We all know the story:
On April 14, 1865, less than five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox effectively ending the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth, a stalwart Confederate, shot President Abraham Lincoln as he and his guests watched a performance of Our American Cousin inside Ford’s Theater. The president died the next day; Booth, after twelve days on the run, was also eventually shot and killed. The event plunged the nation into despair and threatened to unravel the delicate peace needed by the country to rebuild and restore.
It’s one of the most basic, and horrific, stories from American history, forever altering this country’s landscape.
But, did you know, for all the pictures painting Booth as a nefarious, evil villain (and not all unjustly), assassinating Lincoln was not his original plan?
In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant had stopped all prisoner exchange between the Union and the Confederacy in an attempt to decrease the Confederacy’s military capability. The Confederacy did not have as much man-power as the Union, and withholding prisoners further hindered that number, hurting their cause substantially. Booth, a die-hard Confederate loyalist, found the situation abhorrent. And he had a plan to do something about it.
“We cannot spare one man,” he wrote in a letter to fellow sympathizer John Surratt, “whereas the United States government is willing to let their own soldiers remain in our prisons because she has no need of the men. I have a proposition to submit to you, which I think if we can carry out will bring about the desired exchange.”
His plan? Kidnap President Lincoln and use him as the catalyst for exchange of Confederate prisoners.
He and a group of six other men (Surratt, Samuel Arnold, George A. Atzerodt, Michael O’Laughlin, David E. Herold and Lewis Powell (Payne)) began to devise ways in order to carry out their idea. One notion was to capture Lincoln while he was watching a play in Ford’s Theater. They would kidnap the President in his box, lower him onto the stage, and carry him out of the theater. Another was to capture the President while he was traveling to the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln’s main residence during the hot summer months, to get to which he had to travel through several miles of rural areas with little to no protection.
But as the men were planning, a new opportunity presented itself: on March 17, 1865, the President would be going to the Campbell Military Hospital to see a play.
Seeing this as their chance, the men quickly met at a nearby restaurant to iron out the details. They would stop the carriage as Lincoln returned home after the play, overpowering the President and his driver. Both men would be handcuffed and taken across the Potomac River through Southern Maryland, where they would be held until the agreed upon prisoner exchange could be achieved. Booth, they decided, would head the hospital beforehand, just to make sure everything was on schedule for the heist.
After the meeting, the men scattered, each to their assigned positions. Booth, as planned, went on ahead to the hospital. To his frustration, he discovered Lincoln was not there.
The President, as it turned out, had changed plans. He was attending a ceremony at the National Hotel instead.
The failed escapade was the proverbial nail in the coffin for the group of conspirators. Convinced they could not continue to meet for much longer without being discovered by the authorities, the men disbanded. The plot to kidnap Lincoln–and save their beloved Confederacy–was a lost cause.
To all of them but John Wilkes Booth.
Rather than feeling defeated, the group’s lack of success only fueled Booth’s rage. His hatred was further intensified by the South’s surrender in early April. The fighting stopped. A kidnapping would solve nothing. There would be no more need of a prisoner exchange.
The war had ended.
But that didn’t mean it was over.
“My love (as things stand to-day) is for the South alone,” Booth wrote in a letter to his brother. And for that love, Lincoln, a “man to whom she owes so much misery” had to pay.