Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated while in office. He was assassinated in 1865, the same year the Civil War ended. John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln in America's first presidential assassination to signal his disagreement with Lincoln's support of the end of slavery and because of his feelings that Lincoln was a tyrant.
As the days of the Civil War were growing to a close, the frustrations of the South were growing and rebellion against the North was strengthening. More vocal opposition to Lincoln’s policies were being voiced by the Southern leaders. There were also leaders from the South lending some support to the ideas of rebuilding the South. Lincoln was speaking out against slavery of the South and, at the same time, supporting the freedom of those slaves that had been set free during the war.
The sentiment of the populace for Lincoln’s policies was mixed at best. Some were still very much pro-slavery while others were backing the abolitionist’s agenda. Those that were backing pro-slavery issues were making plans to disrupt the efforts of the Northern government officials.
The Civil War was a period in American history that pitted state against state, North against South, and brother against brother. Some states abolished ownership of people; other states proudly proclaimed themselves to be "slave states."
The main issue prompting the Southern withdrawal from the Union was the practice of slavery. Most southern plantations used slave labor to plant, tend and harvest their crops. The main crops grown in the plantations were cotton, tobacco and sugar cane and they were labor intensive crops.
The election of 1860 brought Abraham Lincoln to Washington, DC as a newly elected President of the United States. While he had been elected by the voters in the South as well as in the North, those in the South still harbored hard feelings about the North’s desire to abolish the slave trade and feared a quick end to their labor force.
Faced while such a disastrous result, many business groups were willing to back a man or group of men that would get rid of what they saw as the major impediment to them keeping their way of life: Lincoln.
When Lincoln was elected to his first term as president, in 1860, John Wilkes Booth’s career was taking off. At 22, he was a successful actor and a decided supporter of the southern way of life although he had been born and raised in Maryland. He was known as a Confederate sympathizer.
Booth increasingly disapproved of Lincoln’s views of black equality—namely that Lincoln felt that black Americans should have voting rights.
By 1864, Lincoln was elected to his second term. He had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was viewed by many as responsible for what had occurred during the Civil War - and thus Lincoln's accomplishments gave Booth and his confederate sympathizers a strong animosity towards the president.
When news of the Confederate plight reached Booth towards the end of the war, Booth and eight other Confederate sympathizers made plans to kidnap the president on March 20, 1865. They had plans to take him to the capital of the Confederacy: Richmond, Virginia.
Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. seemed like a good place to kidnap Lincoln since he had made a number of appearances there, and Lincoln had even been in the audience for at least one performance.
The purpose in kidnapping would be to trade Lincoln for several key Confederate prisoners of war. By 1864, the Rebel Army was clearly losing the war, and Booth wanted a way to both send a message to the Union and to encourage the Confederate troops.
Booth had constructed a plan to kidnap the president, smuggle him into Richmond and arrange a trade to return the president for the release of Confederate officers that were then being held in Northern prisons.
Booth was the ringleader of the group intent on conducting the abduction. They laid the plan to kidnap the president on an evening that the president was supposed to attend a play near his summer home. That evening the president changed his plans and therefore the kidnap plan held by Booth and his fellow Confederates was stymied.
The only alternative to salvage the scheme was to change the plan from a kidnapping to an assassination. Their intent was to make a final rally of the remaining Confederate troops to continue fighting against the Union army.
The plan was not discarded, but instead was changed to a plot to assassinate the president. It was late in the war by this time, and the news of Lee surrendering to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse further infuriated Booth. He proclaimed to a friend that he was going to give up the theatre and said there was only one play he still wanted to perform: Venice Preserv’d, a play about a plot to assassinate one of the characters.
Booth’s plan to assassinate the president was worked out in detail with his accomplices for many days before the date it was to be executed. On the day of the assassination, every task was only partially carried out except for Booth’s fatal shot.
Ultimately, Booth decided to kill Lincoln, and planned also to kill General Ulysses Grant, Secretary of State William Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson, believing that these acts would throw the government into a state of mass confusion and give power back to the Confederacy.
Why would Booth create such a deadly scheme? Historians speculate that he was trying to re-energize the Confederacy by taking out the leaders of the Union. However, the plan would not have worked even if all four men had fallen victim to Booth’s plot.
The Confederacy was out of money, their army had been significantly reduced, and they lacked the political and social infrastructure to continue the war.
Others suggest that Booth was trying to move Vice President Andrew Johnson into office. Johnson was from Tennessee, but he rejected secession and stayed with the Union rather than join the Confederate government or military. Some southerners thought that Johnson would be open to Confederate ideals by virtue of his origin, and that he may also deal gently with the South in reconstruction now that the war was over.
Lincoln planned to work fairly with the South, as was evident in Grant’s reception of Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. The elder Lee was given the greatest kindness and respect by Grant, his staff, and the surrounding Union Army, as the effort was intended to reunite the states, not to humiliate the south.
On the day of the assassination, events did not unfold as Booth hoped.
