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 11th, 2 days after Gen. Robert E. '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 the morning of Friday, April 14th, Booth dropped by Ford's Theatre and learned that President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant were planning to attend the evening performance of "Our American Cousin." He held one final meeting with his co-conspirators. He said he would kill Lincoln at the theatre. He had learned that Grant and his wife were scheduled to attend the performance with the Lincolns, but had a last-minute change of plans and left town. Atzerodt was to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood House where Johnson resided. Powell was assigned to kill Secretary of State William Seward. Herold would accompany Powell. All attacks were to take place simultaneously at approximately 10:15 P.M. that night. Booth hoped the resulting chaos and weakness in the government would lead to a comeback for the South.
The Presidential party arrived at Ford's at about 8:30 P.M. Armed with a single shot derringer and a hunting rifle, Booth arrived at Ford's at about 9:30 P.M. Joseph Burroughs, a boy who worked at the theatre, held his horse in the rear alley. Booth went next door to a saloon for a drink. He entered the front of Ford's Theatre around 10:07 P.M. Slowly he made his way toward the State Box where the Lincolns were sitting with Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone. Lincoln's bodyguard, John Parker of the Metropolitan Police Force, had left his post. At about 10:15 P.M. Booth opened the door to the State Box, shot Lincoln in the back of the head at near point-blank range, and struggled with Rathbone. Booth stabbed Rathbone in the arm and jumped approximately 11 feet to the stage below. When Booth hit the floor, he snapped the fibula bone in his left leg just above the ankle. Many in the theatre thought he yelled "Sic Semper Tyrannis", Latin for "As Always to Tyrants". Others thought they heard, “The South shall live!”
Mrs. Lincoln screamed, Booth flashed his knife at the audience, and he made his way across the stage in front of more than 1,000 people. Everything happened so fast no one had time to stop him. Booth went out the back door, climbed on his horse, and escaped from the city using the Navy Yard Bridge.
The assassination was part of a larger plot. Seward was attacked at his home and received serious knife wounds, but recovered and continued in office under President Johnson. 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.
Herold escaped from the capital using the same bridge as Booth. The 2 met in Maryland and stopped briefly around midnight at Mary Surratt's leased tavern in Surrattsville where Mrs. Surratt had earlier left the message to have supplies ready and had dropped off a wrapped package that contained Booth's field glasses. About 4:00 A.M. Booth and Herold arrived at Dr. Mudd's house where Mudd set and splinted Booth's broken leg. Back in Washington Lincoln never regained consciousness and died at 7:22 A.M. on the morning of the 15th at the Petersen House, across the street from the theatre.
Booth and Herold departed from Dr. Mudd's during the afternoon of April 15 and traveled south. Federal authorities caught up with them at Garrett's farm near Port Royal, Virginia, early in the morning of the 26th. Hiding in a barn, Harold gave up. Booth refused, so the barn was set on fire. Booth still didn't come out and was shot to death by Sgt. Boston Corbett. Corbett had not been under orders to do this. Booth's body was searched, and a diary was among the things found. Booth's remains were returned to Washington where positive identification was made and an autopsy performed.
Eventually, 8 people were arrested as conspirators. All men were tried by a military tribunal and all were found guilty. Mrs. Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold were all hanged on July 7th. Dr. Mudd, O'Laughlen, and Arnold were given life terms in prison. Edman "ned" Spangler, a Ford's stagehand who was convicted of helping Booth escape from the theatre, received a sentence of 6 years in prison. The convictions of Mary Surratt and Dr. Mudd have been hotly debated throughout the years. John Surratt escaped to Canada and then to Europe. He was captured abroad and was tried in 1867 in a civil court. The trial ended with a deadlocked jury, and Surratt went free. O'Laughlen died in prison (Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas Island near Key West) in 1867. Dr. Mudd, Arnold, and Spangler were all pardoned by President Johnson early 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.