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The Conspirator

Posted By - Thomas R. Turner
Jan 28, 2011 at 4:18pm | Filed Under “The Conspirator

“Motives for the Assassination”

The public in 1865 had no trouble comprehending John Wilkes Booth's motive in striking at Lincoln and members of his administration. Mary Jane Welles recalled her husband, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who apparently never swore, muttering "Damn the rebels. This is their work.' While some of the cabinet including Welles and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton made their way to the Petersen House where the president was dying, other government officials spent a fearful night with soldiers standing guard outside their homes, hoping that they might avoid Lincoln's fate. The assassination appeared to be one last desperate attempt by the Confederates to stave off defeat and the primary tool in that effort was the Maryland born actor.

Although Booth was killed on April 26, the trials of eight alleged accomplices focused not only on the individuals accused but also Confederate violations of the laws of war against both northern soldiers and civilians. A high percentage of testimony recounted battlefield atrocities as well as supposed plots to poison reservoirs or spread yellow fever by distributing infected clothing. If the Confederates were capable of such actions then they were clearly capable of assassination.

Over time, however, as north and south reconciled, perceptions changed. Booth and his band were southerners, but they had acted on their own. Who else but a madman would have killed the Great Emancipator and Savior of the Union, in the process removing a man who would have been lenient to the South during reconstruction? Besides, Victorian gentlemen like Jefferson Davis would have recoiled at the idea of sanctioning murder, and southern leaders had been as vocal in denouncing Booth as northerners had.

Ultimately Booth morphed from southern fanatic into a crazy actor from a family of crazy actors (his father the brilliant Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth had a reputation for bizarre behavior.)

Interestingly, in the future, most American assassins were viewed in similar stereotypical patterns; they were short, loners, out of touch with reality, who struck not for a cause but to satisfy some defect in their psychological make-up. In Booth's case, some claimed that since he never gained the same recognition as an actor that his father or brother Edwin did, that he sought to be remembered by killing Lincoln.

In the 1930s, chemist-turned-historian Otto Eisenschiml added a new twist to the story when he raised a provocative series of questions attempting to show that it wasn't southerners who killed Lincoln but members of his own administration, specifically Edwin Stanton (who was the leading figure in the plot). While he produced no smoking gun, Eisenschiml believed that the Radicals hated Lincoln because he was too lenient, thereby interfering with their harsh and vindictive plans for the south during Reconstruction. Eisenschiml received criticism for not providing proof for his thesis but one of the main complaints involved the difficulty in believing that ardent Confederate Booth could have been a tool of the Radicals since they stood diametrically opposed to his beliefs.

In the 1980s, William Tidwell's "Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Death of Lincoln" returned the focus to southern motivation. Prior to its publication even many historians were not very familiar with the failed cavalry raid led by Captain Ulrich Dahlgren against Richmond in March of 1864. When Dahlgren was killed the Confederates discovered orders to kill or capture Davis, free Union prisoners, and burn Richmond. Previously when individuals had suggested that Lincoln might be captured (an act permissible under the laws of war) and exchanged for Union prisoners Davis had resisted, fearing that Lincoln might be killed or injured. After the Dahlgren raid, the gloves supposedly came off and the Confederates sanctioned a number of capture plots including Booth's. In the spring of 1865, with the war almost lost, Thomas Harney of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau was authorized to infiltrate Washington to blow up Lincoln during a cabinet meeting. When Harney was captured, Booth who worked with the Secret Service tried to decapitate the Union government by striking on his own. Critics attacked the thesis as based on circumstantial evidence but the authors responded that while circumstantial, the case was overwhelming.

Twenty-first century historians continue to wrestle with Booth's motivation and from time to time even more outrageous suggestions have been made; Vice-President Johnson was involved or the assassination was a Catholic plot. Few would deny that Booth was an ardent Southerner who wrote about the Union being made for the white man and not the black and who praised the institution of slavery. In his mind Lincoln was a tyrant who had destroyed the southern way of life and must be removed even if only to make him suffer as his beloved south had. But whether he acted on his own or was motivated by outside forces will continue to be debated.

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  • jojod
    05/26/2012 at 6:37pm


    Just because Powell returned to Mary Surratt's boarding house (as the The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln, points out) after the events….

    Speaking from my own experience, I would say that he was returning there because he felt it was a safe haven, hosted by a person of good judgement and the ability to make him feel forgiven of trespasses he has already incurred on his soul card of records of wrong deeds.

