Civil War Profiles: The pursuit, capture and death of Lincoln’s assassin

Date Published: 
January 10, 2014

The controversial head of the National Detective Bureau, Col. Lafayette C. Baker, was instrumental in tracking down the man who shot President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Officially, Baker was the District of Columbia provost marshal who reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Stanton assigned Baker to pursue alleged assassin John Wilkes Booth, who had successfully escaped from the city and was believed to be heading toward safe harbor in the Confederacy. At that point, Stanton was desperate, and he knew that Baker had a reputation for operating without regard for such constitutional rights as due process or warrants for search or arrest.

After the culmination of the pursuit on April 26, Baker related to journalist George Alfred Townsend the details of what had transpired. Townsend published his narrative two days later, to supplement his previous “letters” to the public in the New York World concerning the assassination, the president’s funeral and a profile of Booth.

The reporter related that Baker’s “hard and grizzly [bearded] face” “overlooks me as I write,” and identified him as “the capturer of the late president’s murderer.” Townsend added that two of Booth’s fellow conspirators, named George Atzeroth and Dr. Samuel Mudge (Mudd) were already in custody.

Townsend explained that Baker had deputized his cousin Lt. Luther B. Baker and Lt. Col. Everton J. Conger to lead a search party including 25 men of the 16th New York Cavalry under Lt. Edward P. Dougherty (Doherty), and sent them by steamer down the Potomac River to Belle Plain, near Fredericksburg, Va.

There, they disembarked to set about “riding up to farmhouses and questioning the inmates” to determine if they had seen two men traveling through the area, as co-conspirator David Herold accompanied Booth.

In the meantime, Booth and Herold had stopped at Surrattsville, Md., to obtain weapons kept in hiding at Surratt’s Tavern before proceeding to the home of Dr. Mudd, to have him examine and repair Booth’s broken leg, injured following the assassination. The two fugitives continued their trek through the swamps and woods of Southern Maryland and by April 23 were able to cross the Potomac in a boat to the Virginia side.

Working their way south, the two men found refuge at a farm near Port Royal, under assumed identities. Townsend noted that “History … had stopped, to make a landmark of [Richard] Garrett’s farm.”

Baker and Conger, along with the Union cavalrymen, were in hot pursuit, having learned “from a negro named Lucas” that two men fitting the description had crossed the Rappahannock River moving in the direction of Bowling Green in Caroline County.

With a local fisherman named William Rollins as a guide and with information extracted from members of Mosby’s Confederate guerrillas taken into custody — to whom the conspirators had ill-advisedly bragged about their deed — the search party tracked Booth and Herold to their temporary sanctuary.

It was there, in “an old barn, high and weather-beaten,” that the Union pursuers trapped the unsuspecting assassins at night, asleep. Baker commanded, “To the persons in this barn … surrender … or we’ll set fire to the place.”

Awakened, Booth attempted to bargain with the troops, to no avail. A frightened Herold decided to give up, and “Baker, seizing him, jerked him into the night,” placing him under arrest. Booth continued to plead his case from inside the barn, but “it was too late for parley.”

Conger decided to set fire to the barn, and Townsend dramatically pictured Booth “with carbine in both hands … [with] eyes lustrous with fever … [he] peered with vengeance … [and] pushed for the door.”

In the book “Manhunt,” James L. Swanson quoted one of the cavalrymen, Sgt. Boston Corbett, who, despite orders to take Booth alive, “took steady aim [with my revolver] … and shot [John Wilkes Booth] through a large crack in the barn.”

The Union troops quickly entered the flaming barn, and “taking up the body, they bore it in haste from the advancing flame.” Paralyzed from a bullet in the neck, Booth murmured to Baker, “Tell Mother I died for my country.”

When the assassin asked to see his hands, he bemoaned, “Useless, useless.” The New York World reporter thought these last words from Booth’s mouth “tell the history of a young and once-promising life.”

In the next few days, the Delaware-bred reporter would investigate the people who plotted to capture or kill the president of the United States. His next letter would be devoted to “A Solution of the Conspiracy.”

Bethany Beach resident Thomas
J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War:
A Political, Military and Social
Perspective.” Contact him at
pennmardel@mchsi.com.