Lincoln’s German-born Secretary John Nicolay was not with the president on the night he was assassinated. Instead, he had been sent to Cuba. The day after the assassination Nicolay learned the news from a pilot his ship took on as it rounded Cape Henry on its way back to Washington. He wrote to his fiancée that the announcement was “so unexpected, so sudden, and so horrible…that we could not believe it…” He hoped that it was nothing more than one of the countless exaggerations he had heard during the war. It was only when his ship reached Point Lookout that he saw a newspaper with all of the “painful details”, and saw flags being flow at half-mast that he realized that he had “no grounds for further hope.” 1
On April 14, 1865 the United States flag was raised in ceremony at Fort Sumter where the Civil War began four years earlier. That night, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
The assassination had come less than a week after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army at Appomattox. Nicolay wrote his German-American beloved that “Just as the valor of the Union had won decisive victory over the rebellion, the wise and humane and steady guidance that has carried the nation through the storms of the past four years, is taken away, and its destiny is again shrouded in doubt and uncertainty.” Many Americans remarked that Lincoln had sacrificed his life on Good Friday. His death had come a few days after suggesting that some blacks be given the right to vote. Nicolay wrote that “Providence had exacted from [Lincoln] the last and only additional service and sacrifice he could give his country.” 2
While John Nicolay was sailing back to Washington, another German immigrant, George Atzerodt, was trying to get as far away from that angry city as he could. Atzerodt, a member of the conspiracy that had killed Lincoln, made his way on horse and foot though military checkpoints back to the place where he had first lived in the United States in Germantown, Maryland. There, he was invited the day after Lincoln died to Easter dinner at a farmer’s home. When the conversation inevitably turned to the assassination, Atzerodt said that Union General Ulysses Grant had been targeted too. This was reported by one of the guests to a Federal secret agent. On April 20, Atzerodt was captured by Union soldiers acting on the tip.3
After he was arrested, Atzerodt and the other accused conspirators were imprisoned on the Monitor Montauk in the Potomac River. Here he is photographed against the turret of the ship.
On the day of Atzerodt’s capture, Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth was hiding with David Herold in a cold Maryland swamp. Booth had hoped to follow a route used by the Confederate secret service heading to Port Tobacco, where George Adzerodt had run the blockade with smuggled goods, and then quickly across the Potomac to Confederate Virginia where he expected to be greeted as a hero. But Booth had been slowed by a broken left leg, a result of his leap from the Presidential Box to the stage at Ford’s Theater, and he had not yet escaped south.4
While hundreds were still searching for Booth, an English immigrant was being arrested in Harrisburg. Laura Keene had immigrated to the United States when she was in her mid-20s, just a year after making her British stage debut. On April 14, 1865 she had played the female lead in “Our American Cousin” and had rushed to the Presidential Box when Lincoln had been shot. Keene said that she cradled the dying president’s head and the blood spattered clothing became relics of the Lincoln legend. While on her way to Cincinnati she was arrested by a cavalry officer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She was just one of dozens of people being arrested in conjunction with the assassination. Most, like Keene, would soon be released.5
The English immigrant Laura Keene was not only a nationally famous actress, she was an accomplished businesswoman.
One of those who organized the search for Lincoln’s killers was James O’Beirne from Roscommon in Ireland. The Irish immigrant held the trusted position of Provost Marshal of the District of Columbia. He essentially commanded the military police of the capital. His efforts led to the capture of one of the conspirators, Dr. Samuel Mudd.6
Most of the Booth conspirators were in custody a week after the Lincoln’s death. But two were still on the run.
It was not until April 23 that Booth and his co-conspirator David Herold were able to get across the heavily patrolled Potomac River at night. The Virginia shore was not a place of deliverance for the assassins. Detectives from across the Northeast and Union cavalry patrols were roaming the area in search of Booth. Confederate sympathizers along his road south were too frightened to help the actor. When he stopped on April 25 to rest at the Garrett farm three miles south of Port Republic, Richard Garrett locked the fugitives in his barn. While Booth was taking his rest, two detectives and 26 Union cavalry under command of the Canadian-born Irish immigrant Lieutenant Edward Dougherty approached. In Port Republic Dougherty had received word from a free black man that someone fitting Booth’s description had passed through the day before.7
Booth’s Escape Route-Source: Wikimedia
Late that night, Dougherty and his men reached the Garrett farm and surrounded the barn Booth and Herold were in. Herold surrendered, but Booth vowed to die fighting. One of Dougherty’s men, Boston Corbett, positioned himself near the barn door and shot Booth when he tried to force his way out. Corbett was an English immigrant. He had come to New York as a boy and became fanatic in his religious devotion, going to the extreme of castrating himself to avoid sexual impurities.8
Boston Corbett shooting the crippled, but heavily armed, John Wilkes Booth.
