The Flight and Capture of John Wilkes Booth

April 25, 1865 (Tuesday)

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The assassin and his accomplice made the successful landing on Virginia’s banks of the Potomac on the morning of the 23rd. Thomas Jones, the Confederate spy who provided the boat for crossing, has also provided them with a name of a women who would help them – Mrs. Quesenberry.

Again on solid ground, the two split up. The assassin’s leg was broken and painful, and so he was hidden while the accomplice strode toward Mrs. Quesenberry’s house. When the accomplice met her and convinced her that Jones had sent them, Quesenberry enlisted help from Thomas Harbin, also a Confederate spy, but one who also knew the assassin.

It was Harbin’s idea to wait until nightfall to meet the assassin. It would be safer. But after that, speed was essential. He needed to get into the Deep South as quickly as possible. He needed protection and that he could not find here.

But first, the assassin needed medical attention. Now accompanied by William Bryant, another Confederate spy, they traveled eight miles out of their way to visit Dr. Richard Stuart. But Stuart, upon hearing their cover story, didn’t believe it, and didn’t see why he should help. He was your basic physician, not a surgeon, and wanted little to do with this strangers claiming to be Maryland Confederates. He did, however, feed them.

His knife.
His knife.

Still, his suspicions got the better of him, and in what escalated into a panic, Bryant pleaded with the assassin and his accomplice to leave the house – they were not wanted. They fled as they could to the shack of William Lucas, a free black man. Mr. Lucas refused to help, but they broke in and commandeered his small shack anyway. The assassin, having not just indifference for the black race, but a seething, venomous hatred, pulled a knife and threatened Mr. Lucas.

They wanted most his team of horses and wagon. Mr. Lucas had corn to plan come next week, and lied about the location of his stock. This only made the assassin more irate. “We will not go any further,” he said, “but stay here and make this old man get us his horse in the morning.” And so, gathering his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Lucas, fearing for their safety, kept vigil through the dark, resting not in their own bed, but on the front steps.

Come the morning of the 24th, they were on the road again – traveling by daylight – making for Port Conway on the Rappahannock River, accompanied by one of Mr. Lucas’ adult sons. There, they met William Rollins, who owned a fishing boat and had agreed to take them across, though declined the offer to guide them to Bowling Green. But Rollins couldn’t do it just yet. He was putting out his nets, and this took time.

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Then arrived a strange serious of events. As the assassin and his accomplice were trying to convince Rollins to take them across now, they were approached by three young Confederates on horseback, remnants of Mosby’s command. Fabricating that they were from A.P. Hill’s Corps and were hoping to get to Mexico to continue the fight, the accomplice, who suspected the three Rebels were apt to do the same thing, insisted that they travel together.

“Our name is Boyd,” lied the accomplice, “his name is James William Boyd and mine is David E. Boyd.” It was a thin lie, and Mosby’s men saw through it. Understanding this, the accomplice took one of them, William Jett, aside and explained their true identities. Soon they all knew.

Enough time had elapsed and Rollins was ready to take them across. All would go, crossing to Port Conway. Once across, Jett first stopped at a house, asking if the half dozen strangers could stay the night. The first refused them, as did the second. The name of Richard Garrett, who owned a farm set well off the road, three miles away, was breathed by one of those who kindly refused them.

Garrett welcomed them, buying their story, and offering them shelter. But Jett and the two other Rebels were inclined to keep moving on to Bowling Green. The accomplice wished to go with them in the hopes of buying a new pair of shoes. And so he left the assassin behind with promises to return the next morning.

Willie Jett
Willie Jett

The assassin and Garrett whiled away the afternoon and evening. Garrett’s sons had just returned from the surrender and the soldiers swapped stories. The assassin was in fine character, playing his part well and never letting slip a word not carefully considered. Night came, and then morning.

This day, the 25th, for the most part, was uneventful. The accomplice returned with Mosby’s men, who left immediately. He asked the assassin if they were not moving again tonight. But no. The assassin wished to remain.

But Mr. Garrett had gone away for the day, and his son, John, now suspicious of this ward, refused to grant them permission until his father returned. They would wait. Hours slid slowly by, and Richard Garrett did not return.

The Garrett House
The Garrett House

And then hooves and dust from two riders were espied on the road to the front. They were calling “Marylanders, you had better watch out,” they rang. “There are forty Yankee cavalry coming up the hill!” They were two of Mosby’s men – not William Jett – and had seen the patrol crossing the Rappahannock on a ferry. They then rode off as quickly as they appeared.

The assassin and his accomplice ran as they could for the woodlot behind the house. But before long, the news seemed to prove false, and they returned. This incredibly suspicious behavior was noticed, and Richard Garrett’s son asked them to leave. As the accomplice tried to convince him that he would be safe, the patrol of cavalry galloped by the house, never stopping, never considering that they had just raced by their quarry.

