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Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

December 30, 2015


If you had gone to the theater in Washington, D.C. to see the play “Our American Cousin” on April 14, 1865, you would have found the crowd in good cheer, laughing easily at the comedy. The war between the northern and southern states had officially ended just five days before, and the states could start the long process of healing and reconciliation. It would be difficult, but there was much hope and optimism.

Then, in the second scene of Act III, just after the funniest joke of the play, a loud pop echoed through the auditorium. Many audience members, probably yourself included, assumed it was a part of the production. But shortly thereafter, a man leapt from the private box on the right side of the theater, crashing to the boards of the main stage. He limped to center and yelled with dramatic flair, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (The Virginia State motto, “Thus ever to tyrants”). Perhaps you recognized the man as the famous stage actor, John Wilkes Booth. Then a scream from the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, in the box from which Booth had leapt.

Chaos erupted and Booth fled. He had just shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44-caliber single-shot derringer pistol, then stabbed a young army officer sharing the box with Lincoln before leaping to the stage.

Fords_Theatre_Playbill_1865-04-14That night, simultaneous assassination attempts were planned on Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward in their respective homes. Seward survived the attempt on his life (the aspiring assassin, a twenty-year-old confederate soldier named Lewis Powell, stabbed Seward and five others in the home and brutally clubbed the Assistant Secretary of State with his revolver—all seven victims lived). Johnson’s assassin lost his nerve at the last moment. Lincoln would not survive the night.

John Wilkes Booth is, of course, famous for this moment. But removed by 150 years, it is hard to fully imagine the chaos and fear it caused in the country. Booth, a northerner but confederate sympathizer, had hoped for just that. The plan was to assassinate President Lincoln along with his two successors, throwing the government into turmoil. In fact, the assassination on April 14th was a fallback plan. The original plan had been to kidnap Lincoln three weeks prior and take him to Richmond, the Confederate capital. When Lincoln had failed to show at his scheduled time, that plan had been scrapped and the date at Ford’s Theatre set.

Manhunt focuses on the twelve days following the assassination. The assassin’s identity was no mystery—Booth was a widely known actor from a family of famous actors. He would not be able to disappear. But Booth was certain that if he could make it deep enough into the South, he could find refuge.

From D.C., Booth set out through swampy and heavily-wooded Maryland with co-conspirator David Herold. As he fled, the war department organized one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history. Over 10,000 soldiers, police, detectives and volunteers would search for Booth. He had an unprecedented $100,000 reward on his head (which Booth reportedly scoffed at, believing it should be at least a half million).


While Booth hid in the Maryland woods, Lincoln’s body was transported by train from Washington to Springfield, Illinois. An estimated 7 million people lined the route, 1.5 million paying their respects in the cities where the train stopped. The country was in deep mourning, despondent, angry and afraid. The North had lost their heroic leader. Frederick Douglas called the assassination an “unspeakable calamity” for African Americans. And even though Lincoln was widely despised in the South, Booth’s act was not as widely celebrated. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston called the act “a disgrace to the age.” Robert E. Lee echoed the sentiment.

Booth read these reports in the newspaper, delivered to him while in hiding. He was perhaps surprised that his act was not celebrated as widely as he had hoped. But after the failed kidnapping plot, he saw no other option. In his journal, Booth wrote: “For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill.”

On the night of April 22, Booth and Herold set out to cross the Potomac, but made a critical error in navigation. In the dark, rather than crossing the river to Virginia, they rowed upstream, landing again on the Maryland shore. They lost valuable time and, after finally crossing to Virginia, were cornered in a tobacco barn on the farm of Richard Garrett, near Port Royal. Herold surrendered. Booth, a flair for the dramatic until the end, claimed he wanted to fight. On April 26, 12 days after Booth pulled off the most brazen assassination in U.S. history, the actor was shot and killed. Today, the site of his death is marked by nothing more than a modest sign in the median of U.S. Route 301, a divided four-lane highway.