Corbett was arrested for killing Booth. Secretary of War Stanton was angered that the assassin’s death deprived him of a chance to question him on the complicity of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the crime. The Irish immigrant Dougherty stood up for the English immigrant Corbett, insisting that he was a brave soldier who had volunteered to try to capture Booth by himself, but who had been forced to shoot him when the actor came towards the soldiers with a gun. `Corbett was released, with Stanton commenting that “the rebel is dead, the patriot lives.”9
The mortally wounded Booth was dragged away from the burning barn and placed on the porch of the Garrett House.
One other fugitive was the focus of a manhunt. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had been on the run since the fall of Richmond. He had begun his flight to a new “Confederate Capital” in the small Virginia city of Danville. There he had assembled a mobile government with a full complement of aides, government department heads, and a military escort. When Lee’s army surrendered a week later, the President’s entourage gave up any pretense of being a government. Confederate officials left the president to try to save themselves from capture and his troopers fell away and deserted him. In North Carolina Davis found a cold welcome from residents who either resented his leadership or feared retaliation from Union troops if they offered him aid.10
On May 7, Colonel Robert Minty, an Irish cavalryman who had distinguished himself at Chickamauga, received an order from his commander to “make immediate arrangements to prevent the escape of Jefferson Davis.” Minty had kept his men on the move throughout the closing days of the war, and they were well-positioned to take the Confederate chieftain as he moved through Georgia.11
Minty’s men were helped in their search by a slave they freed from his white mistress:
In her company was a slave whom I directed the men to bring to Col. Pritchard, a proceeding stoutly resisted by the lady, who claimed him as the only [slave] left to her, and begged us piteously not to take him away. But he was included in President Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom and he seemed very willing to go with us.
Being questioned by Col. Pritchard, he stated there had been several mounted men to the house [in] the afternoon, from a camp near the village, to purchase forage and provisions, and the camp lay about a mile and a half out on the Abbeville road. Placing the freedman in advance for guide, and directing the utmost silence to be preserved in the column, we moved out on the Abbeville road.12
A cartoon depicting the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis was wearing his wife’s overcoat when he was arrested, which led to rumors that he had disguised himself as a woman when fleeing.
Davis’s military escort was now down to a few dozen men. When Minty’s old regiment, the Fourth Michigan Cavalry charged into the presidential camp before dawn, the Confederates had unaccountably posted no sentries. Before the president’s men could fire, they were already overrun. Not a single shot was fired by the Confederates, who all quickly surrendered.13
Immigrant Primary Sources
Here is Irish immigrant Lieutenant Edward Doherty’s account of the killing of Booth:
“I dismounted, and knocked loudly at the front door. Old Mr. Garrett came out. I seized him, and asked him where the men were who had gone to the woods when the cavalry passed the previous afternoon. While I was speaking with him some of the men had entered the house to search it. Soon one of the soldiers sang out, ‘O Lieutenant! I have a man here I found in the corn-crib.’ It was young Garrett, and I demanded the whereabouts of the fugitives. He replied, ‘In the barn.’ Leaving a few men around the house, we proceeded in the direction of the barn, which we surrounded. I kicked on the door of the barn several times without receiving a reply. Meantime another son of the Garrett’s had been captured. The barn was secured with a padlock, and young Garrett carried the key. I unlocked the door, and again summoned the inmates of the building to surrender.
“After some delay Booth said, ‘For whom do you take me?’
“I replied, ‘It doesn’t make any difference. Come out.’
“He said, ‘I am a cripple and alone.’
“I said, ‘I know who is with you, and you had better surrender.’
“He replied, ‘I may be taken by my friends, but not by my foes.’
“I said, ‘If you don’t come out, I’ll burn the building.’ I directed a corporal to pile up some hay in a crack in the wall of the barn and set the building on fire.
