Abraham Lincoln – the Assassination of a President

On 15 April 1865, in Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, died, having been shot in the back of the head the night before by John Wilkes Booth.

Only six days before, Confederate forces under General Robert E Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S Grant, effectively bringing to an end the American Civil War.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes BoothJohn Wilkes Booth (pictured), who originated from a famous family of actors and was himself regarded a fine actor, had lived in the North throughout the war but, a great believer in the institution of slavery, his loyalties lay firmly with the Confederate South.

In March 1865 Booth had hatched a plan to kidnap the president but the plan came to nothing. However, following Lee’s surrender, Booth’s determination to punish the man he saw as responsible for the war and the ending of slavery hardened.

On hearing that on the evening of April 14, Good Friday, Lincoln would be at the Ford’s Theatre watching a performance of the farce, Our American Cousin by British playwright Tom Taylor, Booth quickly devised a new plan. Together with two companions, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, Booth planned a triple assassination – of the president, the Vice-President, Andrew Johnston, and Secretary of State, William Seward.

Come 10 pm, the agreed time, the three men went to work. Atzerodt, however, backed out whilst Powell broke into the home of Seward and attacked the Secretary of State with a knife. Seward survived but bore the facial scars for the rest of his life.

Ford’s Theatre

Meanwhile, at Ford’s Theatre, during the third act, Lincoln’s bodyguard had slipped away to get a drink. It was incredible piece of luck for Booth who had broken into the theatre earlier in the evening and had tampered with the outer door to Lincoln’s box. Now, just gone 10 pm, armed with a pistol and a knife, Booth opened the outer door and wedged it shut from within.

Sitting with the president was his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and two companions – a Union Army major, Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. Booth was familiar with the play being performed and waited nervously for a particular piece of dialogue he knew would raise a roar of laughter.

Thus always to tyrants

Assassination of LincolnThen, at the right moment, as laughter filled the theatre, Booth swung open the inner door and shot the president in the back of the head. Mary screamed and caught her husband as he slumped forward. Rathbone jumped up to prevent Booth’s escape but the assassin slashed him with a knife before jumping from the box and landing heavily on the stage, fracturing his left ankle and shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis” – Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”, the state motto of Virginia.

By now the audience was aware of something terrible happening. Rathbone, his arm bleeding profusely, yelled, “Stop that man!” But too late. Before anyone could react, Booth had exited through a stage door and to a horse tied up outside.

Doctors within the audience rushed to Lincoln’s aid, pushing aside the screaming Mary. But immediately, on seeing the wound, they knew it was fatal.

Deciding not to carry the president back to the White House, they carried him across the street to a house of rented rooms and lay the president down on a bed. (Being so tall, he had to be laid out diagonally). Mary, by now hysterical, had to be removed.

At 7.22 the following morning, Easter Day, April 15, President Lincoln died. He was 56. Following a prayer, the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton famously said, “Now he belongs to the ages”.

The Funeral Train

Abraham LincolnLincoln’s body, draped in a flag, was taken to the White House, whilst all around, the church bells rang out. After lying in state in a heavily-decorated open coffin, he was transported by train to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The body of Lincoln’s third son, William, who had died aged 11 in 1862, was exhumed and placed on the train alongside the body of his father.

Travelling at a top speed of 20 mph the train stopped at various cities, starting at New York, where Lincoln’s coffin was taken off the train and laid in state. Finally, after 13 days, and having travelled 1,654 miles, the whole route lined with mourners, the train arrived in Springfield.


John Wilkes Booth was finally tracked down, hiding in a barn in Virginia. His pursuers, having set the barn alight, shot the fugitive. Fatally wounded, Booth was dragged from the blaze and died three hours later. He was 26.

As a sad footnote to this story, Major Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara, did marry, moved to Germany and had three children. However, Rathbone succumbed to mental illness, and in December 1883, he shot and stabbed Clara to death and tried to commit suicide. Rathbone spent the rest of his life in an asylum, dying in 1911.

american_civil_warRupert Colley
Read more about the civil war in The American Civil War: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also Abraham Lincoln – the Legend and the LegacyThe True Beginning of the American Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.