On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Over the next twelve days, as a fractured nation mourned, the largest manhunt ever attempted closed in on his assassin, the twenty-six-year-old renowned actor, John Wilkes Booth.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, from Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman (The Lobotomist, Boy in the Bubble, Kinsey). The 90-minute film features actor Will Patton (Numb3rs, A Mighty Heart) as the voice of the assassin, and is narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit, Adaptation). Interviews with the nation’s foremost Lincoln scholars recount a great American drama: two tumultuous months when the joy of peace was shattered by the heartache of Lincoln’s death.
In November 1860, a little-known Republican state senator from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Since he was a vocal opponent of slavery, Lincoln’s victory enraged millions of Southern sympathizers, including an acclaimed young actor named John Booth, who blamed abolitionists for the growing division of the country.
“You all feel the fire now raging in the nation’s heart. It is a fire lighted and fanned by Northern fanaticism, a fire which naught but blood can extinguish,” Booth wrote in a monologue he would never deliver.
By 1862, the small skirmish that began the previous year had turned into a full-blown Civil War, a bloody stalemate with no end in sight. As casualties stumbled into Washington, Lincoln haunted the War Department, absorbing the loss of life all around him. Out of all the suffering, he resolved, must come what he would later call a “new birth of freedom.”
In January 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an order freeing the slaves within the Confederate states, and transforming the meaning of the Civil War. By August 1864, a second presidential term seemed improbable, until the Union army broke through Confederate defenses in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a victory that allowed Lincoln to win a second term.
For Booth, the news of four more years of Lincoln as president was almost too much to bear. At twenty-five years old, his dreams of glory beyond the stage were passing him by.
“For four years I have cursed my willful idleness and begun to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence. I cannot longer resist the inclination, to go and share the sufferings of my brave countrymen, holding an unequal strife against the most ruthless enemy the world has ever known,” Booth wrote.
John Booth wanted to contribute to the Southern cause, but not as a soldier in the Confederate Army. He looked for something grander — a single, heroic gesture that would turn the tide of history and catapult him into immortality. In 1864, he started taking assignments from the Confederate underground, a loose network of spies living north of the Mason Dixon Line. With a small band of co-conspirators, he began plotting a scheme to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, and ransom him for thousands of imprisoned Confederate soldiers.
On April 3, 1865 the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, fell to Union forces. Only six days later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered, and the war was effectively over. Booth was overcome with disappointment and bitterness. He resolved to punish the North for what it had done to the South, and his desperation gave rise to a new scheme: to kill the tyrant responsible for the demise of his beloved Confederacy — President Abraham Lincoln.
When John Booth arrived at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on the morning of April 14 to pick up his mail, he overheard someone announce that President Lincoln was to be in attendance for that evening’s show. For the next eight hours, the actor made frenzied preparations for what he hoped would be the greatest performance of his life. He quickly reassembled his co-conspirators, and filled them in on his plan to kill the three most powerful men in America.
“He’s killing the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, presumably to throw the government into chaos. When you’re at the end of the rope and there’s nothing left, you’ll do drastic things. And clearly, I think Booth thought that this was the only thing left that he could give the Confederacy,” says historian and author Edward Steers Jr. in the film.
Later that evening, at 10:15 p.m., John Wilkes Booth arrived at Ford’s Theatre and lurked in waiting for his opportunity. As the play reached a climax and the lead actor delivered his biggest laugh line of the evening, a single shot rang out and hit the president in the neck. Before anyone could stop him, Booth jumped over the balcony, breaking his ankle, ran across the stage, and escaped into the darkness.
From the Peterson House, where Abraham Lincoln lay dying, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took over control of the government. He interrogated witnesses, ordered bridges and roads closed, and put the Union cavalry on high alert. Outside, panic and disbelief traveled through the streets as word of Lincoln’s death spread. For twelve days, as the killer and one of his accomplices, made their way south, Stanton organized a manhunt of unprecedented size and traced the fugitives through thick woods and swampland, and into Virginia’s confederate stronghold.
Booth was convinced that if he could just make it to Virginia and the deep South beyond, he would be lauded as a hero and a savior. But hiding in the woods, as he read newspaper accounts of his performance, he was stunned: the entire country, North and South, had denounced him. His visions of triumph and grandeur were shattered.
On April 26, at three in the morning, a search party surrounded John Booth and his accomplice David Herold. By then, they had reached Garrett’s farm, just south of Port Royal, Virginia, and were hiding inside a tobacco barn. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused. After a tense standoff, Union soldiers set the barn ablaze, and a lone cavalryman fired at Booth, hitting him in the neck. Booth died three hours later.
While the hunt for John Wilkes Booth was ongoing, a funeral train carried the remains of Abraham Lincoln on a 1,700-mile journey from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois. Along the way, some seven million people lined the tracks or filed past Lincoln’s open casket to pay their respects to their fallen leader.
“When people wept for Lincoln, or when they went to their diaries and they drew black around the pages of those days, they were really weeping for themselves. They were weeping for their own kids. They were weeping for their own losses in the war,” says historian David W. Blight in the film. “We mourn for ourselves even when we mourn a great public leader.”
“It was with the assassination that the myth of Abraham Lincoln was born. Lincoln was not universally liked or beloved during his presidency. Millions of people hated him. Once he was assassinated, everything changed,” adds James L. Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer and a young adult version of the story, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer.
“Abraham Lincoln came to power during an exceptionally turbulent time,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels. “America was, in essence, split in two, and this virtually unknown, untested leader was tasked with solving the worst crisis in our collective history.”
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