John Wilkes Booth was a noted actor and Confederate sympathizer. He had planned initially to kidnap President Lincoln, hoping to exchange him for Confederate prisoners. Plans were made among a small group of conspirators to carry out the kidnapping in March 1865, on a day when Lincoln was scheduled to attend a function at a Washington hospital. At the last moment, the president’s plans were changed and Booth’s plot was neutralized.
On April 11, two days after Lee`s surrender, Lincoln spoke to a crowd outside the White House and, among other things, mentioned that some blacks should be given the vote. Booth, an avowed racist, was in the crowd and decided to kill Lincoln rather than kidnap him.
On Good Friday evening, April 14, President and Mrs. Lincoln attended a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington. At shortly after 10 o’clock, Booth entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of his head. After firing the shot Booth dropped to the stage, caught and broke his leg on a flag. Some patrons reported hearing him shout the Virginia motto, “Sic simper tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants); others thought they heard, “The South shall live!"
Lincoln lingered throughout the night and died early the next morning without regaining consciousness.
The assassination was part of a larger plot, which also targeted Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and General Ulysses S. Grant. Seward was attacked at his home and received serious knife wounds, but recovered and continued in office under President Johnson. Grant and his wife were scheduled to attend the performance with the Lincolns, but had a last-minute change of plans. No attempt was made on Johnson`s life. Booth had hoped that the removal of the leading figures in the government would spark a revival of the Confederacy.
Booth escaped, but was found by federal soldiers several weeks later. He had hidden himself in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia, and failed to heed an order to surrender. The barn was set on fire. He was shot and killed by one of the armed officials.
Eventually eight persons were arrested as conspirators. All were tried and convicted by a military tribunal. Four were hanged. One died in jail. Three received presidential pardons in 1869.
Popular opinion for many years held that high Confederate officials had played a role in planning the assassination, but convincing evidence has never been presented.
Lincoln had not been uniformly popular in the North during his presidency. Peace Democrats thought he was waging an unnecessary war and Radical Republicans felt he was too moderate. In death, however, Lincoln became a martyr and a hero. Even some Southern leaders expressed sadness at his murder—a well founded sentiment in light of the nature of Reconstruction, which was to emerge.
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