The Lincoln conspiracy: Inside the plot to avenge the Confederacy

The shooting of the 16th US President in 1865 has obsessed historians ever since. As two new books piece together the events that led to the assassination, Andrew Gumbel examines how they mirrored September 11 and its aftermath
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The Independent US

Most people will remember that Abraham Lincoln was the first US president to be assassinated, that he was shot at close range in his box at a Washington theatre, and that his assassin was John Wilkes Booth, a sympathiser with the confederate South who had been left aghast by the outcome of the recently concluded Civil War.

What may not be so familiar, at least to non-specialists on this side of the Atlantic, are some of the other hair-raising details of the assassination plot. It was not just Lincoln, but the whole top echelon of the government that was targeted on the night of 14 April 1865. William Seward, the secretary of state, was viciously knifed in his own bed and came close to perishing nine days after he almost died in a horse-and-carriage accident. Andrew Johnson, the vice-president and eventual successor to Lincoln, would have been shot in his Washington hotel had his designated attacker not chickened out at the last moment. Ulysses Grant, the commander of the victorious Union army and future president, was originally scheduled to join Lincoln in his box at Ford's Theatre and might not have survived had he kept the appointment.

The whole episode was, in many respects, an eerie foreshadowing of what happened to the US almost a century and a half later on 11 September 2001. The country quickly realised it was under devastating attack, but did not immediately know who the attackers were, on whose behalf, if anyone, they were acting, or how much more they had planned after the initial strike. Fear and paranoia gripped the nation, as wild rumours spread of a reconstituted confederate army rising again, of dastardly plots to spread germ warfare (by the dissemination of clothing infected with yellow fever) or to poison the water supply of New York City.

Hundreds of people suspected of approving of the assassination were set upon, beaten or even killed by angry mobs. Lincoln, a controversial leader throughout his tenure - not least because of his willing suspension of habeas corpus and other core constitutional rights in his prosecution of the war - was suddenly elevated to the status of a secular saint, a transformation at least a little reminiscent of George Bush's sudden, if much more shortlived, surge in opinion polls four and a half years ago.

The man charged with hunting down Booth and his co-conspirators, Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, did not hesitate to arrest people merely for association with the assassins. He put federal troops on battle-ready status, and sent them out to comb the Maryland and Virginia countryside; a staggering 87 of them drowned while patrolling the Potomac river. Stanton did not capture everyone he was after, but grabbed whoever he could, had them tried by military commission and hanged the eight most notorious. The rest were sent off to do hard labour in the Dry Tortugas islands off Florida - the Guantanamo Bay of the day.

It was only a few years later that the wisdom of the draconian approach came under question. One of the hangings, of Mary Surratt, keeper of a Washington boarding-house frequented by Booth and his co-conspirators, came under particular scrutiny because she did not appear to have been involved in any criminal activity whatsoever. When her son, John Surratt, who had escaped abroad in the chaotic aftermath of the assassination, was captured and repatriated in 1867, he went before a civilian jury which was unable to reach a guilty verdict. One of the inmates in the Dry Tortugas, a doctor who had sheltered Booth in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, without at first knowing what Booth had done, was subsequently pardoned and released.

None of these intriguing parallels with present-day events have received much attention to date. But that could be about to change dramatically as the US looks set to revive, once again, its never-ending fascination with the country's 16th president, the man who saved the Union but could not save himself from his defeated enemies.

In recent years, the focus of the Lincoln mania has settled variously on Honest Abe's sexuality, his propensity for melancholia and depression, and his unique political prowess. Now the focus is shifting slightly away from Lincoln on to Booth, his assassin. One critically acclaimed reappraisal of Booth, Michael Kauffman's American Brutus, has just come out in paperback. A tightly written narrative of Booth's crime and the 12-day effort to track him down, James Swanson's Manhunt, has just been published and is racing up The New York Times bestseller list.

Swanson's book, which reads so much like a blueprint for a movie that it's hard to imagine he didn't have one in mind, has already been optioned by Hollywood. The buzz in industry circles is that Harrison Ford will take a starring role as the cavalry officer who eventually cornered Booth in a tobacco barn in rural Virginia. The role of Booth - an irresistible one to all thespians, since he was one himself, and a singularly dashing, charming, good-looking one at that - has yet to be assigned.

The fiendishly intricate plot so much feared at the time by Stanton and others, turned out to be little more than an expression of rage and frustration by a relatively small circle of like-minded people. Booth and his fellow conspirators - who weren't Southerners or anti-Unionists so much as white supremacists opposed to the excessive centralisation of governmental power and the granting of any rights to Negroes - started hatching a wild scheme to kidnap Lincoln about a year before the assassination, but never even attempted to put it into practice because of its obvious logistical difficulties.

