Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirator

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The murder of the president was part of a larger conspiracy to decapitate the government of the United States.

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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

assass-georgeGeorge Atzerodt

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

assassin-boothJohn 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

assass-fordsFord’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

assassin-fords-boxThe 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

assassin-featAfter 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

assass-peterson-houseThe 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

assass-last-hours-of-lincolnIn 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

Sources:

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.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

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.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

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.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

 

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