Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

MONDAY, APRIL 10, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

NIGHT

John Wilkes Booth picks up his gun.

One mile down Pennsylvania Avenue, so close he can almost hear the beloved strains of “Dixie” being belted out so heretically by a Yankee band, the twenty-six-year-old actor stands alone in a pistol range. The smell of gunpowder mixes with the fragrant pomade of his mustache. His feet are set slightly wider than shoulder width, his lean athletic torso is turned at a right angle to the bull’s-eye, and his right arm is extended in a line perfectly parallel with the floor. In his fist he cradles the sort of pint-sized pistol favored by ladies and cardsharps.

He fires.

Booth scrutinizes the target. Satisfied, he reloads his single-shot .44-caliber Deringer. His mood is a mixture of rage and despondence. Things have gone to hell since Lee surrendered. Richmond is gone, and with it the Confederate leadership. The “secesh” community—those southern secessionist sympathizers living a secret life in the nation’s capital—is in disarray. There’s no one to offer guidance to Booth and the other secret agents of the Confederacy.

At this point, there are at least four Confederate groups conspiring to harm the president. Two are plotting a kidnapping, one is planning to smuggle dress shirts infected with yellow fever into his dresser drawers, and another intends to blow up the White House.

Booth is part of a kidnapping conspiracy. He prefers the term “capture.” Kidnapping is a crime, but capturing an enemy during a time of war is morally correct. The Confederate government has strict rules governing its agents’ behavior. If Booth does indeed get the chance, he is allowed to capture the president, truss him like a pig, subject him to a torrent of verbal and mental harassment, and even punch him in the mouth, should the opportunity present itself. The one thing he is not allowed to do is engage in “black flag warfare.”

Or in a word: murder.

Booth wonders if the restriction against black flag warfare still applies. And, if not, what he should do about it. That’s why he’s at the range. He has a major decision to make. Shooting helps him think.

Booth fires again. The split-second bang fills him with power, drowning out the celebrations and focusing his mind. Again, he tamps in a ball and a percussion cap.

There is a darkness to Booth’s personality, born of the entitlement that comes with celebrity. He is a boaster and a liar, fond of embellishing stories to make himself sound daring and adventurous. He is cruel and mercurial. He is a bully, eager to punish those who don’t agree with his points of view. Outside of his love for his mother, Booth is capable of doing anything to satisfy his own urges.

Booth is also a white supremacist. His most closely guarded secret is that he has temporarily given up the profession of acting to fight for the pro-slavery movement. The abolition movement, in Booth’s mind, is the real cause of the Civil War, a serpent that must be crushed. Enslavement of blacks is part of the natural order, Booth believes, and central to the South’s economy. Blacks, he maintains, are third-class citizens who should spend their lives working for the white man. Not only does this life fulfill them, but they are begging for correction when they step out of line. “I have been through the whole south and have marked the happiness of master and man,” Booth writes. “I have seen the black man whipped. But only when he deserved much more than he received.”

As a teenager, Booth was traumatized when runaway slaves killed a schoolmate’s father. He is willing to swear an oath that this sort of violence will happen on a much larger scale if the South loses the war. Newly freed slaves will slaughter southern white men, rape their women and daughters, and instigate a bloodbath unlike any other in recorded history.

The only way to prevent that is to reinstate slavery by winning the Civil War.

It crushes Booth to think that the South has lost. He shuts the idea out of his mind. Lee’s surrender, Booth believes, was a gross error in judgment. Even the great Marse Robert is allowed an occasional lapse.

Booth takes solace in the 146,000 Confederate troops spread out from North Carolina to Texas that have refused to lay down their weapons. So long as those men are willing to fight, the Confederacy—and slavery—will live on.

And now, Booth will give them another reason to fight.

That he was born just south of the Mason-Dixon Line and nearly a northerner means nothing. Booth nurtures a deep hatred for his father and the nation’s father figure, Abraham Lincoln. Booth was jealous of his father, an accomplished actor who never acknowledged his young son’s talent. Booth’s paternal loathing has now been transferred to the president; it flared to full burn when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Booth could have enlisted in the war. But soldiering, even for the Confederate cause, is far too mundane for his flamboyant personality. He cares little about battles won or lost, or battlefields hundreds of miles from the fancy hotels he calls home. Booth is fighting the Civil War on his terms, using his talents, choreographing the action like a great director. The grand finale will be a moment straight from the stage, some stunning dramatic conclusion when antagonist and protagonist meet face-to-face, settling their differences once and for all. The antagonist, of course, will win.

That antagonist will be Booth.

And what could be more dramatic than kidnapping Lincoln?

The plan is for Booth to gag and bind him, then smuggle him out of Washington, D.C., into the hands of Confederate forces. The president of the United States will rot in a rat-infested dungeon until slavery has been reinstated. Booth will sit before him and deliver a furious monologue, accusing Lincoln of stupidity and self-importance. It doesn’t matter that Lincoln won’t be able to talk back; Booth has no interest in anything the president has to say.

Lincoln keeps a summer residence three miles outside Washington, at a place called the Soldiers’ Home. Seeking respite from the Washington humidity or just to get away from the office seekers and politicos permeating the White House year-round, the president escapes there alone on horseback most evenings. From George Washington onward, presidents of the United States have usually been comfortable traveling with an entourage. But Lincoln, who enjoys his solitude, has no patience for that.

The president thinks his getaways are secret, but men like Booth and the members of the Confederate Secret Service are always watching. Booth’s original mission, as defined by his southern handlers, was to capture Lincoln while he rode on the lonely country road to the Soldiers’ Home.

Booth tried and failed twice. Now he has a new plan, one that preys on Lincoln’s fondness for the theater. He will grab him in mid-performance, from the presidential box at a Washington playhouse.

The scheme, however, is so crazy, so downright impossible that none of his co-conspirators will go along with it.

One of them has even backed out completely and taken the train home. It is as if Booth has rehearsed and rehearsed for a major performance, only to have the production canceled moments before the curtain rises. He has poured thousands of dollars into the plan. Some of that money has come from his own pocket; most has been supplied by the Confederacy. And now the scheme will never come to pass.

Booth fires at the bull’s-eye.

The Deringer is less than six inches long, made of brass, with a two-inch barrel. It launches a single large-caliber ball instead of a bullet and is accurate only at close range. For this reason it is often called a “gentleman’s pistol”—small and easily concealed in a pocket or boot, the Deringer is ideal for ending an argument or extracting oneself from a dangerous predicament but wholly unsuited for the battlefield. Booth has purchased other weapons for his various plots, including the cache of revolvers and long-bladed daggers now hidden in his hotel room. But the Deringer with the chocolate-colored wooden grip is his personal favorite. It is not lost on him that the pistol’s primary traits—elegance, stealth, and the potential to produce mayhem—match those of its owner.

Booth is almost out of ammunition. He loads his gun for one last shot, still plotting his next course of action.

He is absolutely certain he can kidnap Lincoln.

But as Booth himself would utter while performing Hamlet, there’s the rub.

If the war is over, then kidnapping Lincoln is pointless.

Yet Lincoln is still the enemy. He always will be.

So if Booth is no longer a kidnapper, then how will he wage war? This is the question that has bothered him all night.

Booth fires his last shot, slides the Deringer into his pocket, and storms out the door, only to once again find the streets full of inebriated revelers. Outraged, he steps into a tavern and knocks back a drink. John Wilkes Booth thinks hard about what comes next. “Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done,” he tells himself.

Until now, Booth has taken orders from Confederate president Jefferson Davis, currently in hiding. It was Davis who, nearly a year ago, sent two agents to Montreal with a fund of $1 million in gold. That money funded various plots against Lincoln. But Davis is done, fleeing to North Carolina in a train filled with looted Confederate gold, most likely never to return. Booth alone must decide for himself what is wrong and what is right.

From this moment forward he will live and breathe and scheme in accordance with his brand-new identity, and his new mission. The time has come for black flag warfare.

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