The Assassination of Lincoln
The Assassination of Lincoln
Across the South, people received news of the defeat with profound bitterness that would take many decades to heal. One excitable young man, the dashing stage actor John Wilkes Booth, was utterly crushed by the news of the Union victory. Booth blamed Lincoln, whom he viewed as the colonists had once viewed King George III: as a tyrant.
President and Mrs. Lincoln decided to attend a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington on April 14. Seeing the announcement in the newspaper, Booth determined to kill the president during the performance. Booth had performed at Ford’s Theater and knew its layout well; the employees of the theater knew him and no one questioned his entrance into the building that night.
During the play, when the audience’s attention was focused on the stage, Booth crept up the stairs to the presidential box, overpowered the one guard at the door, and pushed the curtain aside. He pulled out a pistol, shot the president in the head at close range, then vaulted over the railing of the box and leaped to the stage below, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” (meaning “Thus always to tyrants!”) and pushing past the horrified actors to escape through the theater’s back door. Lincoln was immediately carried across the street to the nearest house and doctors were brought to him, but they could do nothing; the bullet had caused severe brain damage. Lincoln died early in the morning without regaining consciousness. This marked the first time an American president had been assassinated. On Lincoln’s death, Vice President Andrew Johnson automatically succeeded him.
Booth had expected to be hailed as a hero, striking a blow for individual liberty; instead, he was vilified as a murderer, the target of a federal manhunt. Having broken his ankle in his leap to the stage, Booth had not been able to escape very far. He took refuge in a Maryland barn. When troops found him, several days after the assassination, they ordered him to surrender. When he refused to come out, they set fire to the barn and dragged him out, but not before a fatal shot rang out. One of the federal officers claimed to have fired the shot; some historians believe that Booth shot himself rather than be hanged as a traitor. He died of the gunshot wound within a few hours.
Lincoln had been beloved throughout the North. His funeral procession, which took his body home to Illinois by slow stages, was watched in silence by millions of mourners along the route—including future president Theodore Roosevelt, then a six-year-old child. Roosevelt never forgot the view of the solemn procession from the upstairs windows of his family home in New York City. President Andrew Johnson now faced the daunting task of helping the South rebuild itself.
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