George Atzerodt was a young smuggler plying the waters of the Potomac when two Confederate agents approached him in January 1865. The American river on whose banks Washington was built was a borderline between what some Southerners considered two separate countries during the Civil War.1
The Prussian-born Atzerodt had settled with his family in Germantown, Maryland two decades earlier when he was nine. Although many of the native-born residents owned slaves, the local German community was notably abolitionist in sentiment. Atzerodt was an exception. When other Germans were serving in the Union army, the Prussian had moved to Port Tobacco on the Potomac River where he guided men and supplies to the Confederacy. His skill in navigating the heavily patrolled waters south of the capital made him someone the secret agents wanted to bring in to their conspiracy. 2
The recruiters were John Harbin and John Surratt. Both had joined a conspiracy with the famous actor John Wilkes Booth to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in Washington and deliver him to the Confederacy to use as a hostage. According to the Baltimore American, Atzerodt’s “knowledge of men and the country in the vicinity of Port Tobacco, and…of all the counties bounding on the Potomac gave the conspirators a valuable assistant.” If Lincoln was kidnapped, Atzerodt was a vital asset in covertly transporting the president across the river to Virginia.3
John Wilkes Booth gathered a cell of Confederate operatives about him who hoped to carry out the greatest kidnapping of 19th Century America. After three months of plotting, the conspirators had nothing to show for their work. The Confederacy was collapsing and Richmond had fallen. President Lincoln had gone to the Confederate capital on April 4, 1865 not as a captive of Booth but as the commander-in-chief of a victorious army.4
When Lincoln returned to Washington he gave a brief speech on April 11 to a crowd celebrating the approaching end of the war. In his remarks, Lincoln discussed giving some black men the right to vote. He was the first President to speak about extending the suffrage to African Americans. John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd. Angered by what he heard, Booth reportedly exclaimed; “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I will put him through. That will be the last speech he will ever make.”5
John Wilkes Booth was one of the best known actors of his day. He was deeply racist and a devoted supporter of the Confederacy.
On April 14, Good Friday, Booth found out that President Lincoln would be attending the evening performance at Ford’s Theater. According to Atzerodt’s confession, “Booth never said until the last night (Friday) that he intended to kill the President. “Booth had begun assembling his cell, but they may have believed they were about to kidnap, not kill, the president.” Atzerodt said that until Good Friday, “I never knew anything about the murder…I was intended to give assistance to the kidnapping.” Booth sent his aide, David Herold, to get the Prussian immigrant at a Washington hotel. Atzerodt said, “Herold came to the Kirkwood House, same evening [Good Friday] for me to go to see Booth. I went with Herold & saw Booth. He then said he was going to kill the President and…the Secy. of State. I did not believe him. This occurred in the evening. ”6
Ford’s Theater was an important stop for plays touring the country.
During the meeting, Atzerodt learned that Booth was activating his cell to decapitate the United States government. Secretary of State Seward was to be killed by Herold and by a Confederate soldier named Lewis Powell. Atzerodt was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood House. Booth had saved Lincoln for himself. Atzerodt also said that he was told that Mrs. Mary Surratt, the mother of John Surratt, would handle some of the conspiracy’s logistical needs.7
Atzerodt claimed later to have viewed the assassination plot as more of a Booth fantasy than a real plan. He said later; “I did not believe he was going to be killed, although Booth had said so. After I heard of the murder I run about the city like a crazy man.” Although this sounds like the self-serving exculpatory statement of a man trying to avoid the gallows, the immigrant conspirator may not have been lying. Booth had often confused his desire for lasting fame with his secret role in a clandestine intelligence unit. He had laid grand plans before that had come to naught.8
In contradiction of this claim of innocence, Atzerodt had checked into the same hotel that the Vice President was at hours before the meeting with Booth. Colonel W.R. Nevins later testified that a man he identified as Atzerodt approached him around 5 p.m. to ask about the location of Andrew Johnson’s room.9
The Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln sat in the large chair on the right.
