The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: American Experience

Mon, 02/09/2009 - 9:00pm

John Wilkes Booth


On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Over the next 12 days, as a fractured nation mourned, the largest manhunt ever attempted closed in on his assassin, the 26-year-old renowned actor John Wilkes Booth. Three days shy of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, American Experience presents The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, airing Monday, February 9 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1), from Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman (The Lobotomist, Boy in the Bubble, Kinsey).

The film features actor Will Patton (Numb3rs, A Mighty Heart) as the voice of the assassin; Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit, Adaptation) narrates. Interviews with the nation’s foremost Lincoln scholars recount a great American drama: two tumultuous months when the joy of peace was shattered by the heartache of Lincoln’s death.

In November 1860, a little-known Republican state senator from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. A vocal opponent of slavery, Lincoln’s victory enraged millions of Southern sympathizers, including an acclaimed young actor named John Booth, who blamed abolitionists for the growing division of the country.

By 1862, the small skirmish that began the previous year had turned into a full-blown civil war, a bloody stalemate with no end in sight. As casualties stumbled into Washington, Lincoln haunted the War Department, absorbing the loss of life all around him. Out of all the suffering, he resolved, must come what he would later call a “new birth of freedom.”

In January 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an order freeing the slaves within the Confederate states and transforming the meaning of the Civil War. By August 1864, a second presidential term seemed improbable, until the Union army broke through Confederate defenses in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a victory that allowed Lincoln to win a second term.

For Booth, the news of four more years of Lincoln as president was almost too much to bear. At 25 years old, his dreams of glory beyond the stage were passing him by.

Booth wanted to contribute to the Southern cause, but not as a soldier in the Confederate army. He looked for something grander — a single, heroic gesture that would turn the tide of history and catapult him into immortality. In 1864, he started taking assignments from the Confederate underground, a loose network of spies living north of the Mason Dixon Line. With a small band of co-conspirators, he began plotting a scheme to kidnap Abraham Lincoln and ransom him for thousands of imprisoned Confederate soldiers.

On April 3, 1865, the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, fell to Union forces. Only six days later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered and the war was effectively over. Booth was overcome with disappointment and bitterness. He resolved to punish the North for what it had done to the South, and his desperation gave rise to a new scheme: to kill the tyrant responsible for the demise of his beloved Confederacy — Abraham Lincoln.

When Booth arrived at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, on the morning of April 14 to pick up his mail, he overheard someone announce that President Lincoln was to be in attendance for that evening’s show. For the next eight hours, the actor made frenzied preparations for what he hoped would be the greatest performance of his life. He quickly reassembled his co-conspirators and filled them in on his plan to kill the three most powerful men in America.

Later that evening, at 10:15, John Wilkes Booth arrived at Ford’s Theatre and lurked, waiting for his opportunity. As the play reached a climax and the lead actor delivered his biggest laugh line of the evening, a single shot rang out and hit the president in the neck. Before anyone could stop him, Booth jumped over the balcony, breaking his ankle, ran across the stage and escaped into the darkness.

From the Peterson House, where Abraham Lincoln lay dying, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took over control of the government. He interrogated witnesses, ordered bridges and roads closed, and put the Union cavalry on high alert. Outside, panic and disbelief traveled through the streets as word of Lincoln’s death spread. For 12 days, as the killer and one of his accomplices made their way south, Stanton organized a manhunt of unprecedented size and traced the fugitives through thick woods and swampland and into Virginia’s Confederate stronghold.

Booth was convinced that if he could just make it to Virginia and the Deep South, he would be lauded as a hero and a savior. But lying in the woods, as he read newspaper accounts of his performance, he was stunned: the entire country, North and South, had denounced him. His visions of triumph and grandeur were shattered.

On April 26, at three in the morning, a search party surrounded Booth and his accomplice, David Herold. By then, they had reached Garrett’s Farm, just south of Port Royal, Virginia, and were hiding inside a tobacco barn. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused. After a tense standoff, Union soldiers set the barn ablaze, and a lone cavalryman fired at Booth, hitting him in the neck. Booth died three hours later.

While the hunt for Booth was ongoing, a funeral train carried the remains of Lincoln on a 1,700-mile journey from Washington, DC, to Springfield, Illinois. Along the way, some seven million people lined the tracks or filed past Lincoln’s open casket to pay their respects to their fallen leader.

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