    As a southerner who has been raised by the Ruth of all southern mothers, I can tell you that Redford was about as spot on as a director can get in this film, concerning his artistic conclusions in The Conspirator. From my very own kernel, I must say that Solomon and Redford at one point, actually had me considering the same thing I heard an African American preacher say at an anti-gay, anti-feminist meeting I was taken to as a child, way back in the 70's…. "The constitution is an inspired ([sic] - {of God}) document." Really? There was one moment in this film during which I felt it (U.S. constitution) may have been more deeply inspired than much of the Bible.

    When I suffer ridicule for the simple reason that I cannot help but respect and revere our current president in the culture I have chosen to live in, a film like this gives me great pleasure and recompense. Thank you to anyone who reads this and worked on it. It was like heroin (I guess….. never did that.)

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  • tom_turner
    05/19/2011 at 11:40am


    Your comments aren't as peripheral to the assassination as they might seem at first glance. I firmly believe the main cause of the Civil War was slavery but the issue of state's rights versus the npower of the national government was centered around this issue. Booth believed in the right of a state to secede to protect slavery and the southern way of life and when he perceived that Lincoln had destroyed the slave system and trampled on southern rights he decided to kill him.

    The larger question of whether states have a right to secede has been debated throughout our history. The Civil War at a cost of 620,000 dead seemed to settle the issue by force of arms although the debate over the powers of states versus that of the central government still rages between Republicans and Democrats today.

    We ran an article in the Lincoln Herald a few years ago where a historian attempted in a scholarly way to argue that the founding fathers had envisioned the Constitution as a compact. For example, they originally did not say We the people of the United States but proposed liosting individual states before deciding against this. I was amazed at several vehement letters we received where Union supporters cancelled their subscriptions.

    This issue was one reason why war in 1861 became almost inevitable. Southerners said we have a God given right to secede and Lincoln said I have an oath registered in heaven to stop you. This left little room for compromise.

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  • lorenzo
    05/17/2011 at 9:07pm


    I apologize, as this is unrelated to the assassination, but not unrelated to Abraham Lincoln. Was Lincoln in the wrong when he opposed the secession of those southern states that made up the Confederate States of America? All of the states entered the union upon agreement, shouldn't they be able to leave the union when they want?

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  • RickS
    04/09/2011 at 11:58am


    In my forthcoming book "Dixie Reckoning: A Reassessment of the Lincoln Assassination and Lost Confederate Treasury" I make a case that there were actual two "crime{s} of the century" in the Civil War era from 1850 to 1880. In addition to assassination of Abraham Lincoln, there was also the "plundering" [Stanton's phrasing] of the Confederacy's Treasury. [not to be confused of course with the mythical Confederate "Treasure"]. What's not a well-known historical fact is that several countries or states, legal or otherwise, have defaulted on their bonds. Major all-time defaults are summarized as follows: China $90 million, Russia over $1.5 billion, Confederate States of America $712 million, Mexico $12 million, and the State of Mississippi $7 million. In closing, following the monies, motives, and movers and shakers is what Dixie Reckoning is all about.

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  • tom_turner
    03/09/2011 at 10:46am


    Thanks for your kind comments. As I've already noted we owe you and several other researchers many thanks for adding to our knowledge about Aiken.

    As to the topic of political animosity I always smile when people today long for the good old days of courteous civil discourse. As far back as John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson vicious charges flew during elections; in this case that Adams had secured a woman for the Czar of Russia while ambassador to that country and that Jackson was guilty of adultery (he married Rachel before his divorce was final) and murder (he killed a man in a duel.) The caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks in the 1850's is also a pretty dramatic event in a tumultuous and violent decade; we can imagine the media reaction today if a representative beat a senator.

    The Republicans often referred to the Democrats as Copperheads the idea being that they were poisonous snakes who were aiding the Confederates. (See historians like Frank Klement or David Long for a debate about how strong or treasonous this Democrtic opposition was.) Democrats also used some choice terms like despot and tyrant to describe Lincoln. While there were obviously many war Democrats who supported the Civil War the president was faced not only with defeating the Confederates but also maintaining political support in the north.

    Those who long for the good old days have nostalgia for something that rarely exited in American politics which have always been pretty rough and tumble.

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Thomas R. Turner

Professor and Historian, Bridgewater State College

Thomas R. Turner is a historian and professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. He is also the editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Lincoln Herald, the oldest continuously published journal devoted to the study of Abraham Lincoln which includes articles examining all facets of... More

Thomas R. Turner

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