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Did 87 Union Soldiers Drown Searching for John Wilkes Booth?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: March 18, 2014 
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Dear Mr. History:
I hope you can answer my question.  In the past I read two books on the Lincoln Assassination: "Manhunt" by James L. Swanson and "Blood on the Moon" by Edward Steers,  Jr.  I thought these two books were excellent and historical informative.

I just finished reading the book by Bill O'Reilly entitled: "Killing Lincoln."  In O'Reilly's book he states that the Union lost a total of 87 men who were drowned in the swamps in Maryland hunting for Booth.

As stated, I have never read on heard of this disaster before.  I have asked many of my friends who are vivid readers and it was news to them as well.

It is hard for me to believe that O'Reilly would make such a statement if not true but if it is true, I am very puzzled why this tragedy was not written about in Swanson and Steers books.

If you can advise me on this I would be in your debt.  Thank you very much.
Roy G. Hayth, Jr.

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Hayth,
The drowning of 87 soldiers while searching the Maryland swamps for an assassin in serious, newsworthy stuff—there were minor Civil War battles with less fatalities. Yet my search for other references has drawn a blank outside of book reviewers saying things like "I didn't know that 87 Union troops drowned while searching for John Wilkes Booth before I read Killing Lincoln." One would think that would have been mentioned, at least in passing, in the two recent books you cited that focus on the manhunt, yet they don't? I did find out that four soldiers aboard the barge Black Diamond drowned when it collided with the steamer Massachusetts on either the Potomac or Rappahannock River on the night of April 24—and that the total fatalities in that tragedy came to about 50, mainly just-freed Union POWs and newly paroled Confederate POWs on their respective ways home. But nothing about 87 drownings in Maryland, not even from Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf, who resided in the western Maryland town of Burkittsville for years. In a last-ditch attempt to clear things up, I contacted Martin Dugard, co-author of Killing Lincoln, asking for a confirmation. I have yet to get any reply from him. All in all, it's not looking good for that statistic, though why its authors would make such a thing up is equally mysterious. If it is false, however, they are doing history a disservice, considering the number of "I didn't know that" remarks I've seen from the book's avid readers. Hopefully someone will step forward with a contemporary reliable source to confirm or refute that grisly statistic, and whether or not the authors are historical Patriots … or Pinheads.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History


2 Responses to “Did 87 Union Soldiers Drown Searching for John Wilkes Booth?”

  1. 1
    Dave says:

    It's possible Mr. O erred on that point as he did during the audio version of the book when he continually referred to the Union Cavalry as the \Calvary\

  2. 2
    Tom Lincoln says:

    A little more info to back up your analysis and to further damn O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln as filled with hogwash.

    Here is the plaque at Alexandria National Cemetery that memorializes the lives of the four men who drowned in pursuit of Booth.

    Alexandria National Cemetery is small compared to Arlington. To get to it, you need to cross (ironically) the intersections of Wilkes and South Payne Streets.

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