Publish date:
Updated on
Year
1865

President Lincoln is shot

Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shoots President Abraham Lincoln at a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.

Five days earlier, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The war was nearly over, although there were still Confederate forces yet to surrender. The president had recently visited the captured Rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia, and now Lincoln sought a relaxing evening by attending a production of Our American Cousin starring Laura Keene. Ford’s Theater, seven blocks from the White House, was crammed with people trying to catch a glimpse of Grant, who was rumored to be in attendance. In fact, the general and his wife had cancelled abruptly for an out-of-town trip.

Lincoln occupied a booth above the stage with his wife; Henry Rathbone, a young army officer; and his fiancée, Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris. The Lincolns arrived late for the comedy, but the president was in a fine mood and laughed heartily during the production. At 10:15, Booth slipped into the box and fired his .44-caliber single-shot derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head. Rathbone rushed Booth, who stabbed the soldier in the shoulder. Booth then leapt from the president’s box to the stage below, breaking his leg as he landed. He shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus ever to tyrants!”–the Virginia state motto) and ran from the stage. There was a pause, as the crowd initially thought the unfolding drama was part of the production, but a scream from Mrs. Lincoln told them otherwise. The stricken president was carried from the box to a house across the street, where he died the following morning.

Booth was one of the most famous actors of his day, and Lincoln had seen him perform. He was a Maryland native with southern sympathies who hoped to aid the Confederacy by taking out the Union’s political leadership in one night. With Confederate president Jefferson Davis still free and General Joseph Johnston’s army still alive in the Carolinas, Booth thought the Confederate cause was not yet lost. He sent George Atzerodt to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Lewis Paine to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. Atzerodt could not muster the courage to carry out his assignment, but Paine burst into Seward’s home and stabbed him as lay sick in bed. Although seriously wounded, Seward eventually recovered.

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