New Evidence Proves This Small Miscalculation Led to the Eventual Capture of John Wilkes Booth

By: Past Chronicles Staff | Last updated: Oct 03, 2023

April 14, 1865, was a momentous day that sent American history spiraling in a strange new direction. The Civil War was winding down, and a Union victory looked like it was all but won. However, the Confederates weren’t about to go down without a fight. 

The generally accepted understanding is that a crew of Confederate conspirators came up with a plan to salvage the war for their side. The plan? Assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. This crew was helmed by the now-infamous John Wilkes Booth, and once the deed was done, he led authorities on an astonishing 13-day manhunt. In the pages that follow, you’ll discover all of Booth’s mistakes and lucky breaks and get a look at newly-discovered evidence relating to his capture.

Booth’s Assassination Plan

Booth and his allies didn’t set out to kill the president at all. Their initial plan was to kidnap Lincoln and trade him for prisoners of war. As you can probably imagine, that would have been a far more complicated and risky mission. However, the difficulties weren’t the driving force behind Booth’s change of plans.


Source: American Film Company

In the midst of his strategizing, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. Richmond fell, and Booth (who was an actor by trade) decided they would have to upgrade the plan to include murder.


Booth Planned Multiple Murders

At this stage, he and his fellow Confederate conspirators went a bit overboard with their murder plot. Since they would be killing Lincoln, why not throw in Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward for good measure?


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The lads figured that would adequately avenge the South, throw the Union off-course, and potentially turn the Civil War around. However, they soon learned that previous assassination attempts on Seward and Johnson had failed dismally. Adding them to the hit list didn’t seem quite so appealing after that.

Getting the Job Done

So, Booth focussed on the most “heroic” part of his mission – killing the president (as we’ll see soon, he genuinely believed he was on a hero’s quest). After maneuvering his way through Ford’s Theatre, Booth finally made it to the Presidential Box at 10:14 PM. 


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The assassin wasted no time, firing his .41 caliber Derringer pistol and shooting President Lincoln in the back of the head. Chaos erupted, and Booth capitalized on the confusion, leaping from the box and down onto the stage. 

Fleeing the Theater

Dramatic actor that he was, Booth took a moment on the stage to cry out, “Sic Semper Tyrannus.” In case you’re not fluent in Latin, that’s a quote attributed to Brutus (Caesar’s assassin). In English, it translates to “Thus always to tyrants.” Satisfied with his melodramatic exit, Booth hurried out of the theater and found the horse his allies left for him. 


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He mounted the steed and took off over the Navy Yard Bridge. From Washington, he fled to Maryland, where he met one of his co-conspirators, David Herold. Together, they took off for Surrattsville, where supplies were waiting for them in a secret cache. But something wasn’t right. 

Did John Wilkes Booth Break His Leg?

Booth was in agony. That dramatic moment on the stage had cost him dearly – the jump down broke his leg. Anyone who’s ever ridden a horse will know that it would be neither easy nor comfortable with a broken leg. 

Source: via Wikimedia Commons

Booth couldn’t ride as far or as fast as they really needed to be going. The men soon concluded that there was nothing else for it – they would have to find a doctor. They turned to Dr. Samuel Mudd, a physician famous for his Confederate sympathies.


Hiding Out With Confederate Allies

Mudd set Booth’s leg and gave the men a safe space to rest in for a few hours. Still, they had to make it to Surratt’s Tavern soon if they were going to have any hope of securing their supplies. Unfortunately, almost as soon as they set off, they got lost. 

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They wandered hopelessly around Zekiah Swamp until, finally, a farmer set them on the path to Rich Hill. There, they could find Samuel Cox. Booth and Herold arrived at around 1 AM. 


Through Thick(ET) And Thin

Though they were dirty and exhausted, they were thrilled to be stepping into the home of another Confederate ally. However, Cox did not give them the warm welcome they expected. 

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Cox did not want Booth or Herold in his house. So, he sent the confused men out into a pine thicket that bordered his property. Cox had good reason to be concerned. At that very moment, more than 1,000 Union soldiers were hunting Booth, and bounties were being offered not just for the assassin but also for his accomplices. 


Booth Didn’t Like the Newspaper Coverage

Booth was shocked to see the massive bounty on his head (the equivalent of more than $1 million in today’s currency). A friend, Thomas Jones, brought him supplies while he was stuck in the pine thicket, including the latest newspapers. 

Source: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Booth imagined that he would be the hero of the moment, but instead, the newspapers painted him as a villain. Even the newspapers from the South portrayed him as an evil and cowardly man.


A Hero in His Own Mind

Booth’s diary reveals how deeply this negative coverage hurt him. “I am here in despair,” he wrote, “and why? For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a hero.” The “Tell” he’s referring to there is William Tell, who famously assassinated the tyrannical Albrecht Gessler and was hailed a hero.  

Source: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

“Yet I,” Booth continued, “for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat.” Apparently, that dramatic moment on the stage hadn’t impressed anyone but himself. 


