On April 14th, 1865, the Ford Theater held a performance of Our American Cousin. The play had gained acclaim since its debut on the stage a little over half a year prior to its Ford Theater performance. It featured a cast full of talented actors, gaining acclaim as word of its quality, entertainment, and sensational wit promoted continued success. Numerous critics lauded the play, bringing attention to it on a national scale.
It was on this same night that Abraham Lincoln was murdered, sparking national mourning and a key bookmark in American history.
Assassins Gain Historical Significance
Though it’s heavily debated that giving attention to those who commit atrocious deeds encourages the behavior, recognizing that hasn’t stopped a brand of infamy growing. It’s due to this that John Wilkes Booth turned from popular stage actor to notorious assassin following Lincoln’s death. Other historical murderers have gained similar brands: Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Charles J. Guiteau have gained similar prestige.
Though these other killers have made their own imprints on history, the intertwined names of John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln stand above them. Perhaps it’s due to the convoluted history between the two. It could be due to the great tumultuous rise and fall that came from Lincoln’s success and his sudden death that made these two inexorably chained by history.
What About The Co-Conspirators?
However, since John Wilkes Booth is the primary name gleaned from this infamous assassination, it’s easy to ignore those who helped him. John Wilkes Booth was not alone in his plot, nor was the killing of Abraham Lincoln the only goal planned by him and his comrades. Dispatching Lincoln was only the first step in their plans for a larger plot. In fact, it hadn’t even been the initial goal.
John Wilkes Booth may be the most recognizable name, but his part of the assassination was only a piece of the puzzle. Among him were others aiding from the sidelines, aiming to resurrect the Confederacy’s efforts in fighting the Civil War. The goal regarding Lincoln was, in fact, a Confederate secret plot in name, action, and execution.
Who Were the Primary Co-Conspirators?
Any decent secret plot cannot be carried out by one man alone. While John Wilkes Booth is the face of the assassination, he was aided by several co-conspirators in designing and executing the deed and following escape.
Following John Wilkes Booth’s expeditious retreat from the Ford Theater, impaired by a broken leg, he escaped on horseback and soon joined by David Herold, one of his conspirators. David Herold had not been involved directly in any of the multiple assassination attempts taken place that night, rather he was in charge of ensuring a swift escape.
While he was in charge of leading another conspirator to the house of the Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Once the attempt began, Herold abandoned his conspirator and rode off, later meeting up and assisting John Wilkes Booth to safety.
Lewis Payne was responsible for one of the three targets that night. Accompanied by David Herold, he stormed into William H. Seward’s home, injuring several people inside and gravely wounding the Secretary of State before attempting to flee. However, since David Herold has already left him behind, and he was forced to fend for himself.
The final assassin involved in the plot, George Atzerodt’s target was intended to be Andrew Jackson, the Vice President at the time. However, while drinking prior to the allotted time for the assassination to take place, he lost his nerve and failed to follow through. He was arrested a few days later after sufficient evidence was found in his room regarding his involvement in the plot.
Mary and John Surratt
If there were any two sole people responsible for the organization of the Lincoln plot, Mary and John Surratt would likely be the two to look at. As a mother and son duo, they worked for years as Confederate secret service operatives at their tavern in Maryland. While their tavern became a communications hub for the Confederacy, they steadily gathered conspirators under their wing.
John Surratt was instrumental in particular in recruiting new effort into the conspiracy. Allied with John Wilkes Booth, their numbers grew in strength as they used the tavern as a frequent meeting point. Mary Surratt obtained control of a boarding house in Washington D.C., with the intent of using it to harbor agents and assist in secret activities.
The Secret Plot Against Lincoln
As we historically know it, the ultimate end of the plans regarding Lincoln came to a head when he was murdered. However, that was not the initial purpose that John Wilkes Booth and his company intended for their plot. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln came to fruition out of desperation, as opposed to being the result of a successful military stratagem. In fact, the assassination was the third attempted plot on Lincoln’s well-being.
When John Wilkes Booth began entreating Confederate hubs in his area, his initial intention with the President was a kidnapping. The first plot began unfurling in the fall of 1864, during which the Confederacy was losing ground and the war. While arguments had been made that President Jefferson Davis himself approved of all the Lincoln plots, there was never sufficient evidence to link the two.
Though President Jefferson Davis didn’t officially sign off on the attempts made on Lincoln, those who took part in them were Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. To fortify the waning South’s hopes for victory in the Civil War, John Surratt and John Wilkes Booth coordinated their efforts in a plan to kidnap Lincoln from the Ford Theater on January 18th.
This first kidnapping plan was aborted before it began. Essentially, John Wilkes Booth had planned to overpower Lincoln with his associated, bind him, and then lower him to the stage before escaping into the night. Most will agree that this plan was impractical, full of holes, and wouldn’t have a chance at success. Regardless of whether or not John Wilkes Booth had actually planned on following through on this farce will never be known, as Lincoln ended up staying the night at home due to poor weather.
It was two months later that a second kidnapping plan was pulled together, featuring a much more reasonable plan. It was discovered that, on March 17th, Abraham Lincoln was scheduled to attend a performance of Still Waters Run Deep at a hospital. It presented an opportunity that John Wilkes Booth and his company couldn’t pass up.
John Wilkes Booth recruited six accomplices to participate in the abduction. The plan was to ambush Lincoln’s carriage while en route to the performance, riding along the outskirts of the city. Not only would he be without a meaningful protection detail, but it would also give them the opportunity to escape across the Potomac into Confederate territory.
This second kidnapping attempt wouldn’t come to be either. While their second secret plot had better credibility of execution, and certainly had a modicum chance of success, their plan was foiled. Once again, rather than attending the performance, Abraham Lincoln decided to change his plans at the last minute, instead reviewing a regiment of Indian volunteers returning to the city.
What Were the Intentions of the Secret Plots?
In the fall of 1864, when John Wilkes Booth began cooperating with his co-conspirators, the South was fighting a losing battle. With a stoppage on trading prisoners of war set in place, the South was being weakened with a lack of troops to supplement their forces. Confederate agents, including John Wilkes Booth and his company, took it upon themselves to aid the army in any way they could.
Had the kidnapping attempts on Lincoln been successful, they would have spirited him away to a Southern territory. There he could be propped up as ransom to the Union, forcing them to provide a massive influx of Confederate soldiers to be released in exchange for their President’s safe return. As one of the Confederacy's greatest weaknesses at the time was a shortness of manpower, this boon would lengthen the Civil War for an indefinite amount of time.
While the kidnapping attempts would have, in John Wilkes Booth’s eyes, given victory to the Confederacy, the failure to complete either kidnapping attempts created a desperate situation. With time running out on the Confederacy’s hopes for victories, assassination became Booth’s final option. He hoped that, by eliminating three of the Union’s most prominent and powerful figures on the same night, they would cripple their morale, structure, and resolve, effectively resurrecting the South’s hopes of victory.
The End Result
While John Wilkes Booth succeeded in assassinating the President, his co-conspirators failed in their exploits. Andrew Jackson and William H. Seward survived the night, and the conspirators involved in the Lincoln assassination plot were rounded up and hanged. While their kidnapping attempts may have had some degree of success in aiding the South’s failing military strength, the assassination plot resulted in little more than tragedy.