John Wilkes Booth knew the shot he fired at Abraham Lincoln was fatal. He had a simple plan for his getaway. He ordered a stagehand to hold his horse at the side door and he fled Washington D.C. as fast as he could go.
Booth, meanwhile, had made good time getting out of town. He crossed the Navy Yard Bridge into Maryland, and met one of his co-conspirators, 21-year-old David Herold.
Booth and Herold headed to Surratt Tavern, where they had left supplies to be in readiness. They picked up their things, but by then Booth’s left leg was giving him tremendous pain. He had broken it when he leapt from the balcony on to the stage, and now it forcibly derailed their plans. The two rode to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd.
The doctor set Booth’s leg and gave him a pair of crutches. The fugitives stayed the night at the doctor’s home, but knowing a massive manhunt must be underway, they left in the morning.
The men then traveled to the home of a Confederate sympathizer named Samuel Cox the next day. From April 16 – 21, Cox helped Herold and Booth hide in the swamp to evade federal authorities.
Booth recorded his actions in his diary, and through his words, you get a sense of his feelings of grandiosity and how he perceived his own actions.
“I struck boldly and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A Col. Was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg.
I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night, with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill; Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to out-live my country. This night (before the deed), I wrote a long article and left it for one of the Editors for the National Intelligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings. He or the Govmt
Word had reached Booth that the country was devastated over Lincoln’s assassination. Booth was in a state of disbelief. He had thought murdering Lincoln would make him a hero to Southerners. Now he was being denounced and life as he had known it—the grand Shakespearian plays, the adulation and fame, and his plans to marry Miss Lucy Hale—were out of reach forever.
The crowning blow was the first and only interview General Robert E. Lee gave after his surrender, when he was asked about the assassination. Lee called it “deplorable.” He knew, as Booth did not, how generous Lincoln had been in his terms with the confederacy, when Lee surrendered.
That night, Booth wrote in his diary, referencing an earlier failed plot to kidnap Lincoln. For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill.
The two men were able to cross the Potomac River on April 22, and slept in a cabin on April 23. Booth, cold, hungry, and aching, wrote bitterly in his diary once more: With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for… And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.
In the next post, we’ll talk about the demise of John Wilkes Booth—at least, the official version! Go to Part 3!