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.
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