The Plot to Assassinate Lincoln
The original idea was never to kill Abraham Lincoln. If it had been, it's hard to believe that John Wilkes Booth would have found as much support as he did.
Instead, the purpose of the conspirators was to kidnap President Lincoln, toss him in a carriage, ride swiftly into Southern Maryland, cross the Potomac River, then escape the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. In hindsight, it's a much more complicated plan than killing Lincoln, but the conspirators had a goal. It wasn't simply to get rid of Union leader. They wanted to provide a major win for the South and use Lincoln as bargaining chip.
At the time the original plot was devised, President Lincoln and the Union army stopped the exchange of the Civil War prisoners. The North was keeping them all locked up, knowing that returning them would hurt the enemy much more.
The design of the kidnapping was simple to begin and very plausible. President Lincoln was known to travel alone to a nearby cottage on the edge of Washington D.C., called the soldier's home. Many times he traveled at night, and without a guard to protect him, Lincoln wouldn't stand a chance against the seven men, prepared with horses, carriage, rope and firearms. The only problem was knowing when. And the few times the conspirators found out, the President's plans changed, leaving the crew empty handed.
As time dragged on, and the war turning more and more to the North's favor, Booth lost patience. In mid-March 1864, he devised a new plan, to kidnap Lincoln at Ford's Theatre. He knew the layout well, having performed there several times, and he came up with a scenario where two men would apprehend him in the presidential box, tie him up, then lower him to another awaiting accomplice on the stage below. From there the plan would follow the previous steps and escape to Richmond. This time the fellow conspirators weren't as excited. They saw several holes in the strategy, including people from the audience stopping them in the long duration it took to lower the President. Because of this Arnold and O'Laughlen effectively backed out.
U.S. Soldier's Home / Lincoln's Cottage. Washington D.C.
Lincoln completed the Emancipation Proclomation in this house and visited regularly as a quick respite from the White House duties.
Source: Library of Congress
About a month later, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth visited the Ford's Theatre box office to retrieve his mail. Being a traveling actor, he needed a permanent location for his mail, and the selection of Ford's proved fortuitous, as while he was there he learned of Lincoln's arrival for that night's performance of Our American Cousin. Booth moved into action, setting into motion, not a kidnapping plot, but a murder. He looped in the conspirator's in Washington at the time and devised to not only assassinate Abraham Lincoln, but to wipe out the entire top tier of Union leaders. He ordered Lewis Powell to go to the home of Secretary of State William Seward, in nearby Lafayette Square and kill him. David Herold would go along to guide Powell out of the city. Next he asked George Atzerodt to eliminate Vice President Andrew Johnson. The Vice President was staying at Kirkwood House, a nearby D.C. hotel. Atzerodt was checked into the same hotel. All attacks were to be simultaneous and occur a little after 10:00 p.m. The men would all escape south, through Maryland, then cross the Potomac.
When the hour of attack arrived, Booth walked through the front doors of Ford's Theatre, making his way upstairs to the second floor. He skirted along the back of the dress circle and approached Charles Forbes, Lincoln's footman. Booth handed the man a card and Forbes let him pass. John Wilkes Booth quietly pushed open the door to the Presidential box, entering a small vestibule or hallway that separated box from the outer entrance. From there Booth gauged the timing of the play, he was waiting for a particularly funny line, one that normally sent the audience into an uproar. It would mask the sound of gunfire.
Newspaper announcement stating that Lincoln and General Grant would attend Ford's Theatre together.
Source: Evening Star, April 14, 1865
Interior View of the Ford's Theatre Presidential Box.
Source: Library of Congress, Highsmith, Carol M., photographer
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The assassin approached closer to President Lincoln, and drew his small Philadelphia derringer pistol. It held only one shot. There was no room for error. Booth hovered at the edge of the door. He could see Lincoln just ahead of him. To right of the President was Mary Todd, then their guests, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone.
On stage, actor Harry Hawk bellowed out to the crowd, "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap." The audience erupted into laughter and Booth took quick aim and pulled the trigger. The clap of the gun shook many nearby, but few truly understood what was taking place. Many not sure if was a part of the show.
Inside the Presidential box, Major Henry Rathbone lunged into action, advancing quickly at John Wilkes Booth. The assassin dropped the derringer and pulled out a large, seven inch hunting dagger. The two wrestled momentarily, until Booth broke free and swiped the dagger into Rathbone's upper left arm. The Major withdrew and Booth took the opportunity to leap from the box, dropping twelve feet to the stage below. Many report seeing the normally athletic actor land awkwardly, possibly breaking his leg. Then he rose to his feet, dagger raised high, and yelled to the crowd, "Sic Semper Tyrannis". A latin phrase meaning "Thus Always to Tyrants".
A sketch of the two doors leading into the Presidential Box