Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

TUESDAY, APRIL 18, 1865 

MARYLAND SWAMPS 

DAY AND NIGHT

The military sweep through southern Maryland is ongoing and intense. Searches of towns and homes have turned up nothing, and it is clear that the time has come to scour more daunting terrain for Booth and Herold. A combined force of seven hundred Illinois cavalry, six hundred members of the Twenty-second Colored Troops, and one hundred men from the Sixteenth New York Cavalry Regiment now enter the wilderness of Maryland’s vast swamps.

“No human being inhabits this malarious extent” is how one journalist describes this region. “Even a hunted murderer would shrink from hiding there. Serpents and slimy lizards are the only living denizens … . Here the soldiers prepared to seek for the President’s assassins, and no search of the kind has ever been so thorough and patient.”

The method of searching the swamps is simple yet arduous. First, the troops assemble on the edge of bogs with names like Allen’s Creek, Scrub Swamp, and Atchall’s Swamp, standing at loose attention in the shade of a thick forest of beech, dogwood, and gum trees. Then they form two lines and march straight forward, from one side to the other. As absurd as it seems to the soldiers, marching headlong into cold mucky water, there is no other way of locating Booth and Herold. Incredibly, eighty-seven of these brave men will drown in their painstaking weeklong search for the killers.

“The soldiers were only a few paces apart,” the journalist reports, “and in steady order they took to the ground as it came, now plunging to their armpits in foul sluices of gangrened water, now hopelessly submerged in slime, now attacked by legions of wood ticks, now attempting some unfaithful log or greenishly solid morass, and plunging to the tip of the skull in poisonous stagnation. The tree boughs rent their uniforms. They came out upon dry land, many of them without a rag of garment, scratched and gnashed, and spent, repugnant to themselves, and disgusting to those who saw them.”

The soldiers detain anyone with anti-Union leanings. For many of the arrested, their only crime is either looking or behaving suspiciously. Taking them into custody is the best possible way to ensure that no suspect is overlooked.

Hundreds of these suspects soon fill Washington’s jails.

But not a single trace of Booth or Herold can be found anywhere.

Back in Washington, Lafayette Baker follows their progress. Since arriving in the capital two days earlier, Baker has distanced himself from the other investigators, “taking the usual detective measures, till then neglected,” of offering the reward, circulating photos of the suspects, and sending out a small army of handpicked detectives to scour the countryside. But he is hampered by the lack of railroads and telegraph lines through the rough and lawless countryside. There is, however, a telegraph line at Point Lookout, a former Union prisoner of war camp at the mouth of the Potomac River. To keep himself informed of all activities in the area, he dispatches a telegraph operator by steamship to that location and orders him to tap into the existing line.

Now, safe in the knowledge that he has established the broadest possible dragnet, Baker waits for that telegraph line to sing.

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