Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, was the first American president to be assassinated. He was mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth in the Presidential Box of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., while watching the comedy, Our American Cousin.
Booth, a successful actor whose presence in the theater was not questioned, was a Confederate sympathizer and an ardent believer in the supremacy of the white race over the black. He had plotted for months to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage in Richmond, to exchange for the release of thousands of Confederate prisoners of war. With the fall of Richmond, that plan was no longer viable and was replaced with a plot for himself and his co-conspirators to murder not only the president but Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward as well. The attack on Johnson wasn’t carried out and the one on Seward failed, although the secretary and his son were severely injured.
On the night of April 14, 1865, the Civil War all but over—Robert E. Lee had surrendered the largest Confederate army and word was expected from North Carolina at any time that Joseph Johnston had surrendered the second largest. Lincoln and his wife, Mary, went to Ford’s Theater for an evening’s entertainment, although more than one person warned him it was too dangerous. Newspapers had announced that both the Lincolns and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife would be attending the theater that evening, but the Grants left to visit their children in New Jersey. Robert Lincoln, the president’s oldest son, likewise begged off; he’d arrived from Grant’s headquarters early that morning and was exhausted. Several others turned down an invitation to accompany the Lincolns before Major Henry R. Rathbone and his fiancé, Clara, accepted. They would be seated on the opposite side from where Booth would enter the Presidential Box.
Around 10 p.m., Booth slipped into the box—the guard outside had left his station, and Booth got past Charles Forbes, the White House footman, by showing him his card. The actor fired a single shot that entered the left side of Lincoln’s head, the bullet lodging below his eye.
Booth vaulted onto the stage below and escaped. He would be discovered at a Northern Virginia farm on April 26 and shot to death while trying to escape again. He had expected to be hailed as a hero of the South, but even Southern newspapers expressed regret over his actions.
The wounded president was carried across the street to the home of a William Peterson. Mary sat by his beside, begging him to speak, to take her with him. Lincoln died at 7:22 on the morning of April 15.
For more information on the life of Abraham Lincoln including pictures, facts, quotes, family life, and accomplishments like the Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, see our Abraham Lincoln page.