Walking to the Potomac River

Herold stuck by Booth the whole time, and the two men spent four anxious days stuck in the thicket. Finally, on April 20, Jones brought good news along with his rations. The Union soldiers had moved on, meaning Booth and Herold could continue their escape plan.

Source: Ron Cogswell/Flickr|CC BY 2.0

Unfortunately, the men had handicapped themselves once again. They slaughtered their horses, fearing they’d give away their hiding spot. So, they had no choice but to cover the 3.5 miles to the Potomac on foot, with Booth’s broken leg.


River Crossing

Shockingly, they made it without incident. Jones had accompanied them, and he set them up with a small skiff and launched them onto the river. However, in the foggy conditions, the men got lost (again). 

Source: James Morrison Photography/Flickr|CC BY 2.0

In their defense, the fog was so thick they couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. So, instead of arriving at their intended destination (Machodoc Creek, Virginia), they ended up at Nanjemoy Creek. In other words, they were still in Maryland.


River Crossing – Take Two

“Still in Marland” meant still in danger. However, the men made the most of their mistake, foraging for provisions and finding a place to settle in and get some rest for the night. 

Source: Appomattox CH NHP/Twitter

With Booth’s leg giving him trouble and rumors suggesting Union soldiers were in the vicinity, the men decided to wait for a better time to try the river crossing again. Amazingly, they were beset by fog again on their second attempt. However, this time, it saved their lives. 


Booth’s Lucky Break

Breaking his leg was decidedly problematic. However, Booth did have plenty of lucky breaks on his journey. April 22 marked his second attempt to cross the Potomac, and his skiff came shockingly close to a Union gunboat that had been patrolling the waters. 

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However, as mentioned, the foggy conditions saved him. They heard the Union vessel, but the fog gave them just enough cover to evade their captors. Booth felt that luck was on his side. Little did he know that it was about to run out. 


Union Soldiers Were Never Far Behind

Booth had plenty of close calls with the Union troops, who were never far behind the assassin and his companion. By April 22, they’d already arrested Dr. Mudd and everyone involved in delivering the Surratt Tavern supplies. 

Source: Glen Bledsoe/Flickr|CC BY 2.0

The Union lads knew Booth would be heading south. So, as Booth and Herold dreamed of free passage through Virginia, more and more Union soldiers were gathering there. Booth’s luck was indeed running out quickly. He just didn’t know it yet. 


Rest for the Wicked

Though the noose was already tightening around his neck, Booth continued to run into lucky breaks and small windfalls. Confederate sympathizers were willing to risk their safety to protect him – at least for a little while. So, Booth and Herold passed from safe house to safe house. 

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Some were kind and welcoming. Others were not at all impressed with the assassin, his friend, and the danger they brought with them. Finally, they settled into the home of Richard Garrett after lying to him and telling him they were soldiers and that Booth simply needed to rest his broken leg.


Suspicious Hosts

Garrett gave Booth a proper bed to sleep in so he could heal up. The assassin relished the luxuries afforded him, spending the next day guzzling whiskey and entertaining Garrett’s children. All the while, however, Garrett’s wife was growing more and more suspicious. 


When she spoke to her husband, she discovered that he was feeling the exact same way. Wary of their strange guests, they asked the men to move to the barn for the night – a decision that proved fatal. 


Booth’s Last Day

Booth did not get a good night’s sleep in the barn, but not for the reasons he suspected. At 2:30 AM, he was awoken by the last sound he wanted to hear – cavalry horses, lots of them. It was the 26th of April – Booth’s last day on Earth. 

Source: Skitterphoto/Pixabay

He quickly woke Herold, and they gathered their things and headed for the barn doors. Try as they might, those doors would not budge. As it turns out, the suspicious homeowners had locked them in and sealed their fate.


Never Give Up, Never Surrender

The Garrett family’s actions were understandable. They didn’t want criminals fleeing with their horses, and they certainly didn’t want to be arrested for harboring them. So, Booth was finally in the clutches of the Union soldiers. However, they still had a tricky situation on their hands.

Source: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The men had orders to capture Booth alive, so they tried to talk him into surrendering. Herold gave in almost immediately. However, Booth was too dramatic to go down without a fight. His journal reveals his plan to propose a duel with the commanding officer. 


John Wilkes Booth’s Fiery Demise

If the officer won, Booth would die. If Booth won, he would earn his freedom. Of course, the Union commander declined. Instead, he set fire to the barn, hoping to scare the murderer out. 


Booth came out alright, but he didn’t have his hands in the air. Instead, he charged at the waiting troops. A startled young soldier (Boston Corbett) shot Booth in the neck. John Wilkes Booth’s death was recorded at 7:15 AM.


Booth’s Last Words

Since he was surrounded by soldiers as he drew his last breath, we have a record of his final words. Apparently, Booth held his hands up toward one of the soldiers while muttering the words “useless, useless.”

Source: Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though his final moments were decidedly anticlimactic, Booth went down in history as one of the world’s most famous assassins. Unlike William Tell, however, he was never hailed a hero by the public. Indeed, the actor’s legacy certainly hasn’t lived up to his lofty expectations.