Some history records that Booth thought Lincoln was despotic, and so sought to remove him from office. In fact, immediately after shooting Lincoln assassination, Booth shouted "Sic Semper Tyrannis," which means "thus always to tyrants." If Booth sought to remove the tyrant, the assassination succeeded, but it also made Lincoln a martyr and further immortalized him as a hero while moving public sentiment against Booth, the assassin.
Despite the end of the Civil War, Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, on April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC. As President Lincoln sat with his wife in a booth at a performance of the play "Our American Cousin," Booth waited until a particularly funny line in the play, assuming that laughter would mask the sound of the gun. When this point came and after a drunken guard had left his post, Booth snuck in to the Presidential Box and shot the president in the back of the head with a Deringer pistol.
After shooting the president, Booth shouted the words “Sic simper tyrannis” meaning "Thus ever to tyrants" and then engaged in a brief scuffle with the soldier that President Lincoln had invited to attend the play with him. During the altercation, the soldier whose name was Rathbone, was stabbed in the shoulder before Booth leapt to the floor of the stage, injuring his leg and fled into the night.
Booth then jumped down onto the stage and escaped out the back of the theatre. A 23-year old doctor in the theater named Charles Leale rushed to President Lincoln’s side once he realized what was going on and found the president struggling to breathe.
Several soldiers rushed to Lincoln’s aid and removed him from the theater, taking him across the street to William Petersen’s boarding house where Lincoln was examined by a surgeon.
The president was laid down on a bed and spent his last few hours on that bed. The surgeon determined there was nothing anyone could do for the president. The president was in a coma for nine hours before he succumbed to the fatal gunshot.
At 7:22 A.M. April 15, 1865, the next morning, President Abraham Lincoln was pronounced dead.
Abraham Lincoln was the first United States President to be assassinated while in office.
The escape plans that had been made by Booth took him south through sparsely populated areas on a route towards Virginia. The area that he travelled through not only had few telegraph lines, reducing the chance of the news of the assassination getting out ahead of their escape, but was also populated by predominately Confederate sympathizers that he hoped would aid him in his attempt to escape. The terrain further complicated the pursuit efforts because it was mainly swamp and dense forests.
Stopping at Surratt’s Tavern on the Brandywine Pike, about nine miles outside of Washington, DC, Booth retrieved supplies stored for the kidnap attempt, including guns, food and equipment. He continued on towards Virginia and continued the escape until just before dawn when he stopped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd tended to his broken leg and urged him to be on his way.
The next day, he stopped at the home of Samuel Cox and remained in hiding for the next two days. During this time, the War Department offered a $100,000 reward for the capture of the assassin. He remained in hiding in the southern part of Maryland until April 21st with plans to cross the Potomac River that night.
After crossing the river, he continued just south of Port Royal, Virginia, and found lodging on the Garrett farm. He stayed in the barn and waited for dawn. During the night, a detachment of Union soldiers had travelled from Washington DC, to capture Booth.
Shortly before dawn, the soldiers arrived. They surrounded the tobacco barn, and called out for Booth to surrender. Their orders were to take him alive. Booth refused to give himself up and the soldiers set the barn ablaze.
As the structure burned, the soldiers watched. A Union soldier named, Sgt. Boston Corbett shot into the barn when he saw Booth raise his pistol to fire at the troops. The shot stuck Booth in the back and nearly severed the spinal cord. It left him paralyzed. Booth died shortly before dawn on April 26th.
His body was taken back to Washington DC and was buried in its final resting place in the family plot in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore Maryland. Before being buried in Baltimore, Booth's body was shuffled between the National Museum of Health and Medicine and an abandoned storage room in the Old Penitentiary on July 7, 1865.
The eight other accomplices were also arrested and tried before a military tribunal. Five of the accomplices were sentenced to hanging while Samuel Mudd and the other two conspirators received sentences of life in prison. One of the conspirators that received a life term died of yellow fever and President Andrew Johnson later pardoned the other two surviving prisoners in 1869.
After the death of Lincoln and Booth, the country as a whole still grieved. There was anger in the South towards Booth for having brought upon them the harsh revenge of the Northern States, instead of the reconciliation promised by Lincoln.
The North felt that Booth had taken from the nation the savior of the Union. By most, Booth has been always considered a madman.
In the course of United States history as of 2013, four presidents have been assassinated while in office. Abraham Lincoln was the first, followed by James Garfield, William McKinley and then by John F. Kennedy. Of these presidents, the two that were assassinated in the midst of civil strife were Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
Lincoln was president during the Civil War, while Kennedy held office during the civil rights movement of the 60’s. In both cases, the nation was also in the middle of a war; for Lincoln it was the Civil War and for Kennedy the Vietnam War.
One of the similarities of both these times was the dissatisfaction among the populace with how government was handling the difficulties of the country. Both presidents were meeting the concerns of the nation head on and making difficult decisions in times of strife.
For a time perspective of the details of Abraham Lincoln's life, check out the Timeline for Abraham Lincoln on YourDictionary.
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