Revisiting the Civil War's last scenes History: From Washington to Southern Maryland, reminders of Lincoln's assassination and John Wilkes Booth's escape route still stand.

April 13, 1997|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Of all the millions of bullets fired during the American Civil War, that with the most resonance was the fatal shot into the back of Abraham Lincoln's head by the assassin John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre in Washington on the night of April 14, 1865.

Coming just 12 days after the fall of Richmond and five after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, that murderous moment served as the climax of the Civil War.

Presence of Lincoln

Even now, watching a modern-day musical in this handsomely restored 19th-century theater, one senses Lincoln's melancholy presence behind the drapes of that always-vacant box. At the annual Ford's Theatre Gala celebrations held early every spring (the 1997 gala ended last month), actors of the caliber of Sam Waterston make speeches addressed to its unseen occupant.

So much of the Civil War has vanished beneath regrown forest and meadow or, more commonly, been bulldozed over for highway construction and real estate development.

But the setting for much of its dramatic last chapter -- Lincoln's assassination and the ferocious hunt for Booth and his fellow conspirators -- has survived remarkably intact.

Though immediately closed after the murder and kept that way until completion of a grand restoration in 1965, Ford's now looks almost exactly as it did that fateful night -- but for the addition of electric lights, slightly more comfortable wooden chairs and a splendid if somber museum in the basement.

Directly across 10th Street from the theater, Petersen House and the small back bedroom where Lincoln was taken to die -- and where Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered the words, "Now he belongs to the ages" -- has been maintained as it was that night and is open to the public.

Anyone interested in this most important segment of American history can also take auto or bus tours of the escape route Booth followed on his famous one-eyed horse, down through Southern Maryland to the Surratt Tavern and Dr. Samuel Mudd's House, and across the Potomac into Virginia, where Booth hoped to find refuge.

Booth was well-known

Only 27 when he assassinated Lincoln, Booth was one of the most popular actors in the United States, making a then movie-star-sized $20,000 a year.

For all Booth's romanticized passion for the South, his only military contribution was a brief and informal prewar stint with a Virginia military regiment during the trial and hanging of abolitionist John Brown. Because of a pathological fear of injuring and marring his face (and perhaps a more deep-seated cowardice), Booth balked at taking part in the actual war. There's reason to believe he carried out the assassination in a last desperate effort to play some significant public role in the great struggle before it passed into history.

Except for Confederate spy and courier John Surratt, in whose mother's Washington boardinghouse much of the plot was concocted, Booth's co-conspirators were a largely dumb and feckless lot. Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlin were friends from his childhood. Edman Spangler and David Herold were layabouts dazzled by Booth's stardom and heroic posturing. George Atzerodt was a lonesome saloon habitue desperate for friends.

Others Booth tried to recruit, including at least one actor friend, blanched at the suggestion. One resident of the Surratt boardinghouse became suspicious enough to warn the War Department of the plot, but there were literally thousands of reports of assassination conspiracies swirling about Washington and the tip got lost in a bureaucratic shuffle.

Though he loved the theater and comedies like that night's fare, "Our American Cousin," Lincoln had not wanted to attend the performance, but thought it might be a good public occasion to show off Gen. U.S. Grant, who was just back from the front. After Grant and his wife declined the invitation, Lincoln went anyway and died as a result.

Breaking his leg in his famous leap to the stage, Booth dragged himself out to an alley (no longer open to the street) and galloped off on his one-eyed horse, which was recognized by passers-by who were able to tip Union Army pursuers as to Booth's escape route.

Stopped at tavern

At Surrattsville (now Clinton, Md.), Booth and henchman Herold stopped at a tavern owned by Mary Surratt for rest, whiskey, firearms and provender, and then went to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd near Bryantown, where Booth's broken leg was treated.

From there, pausing at farmhouses and traveling at night to avoid the numerous Union patrols scouring the vicinity, they made their way to the Potomac. Acquiring a small boat, they went upstream, then down, landing finally on the Virginia shore and hurrying on to the Rappahannock River. Just south of that, near Port Royal, Va., they holed up in the Garrett Farm barn, which was surrounded by Union soldiers who set fire to it.

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