Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER SIXTY

MONDAY-TUESDAY, APRIL 24-25, 1865 

VIRGINIA-MARYLAND BORDER 

DAY

Samuel H. Beckwith is in Port Tobacco, the “Gomorrah,” in Lafayette Baker’s words, of Maryland. He is the telegraph operator specially detailed by Baker to keep the detective apprised of all actions in the Booth dragnet. Now he telegraphs a coded message back to Washington, stating that investigators have questioned local smugglers and learned that Booth and Herold have gone across the Potomac River.

The evidence is, in fact, erroneous. It refers to a group of men smuggled into Virginia on Easter Sunday, not Booth and Herold. Lafayette Baker immediately reacts, however, sending twenty-five members of the Sixteenth New York Cavalry by the steamship John S. Ide from Washington downriver to Belle Plain, Virginia. All of the men have volunteered for the mission. The senior officers are Baker’s cousin Lieutenant Luther Baker and Colonel Everton Conger, a twenty-nine-year-old, highly regarded veteran of the Civil War.

Lafayette Baker sees them off. “I want you to go to Virginia and get Booth,” he says and then puts his cousin in charge, despite the lower rank.

The Ide pushes back at two P.M., for a four-hour voyage. It arrives at the simple wharf and warehouse along the shore just after dark. The men immediately spur their horses down the main road of Belle Plain, Virginia, and then into the countryside, knocking on farmhouse doors and questioning the occupants. They stop any and all riders and carriages they encounter, pressing hard for clues as to Booth’s whereabouts.

But nobody has seen Booth or Herold—or, if they have, they’re not talking. By morning the cavalry squad is in Port Conway, more than ten miles inland from the Potomac. Exhausted, their horses wrung out from the long night, the soldiers are starting to feel as if this is just another futile lead. Conger has promised them all an equal share of the more than $200,000 in reward money awaiting those who capture Booth. This spurred them to ride all night, but now the prize seems unattainable. They are growing fearful that the Ide will return to Washington without them, leaving them to wait days for another ship.

During their trip south, Lieutenant Luther Baker made the rather wise decision to give the command back to Conger. “You have been over the ground,” he told the veteran.

Then, just as they are about to give up and go home, on the shores of the Rappahannock River, at a ferry crossing known as Port Royal, two men positively identify photographs of Booth and Herold. They passed through the previous day and were traveling with a small group of Confederate veterans.

By this time, the twenty-five cavalry soldiers are exhausted, “so haggard and wasted with travel that had to be kicked into intelligence before they could climb to their saddles,” Lieutenant Baker will later recall.

But climb into their saddles they do, for hours and hours of more searching.

At two o’clock in the morning, at a handsome whitewashed farm three hundred yards off the main road, they finally come to a halt. The ground is soft clay, so their horses’ hooves make no sound. The soldiers draw their carbines from their scabbards as Lieutenant Baker dismounts and opens the property’s main gate. He has no certain knowledge of anything nefarious. It is just a hunch.

Fanning out, the riders make a circle around the house and barn.

In a very few minutes, Lieutenant Baker’s hunch will make history.

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