In any event, George Atzerodt went to his hotel and did not make any attempt to carry out the mission Booth had assigned him. Instead, he went into a local bar and had a drink with the manager of a stable where he had a horse quartered. At 10 p.m., less than half an hour before Lincoln was shot, the stable manager John Fletcher later testified, Atzerodt “asked me to take a drink with him, and I did, at the Union Hotel…I had a glass of beer and he drank some whiskey…He seemed to me about half-tight [half-drunk] and was very excited looking.” Atzerodt also made a cryptic and only half-heard remark to Fletcher that “If this thing happens tonight” Fletcher would hear of it or get a present. When he heard of the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater that night, he wandered the streets of Washington for hours.10
Atzerodt was seen late in the night looking for a place to sleep, no doubt realizing that he could not return to Kirkland House. He eventually found lodging at Pennsylvania House. Lieutenant W. R. Keim recalled returning to his room at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning and finding the conspirator in bed in his shared room. Keim asked if he had heard of the President’s assassination and Atzerodt responded that he had and “that it was an awful affair.” There would be no more conversations because, Keim testified, “when I awoke in the morning, he was gone.”11
After shooting Lincoln and stabbing a Union officer who tried to stop him, Booth jumped to the stage and shouted out “Sic Semper Tyrranis”, Thus Always to Tyrants”, the state motto of Virginia.
Lincoln was shot in the head at Ford’s Theater at around 10:25 at night. Although hundreds of people witnessed the shooting, shock prevented anyone from stopping Booth as he fled into the night. The president, still alive, was taken into the street outside the theater to find a private place for the doctors to examine him and, perhaps, for him to die without gawkers looking on. Those bearing Lincoln’s body did not know where to take him, but they heard a man call out “Bring him in here, bring him in here.” The home across the street from the theater was the Peterson House, owned by German tailor William Peterson, was to house the president during his dying hours.12
The mortally wounded Lincoln was carried to Peterson House across the street from Ford’s Theater.
Lincoln was taken into a back room of the Peterson house and laid diagonally across a bed too short for his six foot four inch long body. Among the doctors who attended him during his last hours was the president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia. Dr. Charles Liebermann was a Russian-born Liberal who had been imprisoned for several years by the Czar for his advocacy of Polish independence. He found refuge in the United States, but also discrimination because he was Jewish. His superior medical training in Germany led to his recognition as a leader in the United States of the treatment of eye disorders. It is a mark of the respect in which he was held that, when he and three other doctors approached the Catholic priest who was president of what is now Georgetown University and asked to establish Georgetown Medical School, the Jesuit agreed.13
Liebermann had diagnosed the wound as fatal when he first examined Lincoln and he joined a dozen other physicians in the death watch over the American president’s fading form. However, the physically strong Lincoln did not finally succumb until after seven on the morning of April 15. The war president had become martyr in the dawning days of peace.14
In this scene of Lincoln’s Last Hours, Dr. Liebermann is the man with a beard directly behind Lincoln’s head.
Video: PBS American Experience on the Assassination
Video: National Geographic on the Assassination Conspiracy
1. 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).
2. The Trial : the assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2003) LXVI-LXXI.
3. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2001) p. 81.
4. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2001)
5. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2001) p.91. Although this quote frequently appears in histories of the assassination, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has expressed doubts about whether Booth actually said it. Holzer says that the quote originated in a novel by reporter George Alfred Townsend. Although Townsend provides a note in the novel asserting that the quote is true and that it was told to him by a lawyer representing the conspirators, Holzer says it appears nowhere else before the novelization.
6. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2001) p. 110; The Confession of Geoge Atzerodt May 1, 1865. The Confession was not allowed into evidence at the military trial.
7. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2001) p. 112; The Confession of Geoge Atzerodt May 1, 1865. The Confession was not allowed into evidence at the military trial.
8. The Confession of Geoge Atzerodt May 1, 1865.
9. The Trial : the assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2003) p. 144.
10. The Trial : the assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2003) p. 144.
11. The Trial : the assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of the conspirators by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2003) p. 147.
12. The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers published by Harper Perennial (2010) p. 424-427; Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Steers published by University Press of Kentucky (2001) p.123-125.
13. Lincoln and the Jews: A History published by St. Martin’s Press (2015) Kindle Location 4150-4182; History of Geogetown Medical School.
14. Lincoln and the Jews: A History published by St. Martin’s Press (2015) Kindle Location 4150-4182.
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.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites