Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

THURSDAY, APRIL 13, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

NIGHT

The four conspirators squeeze into room 6 at the Herndon House hotel, a few blocks from the White House. Booth, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and George Atzerodt lounge on the chairs and perch on the edge of the bed as Booth talks them through the plan. His recruiting trip to Baltimore was unsuccessful. He is too agitated to sit, so he paces as he thinks out loud. The wooden floor becomes a stage, and his oration a performance that takes him from stage left to stage right, then back to stage left again as he breaks down the plan. The parties outside are neither a distraction nor an offense, but a reminder of why they have gathered. Logically, each man knows that there must be plenty of Confederate sympathizers in Washington, huddled in their homes with jaws clenched as they endure the revelry. But right now the would-be assassins feel that they are the only ones who can right the grievous wrong.

Lewis Powell is the youngest and most experienced of the conspirators. He is a tall, powerfully built, and otherwise very handsome man—save for his face being deformed on one side, thanks to a mule’s kick. Unlike the others, Powell has actually killed a man, and may have enjoyed it very much. During the war the Floridian fought in several major battles, was wounded at Gettysburg, successfully escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp, and worked for the Confederate Secret Service. He is a solid horseman and quick with a knife. Thanks to his military training, Powell knows the value of reconnaissance. He prepped for his attack that morning by walking past Secretary of State Seward’s home on Madison Place, scoping out the best possible ways in and out of the building. He boldly struck up a conversation with Seward’s male nurse, just to make sure the secretary was indeed at home.

The reconnaissance is good news for Booth. He thus knows the location of two of the intended victims. Now it is his job to find Lincoln. An afternoon talking to stage managers had led to the inescapable conclusion that Lincoln is not going to the theater tonight. Booth, it seems, will not have his grand theatrical moment. Much to his dismay, it appears as if shooting Lincoln will be as mundane as putting a bullet into his brain on a crowded street during the Grand Illumination and then running like hell.

It finally dawns on one very drunk George Atzerodt that the plan has shifted from kidnapping to murder. The only reason he joined the conspiracy was that, in addition to running a small carriage-repair business in Port Tobacco, Maryland, he moonlights as a smuggler, ferrying mail, contraband, and people across the broad Potomac into Virginia. It is a hardscrabble and often dangerous existence. Atzerodt’s role in the kidnapping was to be an act of commerce, not rebellion. He was to be paid handsomely to smuggle the bound-and-gagged Lincoln into the hands of the Confederates.

But there is no longer a Confederacy, no longer a kidnapping plot, no longer a need for a boat, and certainly no longer a need for a smuggler—at least in Atzerodt’s mind. The thirty-year-old German immigrant slurs that he wants out.

Booth calmly springs his blackmail.

Booth cannot do without Atzerodt. His boat and his knowledge of the Potomac’s currents are vital to their escape. A massive manhunt will surely begin the instant Lincoln is killed. Federal officials will seal off Washington, D.C., and canvass the Maryland and Virginia countryside, but with Atzerodt’s guidance Booth and his men will rush through rural Maryland ahead of the search parties, cross the Potomac, and then follow smugglers’ routes south to Mexico.

Booth has rehearsed for this moment. He knows his lines and recites them with great drama.

“Then we will do it,” Booth says, nodding at Herold and Powell, never taking his eyes off the drunk German. “But what will come of you?”

And then, as if pulling the solution out of thin air: “You had better come along and get your horse.”

At the word “horse,” Atzerodt’s heart skips a beat. He’s trapped. Booth long ago suggested that the two men share horses from time to time. The horse a man rides is part of his identity. By sharing Booth’s favorite horse—which seemed like such a simple and thoughtful gesture on the actor’s part all those weeks ago—Atzerodt is now visibly connected to the assassination plot. Atzerodt has ridden Booth’s horse all over Washington and has even helped him sell a few animals; so there will be no shortage of witnesses.

Atzerodt sighs and nods his head. Murder it is. There is no way out for him.

The time has come. The four men stand, aware that they are about to commit the greatest crime in the history of the United States.

Before opening the door, Booth reminds them that their post-assassination rendezvous point is the road to Nanjemoy, on the Maryland side of the Potomac. Normally the sight of a lone horseman galloping out of Washington, D.C., long after dark would make the sentries guarding the bridges suspicious. But tonight is not a normal night. All those folks who’ve come into Washington for the Illumination will be making their way back home when it’s all done. Booth and his men will easily blend in with the same drunken bleating masses who are now making that wretched noise on the streets outside room 6.

If for some reason they can’t do the job tonight, they will remain in Washington and try again tomorrow.

Booth shakes hands with each man. They leave one at a time and go their separate ways.

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