This week in history: Mass assassination plot to overthrow the government

Lincoln Assassination At Ford Theatre
Lincoln Assassination At Ford Theatre

By Dave Jolly at

1861 through 1865 were the most troubling and deadly years in America’s history. Around 620,000 Americans died from wounds and disease during the Civil War. That was around 2% of the total population of America at the time. Not only was the nation torn apart, but many families were also torn apart as brothers and fathers fought against each other on opposite sides of the battle.

One man, more than any other carried the burden of the Civil War on his back and he paid dearly for it. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, was elected in November 1860 and was targeted for assassination before he could be sworn into office.

The first assassination attempt was planned to take place on February 23, 1861 while Lincoln was travelling from Illinois to Washington DC in preparation of his March 4 inauguration. His train was scheduled to stop in Baltimore on the way to DC and there was a small group of assassins waiting for him. Their plan was thwarted when Lincoln’s wife persuaded him to continue on to DC because of information of a possible assassination attempt in Baltimore.

On a night in mid-August 1864, Lincoln was riding his horse back to his summer retreat outside of Washington DC when an assassin fired a shot at him. The shot hit his top hat but missed the president.

Upon Lincoln’s re-election in November, 1864, actor John Wilkes Booth began hatching a plan to kidnap the president. Booth was the son of the best known Shakespearian actor in America at the time, Junius Brutus Booth. His older brother, Edwin Booth was also a very famous actor at the time. John was also one of the best known actors in America at the time, earning $20,000 a year when the average Northern household earned a mere $300 a year.

Booth recruited a group of southern sympathizers to help him kidnap Lincoln. His first plan was to capture Lincoln from his booth at Ford’s Theater, tie him up, lower him to the stage and then take him to Richmond, Virginia. Then he would ransom him for the release of Confederate prisoners that were being held in northern jails.

His second plan was to capture Lincoln on March 17, 1865 as he traveled in his carriage. However, Lincoln changed his itinerary for that day and the kidnapping never took place.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia.

On April 11, 1865, Lincoln spoke from the White House balcony and laid out some of his plans for reconstruction and unifying the southern states with the Union.

After both kidnapping plans fell through, Booth was more determined than ever to take action to stop Lincoln. Booth was there on the White House lawn listening to Lincoln speak about allowing literate blacks to vote among other things. Booth was livid at what he heard and told fellow conspirator Lewis Powell:

“That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

Booth’s new plan was not only to assassinate Lincoln, but to kill Grant who was supposed to be with Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. Other members of Booth’s group were to assassinate Secretary of State William Sewell and Vice President Andrew Johnson, all on the same night. Booth believed that mass assassination would throw the federal government and the Republican Party into turmoil, hopefully giving the Confederacy enough time to regroup and resist Union control…

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Photo credit Wikimedia

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