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Digital History ID 3094


At noon on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Major General Robert Anderson raised the U.S. flag over Fort Sumter. It was the same flag that he had surrendered four years before.

That evening, a few minutes after 10 o'clock, John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), a young actor and Confederate sympathizer (who had spied for Richmond and been part of a plot to kidnap Lincoln), entered the presidential box at Ford's Theater in Washington and shot the President in the back of the head. Booth then leaped to the stage, but he caught a spur in a flag draped in front of the box. He fell and broke his leg. As he fled the theater he is said to have cried out: "Sic semper tyrannis"—thus always to tyrants, the motto of the State of Virginia.

Simultaneously, a Booth accomplice, Lewis Paine, brutally attacked Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872) at his home with a knife. Seward survived because Paine's knife was deflected by a metal collar he wore from a severe accident. Seward slowly recovered from his wounds and continued to serve as Secretary of State under Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson.

Lincoln was carried unconscious to a neighboring house. He was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m., April 15. A few minutes later, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869) stepped outside and announced to the assembled crowd, "he belongs to the ages."

Following the shooting, Booth fled to Maryland on horseback. A friend then helped him escape to Virginia. On April 26, two weeks after he had shot Lincoln, the army and Secret Service tracked Booth down and trapped him in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia. When Booth refused to surrender, his pursuers set the barn on fire. Booth was found dead, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Lincoln's assassination was part of a larger plot to murder other government officials, including Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and General Ulysses S. Grant. Only Lincoln was killed. Following the assassination, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered War Department agents to apprehend the conspirators. Despite wild rumors of involvement by top Confederate officials, the actual conspirators included, apart from Booth, an ex-Confederate soldier, a carriage maker, and a druggist's clerk. Eight individuals were arrested; a military commission found all of them guilty. Four were hanged. Of the remaining four, one died in prison in 1867 and three others received presidential pardons in 1869.

Many Northerners blamed the Confederate leadership for the President's death. Anger and a thirst for vengeance against "traitors" were surely widespread. This makes it all the more remarkable that the North's victory was not followed by a massive and bloody extermination of Confederate leaders and their northern sympathizers.

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