Four of Booth’s co-conspirators—Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt—were executed by hanging on July 7 at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. The event was captured in a famous series of photographs by Alexander Gardner.execution

Manhunt is primarily a recounting of the moment-by-moment movements of Booth in those twelve days after Lincoln’s assassination. Perhaps a little bit too much, for me. While it has the excitement of a crime novel, what I find much more interesting are some of the periphery topics—the reaction of the country and the long-term implications.

Booth’s act might be seen as the final, vengeful sting of a dying rebellion. But it is wrong to think of the assassin as a coward or madman. Booth was a confederate, a patriot for the South and a rational actor. He not only acknowledged the desperation of his act in his diary, but he doubled down on his commitment to the Southern cause. In a letter, he wrote:

I know how foolish I shall be deemed for undertaking such a step as this, where, on one side, I have many friends and everything to make me happy … to give up all … seems insane; but God is my judge. I love justice more than I do a country that disowns it, more than fame or wealth.

I have ever held the South was right. The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln, four years ago, spoke plainly war upon Southern rights and institutions.

And in his diary, he said of Lincoln: “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”


John Wilkes Booth

He also wrote that he had participated in the capture and execution of John Brown, almost the mirror reflection of Booth—a northern abolitionist who so fervently believed in his cause that he resorted to shocking violence. But Brown was a true madman, a wild-eyed religious zealot. In contrast, Booth was lucid. When he wrote that he viewed slavery as “one of the greatest blessings that God has ever bestowed upon a favored nation,” he was being deplorable, but consistent. And he reflected the views of roughly half of the country.

Lincoln’s assassination, at such a fragile moment, laid bare how divided and on edge the populace actually was. There were the dignified responses of Frederick Douglas and Robert E. Lee, but there was also more vitriolic, less mannered responses.

In New York, a man was reportedly beaten by a crowd after proclaiming that “Abe had it coming.” While one southern diarist wrote, “All honor to J. Wilkes Booth. What torrents of blood Lincoln has caused to flow, and how [Secretary of State] Seward has aided him in his bloody work. I cannot be sorry for their fate. They deserve it. They have reaped their just reward.” And for many southerners, Lincoln had been the enemy, an archangel of destruction, thus Booth a hero. Portraits of the assassin became a hot item in some confederate markets.

Four years after the assassination, a journalist named Russell Conwell visited the South and found: “Portraits of Jeff Davis and Lee hang in all their parlors, decorated with Confederate flags…Photographs of Wilkes Booth, with the last words of great martyrs printed upon its borders; effigies of Abraham Lincoln hanging by the neck…adorn their drawing rooms.”

The San Francisco Chronicle went so far as to blame the spiteful rhetoric of politicians and the media: “Booth has simply carried out what … secession politicians and journalists have been for years expressing in words … who have denounced the President as a ‘tyrant,’ a ‘despot,’ a ‘usurper,’ hinted at, and virtually recommended.” It is a sentiment we might be wise to heed today.

And, finally, there is the question of the long-term impact of the Lincoln assassination. Although not covered in this book, it is also interesting to contemplate. Lincoln had promised emancipation, but in the era of Reconstruction, true liberation took a back seat to healing the rift between the North and the South. What course would history have taken had Lincoln been alive to guide the country through the post-war years? Would he have been able to deliver on his promise from Gettysburg that “all men are created equal,” or would he have agreed to the moral compromises of Jim Crow? It is one of the great unknowns of U.S. history what Lincoln’s effect might have been.

Again, Manhunt deals little with these topics. But what it does bring to life is that moment in time, one of truly formative moments in U.S. history. It is shocking, in hindsight, how easy it was for Booth. To hand the reigns of his horse to a man in the alley, have a few drinks in the bar, then to walk up the stairs of the theater, past an empty chair where a guard had left his post, into the box with Abraham Lincoln, to change history forever.

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