“Sic semper tyrannis.” The words roared over the heads of the hushed crowd at Ford’s Theatre. It was April 14, 1865, and Abraham Lincoln had just been shot. Envisioning himself a hero and a martyr for the Southern cause, actor John Wilkes Booth bellowed those words—Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”—after leaping onto the stage from the theater’s presidential box, where he had fatally wounded the beloved president with a .44-caliber Derringer pistol. Booth escaped through a stage door, mounted a horse waiting for him in the back alley, and bolted away.
Accompanied by David Herold, a fellow conspirator, Booth would be aided by a host of knowing or unwitting accomplices as he fled Washington, D.C. The two men spent the next 12 days trekking through southern Maryland, across the Potomac River, and finally into the countryside of northern Virginia, all the while being hunted by Federal troops.
On April 26, surrounded by Union soldiers in a barn near Bowling Green, Va., Herold surrendered. Booth, however, refused, saying, “I prefer to come out and fight.” The Federals set the barn ablaze to force the issue and Sergeant Boston Corbett shot Booth in the neck. Booth would die three hours later. The manhunt was over.
Today, much of the countryside on Booth’s escape route is unchanged, and several of his more famous stopovers, including the Surratt Tavern and the farm of Dr. Samuel Mudd, are preserved as historic sites and museums. The 90-mile route can be explored in a single day. Civil War Trails Inc. offers a tour map of the route and its signs inform the narrative along the way. In tracing the path from Booth’s fateful first act at Ford’s Theatre to his epilogue at that tobacco barn in Virginia, travelers will delight in the often-bucolic landscape and the scintillating history it hosts.
Ford’s Theatre 511 10th St NW, Washington, D.C
Surratt House Museum 9118 Brandywine Rd., Clinton, Md.
Mudd House Museum 3725 Dr. Samuel Mudd Rd., Waldorf, Md.
St. Mary’s Church 13715 Notre Dame Pl., Bryantown, Md.
Pine Thicket 9695 Bel Alton Newtown Rd., Bel Alton, Md.
Crossing the Potomac 11495 Popes Creek Rd., Newburg, Md.