“As the corporal was picking up the hay and brush Booth said, ‘If you come back here I will put a bullet through you.’
“I then motioned to the corporal to desist, and decided to wait for daylight and then to enter the barn by both doors and over power the assassins.
“Booth then said in a drawling voice. ‘Oh Captain! There is a man here who wants to surrender awful bad.’
“I replied, ‘You had better follow his example and come out.’
“His answer was, ‘No, I have not made up my mind; but draw your men up fifty paces off and give me a chance for my life.’
“I told him I had not come to fight; that I had fifty men, and could take him.
“Then he said, ‘Well, my brave boys, prepare me a stretcher, and place another stain on our glorious banner.’
“At this moment Herold reached the door. I asked him to hand out his arms; he replied that he had none. I told him I knew exactly what weapons he had. Booth replied, ‘I own all the arms, and may have to use them on you, gentlemen.’ I then said to Herold, ‘Let me see your hands.’ He put them through the partly opened door and I seized him by the wrists. I handed him over to a non-commissioned officer. Just at this moment I heard a shot, and thought Booth had shot himself. Throwing open the door, I saw that the straw and hay behind Booth were on fire. He was half-turning towards it.
“He had a crutch, and he held a carbine in his hand. I rushed into the burning barn, followed by my men, and as he was falling caught him under the arms and pulled him out of the barn. The burning building becoming too hot, I had him carried to the veranda of Garrett’s house.
“Booth received his death-shot in this manner. While I was taking Herold out of the barn one of the detectives went to the rear, and pulling out some protruding straw set fire to it. I had placed Sergeant Boston Corbett at a large crack in the side of the barn, and he, seeing by the igniting hay that Booth was leveling his carbine at either Herold or myself, fired, to disable him in the arm; but Booth making a sudden move, the aim erred, and the bullet struck Booth in the back of the head, about an inch below the spot where his shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln. Booth asked me by signs to raise his hands. I lifted them up and he gasped, ‘Useless, useless!’ We gave him brandy and water, but he could not swallow it. I sent to Port Royal for a physician, who could do nothing when he came, and at seven o’clock Booth breathed his last. He had on his person a diary, a large bowie knife, two pistols, a compass and a draft on Canada for 60 pounds.”
Source: Eyewitness to History
English Immigrant Boston Corbett’s Account of Shooting Booth:
“The position in which I stood left me in front of a large crack—you might put your hand through it, and I knew that Booth could distinguish me and others through these cracks in the barn, and could pick us off if he chose to do so…[A]s long as he was there, making no demonstration to hurt any one, I did not shoot him, but kept my eye on him steadily.” Corbett took action when he saw Booth “taking aim with the carbine, but at whom I could not say. My mind was upon him attentively to see that he did no harm, and when I became impressed that it was time that I shot him, I took steady aim on my arm, and shot him through a large crack in the barn.”
Source: The American Scholar
You can take a driving tour of Booth’s Escape Route
A Washington Post Reporter retraces Booth’s escape.
Video: James Swanson On Writing About the Lincoln Assassination
Video: Lincoln Biographer Harold Holzer on the Assassination and the Manhunt for Lincoln’s Killers
1. With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865 by Michael Burlingame published by Southern Illinois University Press (2006) pp. 176-177; Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image by Joshua Zeitz published by Penguin (2014).
2. With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865 by Michael Burlingame published by Southern Illinois University Press (2006) pp. 177; The Trial : the assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2003); Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2001); The Lincoln Assassination. The Evidence by Edward Steers published by University of Illinois Press (2009); The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers published by Harper Perennial (2010); Lincoln’s Assassins: A Complete Account of Their Capture, Trial, and Punishment By Roy Z. Chamlee (1990).
3. The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers published by Harper Perennial (2010) p. 18; The Trial : the assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2003) p. LXVII-LXVX
5. Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors By Thomas Bogar
6. The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers published by Harper Perennial (2010) p. 407.
7. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2001) p. 202-203
9. The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers published by Harper Perennial (2010) p. 153.
11. Bloody Crimes by James L. Swanson published by Harper Collins (2010) p. 297.
12. THE CAPTURE OF JEFFERSON DAVIS By Julian G. Dickinson, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Read January 8, 1889 (First Published 1899)
13. Bloody Crimes by James L. Swanson published by Harper Collins (2010) p. 307.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.