washington DC in preparation of his March 4 inauguration. His train was scheduled to stop in Baltimore on the way to DC and there was a small group of assassins waiting for him. Their plan was thwarted when Lincoln’s wife persuaded him to continue on to DC because of information of a possible assassination attempt in Baltimore.
On a night in mid-August 1864, Lincoln was riding his horse back to his summer retreat outside of Washington DC when an assassin fired a shot at him. The shot hit his top hat but missed the president.
Upon Lincoln’s re-election in November, 1864, actor John Wilkes Booth began hatching a plan to kidnap the president. Booth was the son of the best known Shakespearian actor in America at the time, Junius Brutus Booth. His older brother, Edwin Booth was also a very famous actor at the time. John was also one of the best known actors in America at the time, earning $20,000 a year when the average Northern household earned a mere $300 a year.
Booth recruited a group of southern sympathizers to help him kidnap Lincoln. His first plan was to capture Lincoln from his booth at Ford’s Theater, tie him up, lower him to the stage and then take him to Richmond, Virginia. Then he would ransom him for the release of Confederate prisoners that were being held in northern jails.
His second plan was to capture Lincoln on March 17, 1865 as he traveled in his carriage. However, Lincoln changed his itinerary for that day and the kidnapping never took place.
On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia.
On April 11, 1865, Lincoln spoke from the White House balcony and laid out some of his plans for reconstruction and unifying the southern states with the Union.
After both kidnapping plans fell through, Booth was more determined than ever to take action to stop Lincoln. Booth was there on the White House lawn listening to Lincoln speak about allowing literate blacks to vote among other things. Booth was livid at what he heard and told fellow conspirator Lewis Powell:
“That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
Booth’s new plan was not only to assassinate Lincoln, but to kill Grant who was supposed to be with Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. Other members of Booth’s group were to assassinate Secretary of State William Sewell and Vice President Andrew Johnson, all on the same night. Booth believed that mass assassination would throw the federal government and the Republican Party into turmoil, hopefully giving the Confederacy enough time to regroup and resist Union control.
Grant turned down Lincoln’s invitation to join him at the theater to see Our American Cousin. In his place, Lincoln invited Army officer Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris to join him and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln.
On this day, April 14, 1865, Booth used his fame and credentials to gain access to the Ford’s Theater and the presidential box. Timing his move to correspond with crowd applause, Booth slipped into the presidential box placed his .44 caliber derringer against the back of Lincoln’s head and pulled the trigger. Rathbone lunged at Booth, forcing him to the rail of the balcony box. Booth stabbed Rathbone in the shoulder before being forced to leap from the box onto the stage, breaking his leg as he landed. He shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus ever to tyrants!”–the Virginia state motto) and ran from the stage. There was a pause, as the crowd initially thought the unfolding drama was part of the production, but a scream from Mrs. Lincoln told them otherwise. The stricken president was carried from the box to a house across the street, where he died the following morning.
At the same time, Lewis Powell, who was also known as Lewis Paine and Lewis Payne, managed to enter the home of Secretary of State Seward. At the time, Seward was laid up in bed due to injuries he suffered in a carriage accident. Powell took advantage of the situation and stabbed Seward several times before escaping, believing that Seward was dead, not realizing that a metal surgical collar had prevented the knife from penetrating too deep. Seward survived his wounds and resumed his duties as Secretary of State.
George Azterodt was given the task of assassinating Vice President Johnson. He entered the hotel where Johnson was staying but ended up in the bar where he proceeded to get drunk, lose his nerve and staggered away.
Booth’s bullet had entered Lincoln’s skull around the left ear and lodged behind his right eye. Army Dr. Charles Leale quickly arrived in the presidential box and found Lincoln paralyzed, comatose, barely breathing and leaning against Mary Todd. Leale later wrote:
“I then heard cries that the ‘President had been murdered,’ which were followed by those of ‘Kill the murderer’ ‘Shoot him’ etc which came from different parts of the audience. I immediately ran to the Presidents box and as soon as the door was opened was admitted and introduced to Mrs. Lincoln when she exclaimed several times, ‘O Doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can!'”
“I commenced to examine his head (as no wound near the shoulder was found) and soon passed my fingers over a large firm clot of blood situated about one inch below the superior curved line of the occipital bone. The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball.”
Despite Leale’s efforts, President Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22am on April 15, 1865.
Sources for the above includes: Today, 1861: President-elect Lincoln Eludes Assassination Plot; President Lincoln is shot; The Assassination of President Lincoln April 14, 1865; Abraham Lincoln Papers; Abraham Lincoln Papers: Timeline; The Death of President Lincoln, 1865; Booth’s Reason for Assassination; Account of doctor who treated Abraham Lincoln after he was shot found.