On the day of Lincoln's second inauguration, in March 1865, Booth found himself just a few feet away from the president on the steps of the Capitol and later kicked himself for not taking a gun and shooting while he had the chance.

The assassination plot ended up being cobbled together more or less on impulse in a matter of hours. Booth happened to be at Ford's Theatre picking up some mail at about noon on 14 April when he overheard the manager receiving the news that the president intended to watch that night's production of Our American Cousin, a durably popular transatlantic comedy of manners that is now only remembered by association with Booth's crime.

Over the next eight hours, Booth arranged for one friend, George Atzerodt, to check into Andrew Johnson's hotel, and for another, Lewis Powell, to plot his entry into the Seward household by posing as a doctor come to treat the ailing secretary of state for the injuries from his carriage accident. Booth arranged for horses, and men to hold them while the crimes were being committed. He made the vaguest of plans for the conspirators to join up on the Maryland side of the Navy Yard Bridge, east of the city, but otherwise had no clear idea of how they were to make their getaway to what he presumed would be the safety of the Deep South.

Booth had no trouble penetrating the hallways and passages of Ford's Theatre, since he was a regular performer who knew the building's most intimate secrets. Armed with a .44-calibre Deringer pistol and a Bowie knife, he managed to use part of a wooden music stand as a makeshift wooden bolt which he used to prevent anyone coming into the presidential box after him. He lurked unobserved just inches behind the president, waiting for what he knew to be one of the loudest laughs in the third act of the play before pulling the trigger right at the nape of Lincoln's neck.

As the pistol shot startled the theatre to silence, he used his knife to slash at one of the president's companions, a certain Major Rathbone, who suffered a deep cut to the upper arm. Booth then jumped up on the railing separating the box from the auditorium, shouted the Virginia state slogan "sic semper tyrannis" ("thus ever to tyrants"), declared the South to have been avenged, and proceeded to jump down on stage.

As he descended, he hit a framed portrait of George Washington, and one of his riding spurs became entangled in a stars-and-stripes flag - a moment that was later dubbed "Old Glory's revenge". Some accounts suggest he broke his left leg in the fall, but it seems more plausible that he received that injury later in the night in the frantic rush out of town. Either way, he dashed across the stage and made his exit so fast the stunned theatregoers did not have time to stop him.

Lincoln did not die immediately, but was carried to a nearby house on 10th Street, which struck everyone as a more seemly place to die than a place of popular entertainment. (Lincoln would later come in for muted criticism for going to the theatre so soon after the end of the war, and on Good Friday too.) Booth, meanwhile, sweet-talked his way past the sentry on the Navy Yard Bridge, as did one of his accomplices, David Herold, who followed on behind. The pair would spend the next 12 desperate days together, first by managing to stay ahead of the news of the assassination and then by outwitting the Union troops who came out in force to sniff them out.

On that first night, they stopped at a tavern and then at the house of Dr Samuel Mudd, whom they had earlier roped into the kidnapping plot. Mudd treated Booth's broken leg before discovering what he had done and then, fearful of being tarred as his accomplice, as indeed he eventually was, sent the pair on their way. A Confederate veteran called Thomas Jones hid them in a pine forest on the Maryland side of the Potomac for five days while they waited for the manhunt to die down, making an attempt at crossing into Virginia possible.

Once across the river, Booth and Herold found a distinctly chilly reception, even among confederate troops returning home from the battlefield. They threw themselves on the mercy of the Garrett family, who let them stay one night in their house and then sent them out to the tobacco barn, where the feds, acting on a tip-off, eventually caught up to them.

There then ensued a siege not unlike modern ones pitting the federal authorities against neo-Nazis at Whidbey Island in 1984 or the Branch Davidian sect at Waco, Texas, in 1993. As in those much later instances, the end result was conflagration and death. Colonel Everton Conger, the putative Harrison Ford character, decided to smoke out Booth and Herold by setting fire to the barn. His mission to take the assassin alive was botched, however, by one of his own men, who saw Booth raise a weapon and shot him in the neck, in much the same place as the bullet that felled the president.

Booth's final words: "Useless, useless." Having dreamed of reviving the confederacy with a single pistol shot, he died in the knowledge that his victim had become a martyr, and his own name was destined to go down in infamy. The actor in him appeared to crave the attention anyway; the fact that he is now destined to be immortalised once again on the silver screen might not, in the end, have entirely displeased him.