Perhaps the John was right. Perhaps now was the time to leave. The accomplice asked him where they might hire a team and wagon to get them to Orange Court House. John raced to the home of a family of free blacks, but the owner, wasn’t home. The wife, however, had a story to tell. The cavalry had stopped at their house, asking if there were any white men about. This convinced John that his own two white men had to leave.

The items he carried. Minus the weapons.
The items he carried. Minus the weapons.

When he returned, he asked them outright when they were planning to go. But they casually waved it off, telling him that they planned to stay until morning.

Mr. Garrett returned that evening to a house full of thick tension and suspicion. To him, however, the guests were still guests, and they sat all together at the dinner table. After, however, the accomplice, now exhausted, now nearly out of his mind, babbled on about his part in the war. It was a part which he made up from the thinnest of airs. He was with the 13th Virginia, Company C, under Captain Robinson. But the son, John, knew all this to be a lie. He was very familiar with this particular company, and knew of no Captain Robinson. The accomplice backed down, lying that he had only been there a week, but the damage was done.

Though the night previous they had slept in a bed in Richard Garrett’s own room, it was now John who refused them such accommodations. His suspicions made them unwelcomed. They would have to sleep in the bar, which he very reluctantly allowed. They made their way to the barn, and without mattress or blanket, went to sleep.

Inaccurate print of the event.
Inaccurate print of the event.

As the assassin and his accomplice slept, two forces were working against them, and neither were from the North. First, John Garrett and his brother, William, had not sussed out the true identities of their guests. Instead, John was convinced that they would steal the horses in the night, and so he pad-locked the couple inside the barn. Come morning, he would deal with these horse thieves.

The Second was William Jett. Through luck, the Federal cavalry had come upon Rollins, the owner of the fishing boat. When showed a likeness of the assassin, he identified him and the accomplice, but he also knew Jett. He knew that young Willie courted a girl in Bowling Green, where her father ran a hotel. In all likelihood, that is where they could all be found.

This was the same patrol which raced by the Garrett house that afternoon. By 11pm, they were rapping on the door of the Star Hotel. After some confusion, they found Willie Jett, but the hoped-for assassin was not with him. He was threatened, but it was hardly necessary. Pulling one man aside, Jett spoke, “I know who you want, and I will tell you where they can be found.”

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William Jett told all. The assassin and his accomplice were at Mr. Garrett’s house, three miles from Port Royal. He would even lead the way. It was 12:30am. Two hours later, William Jett and the Federal cavalry were at Garrett’s gate. William unlocked it, and the troopers entered the lane. The reigned up, and then charged.

The noise woke the assassin and his accomplice, and they quickly tried to escape. The door, they found, was locked. The Garretts had betrayed them. As the cavalry surrounded the house itself, they tried to break the lock, and when they proved impossible, they tried to break a few planks from the wall to make their way. But their strength was weak, and Mr. Garrett knew better how to build a barn.

“You had better give up,” said the accomplice. “I will suffer death first,” came the reply. And then the soldiers were upon the barn, surrounding it. The Garretts had truly betrayed them.

John Garrett, the son, was threatened, though he would have helped without it. They threatened to burn down every building on the Garrett property if John did not enter the barn and disarm the captives. He had no choice, and figured that he would soon be dead one one bullet or another.

The door was unlocked, and he entered, telling them that it was over. The barn was surrounded, and that they better surrender. “Damn you!” came a regal voice, unnerved, but not panicked. “You have betrayed me! If you don’t get out of here I will shoot you!” John Garrett fled, and the cavalry took over.

From Harper's Weekly.
From Harper’s Weekly.

But they did not fall upon the place as they might. Instead, they talked. “I want you to surrender,” came the call from the Federals. “If you don’t, I will burn this barn down in fifteen minutes.”

-“Who are you?” came the reply. “What do you want? Whom do you want?”

“We want you, and we know who you are. Give up your arms and come out!”

-“Let us have a little time to consider it.”

“Very well.”

Across the quarter of an hour, the accomplice begged the assassin to allow him to surrender himself. But no. That could not happen. Not now. Not after all of this. “You damned coward! Will you leave me now?” But still. What could be done? “Go, go!” he cried, “I would not have you stay with me!”

There was more debate between both the assassin and his accomplice and the cavalry. Finally, the accomplice was allowed by the assassin to leave. But the cavalry wasn’t convinced that he was unarmed. “Upon the word and honor of a gentleman,” vowed the assassin, “he has no arms – I own all the arms and intend to use them on you gentlemen.”

After some argument, he was allowed to make his egress. And by the collar, he was led away.

Time went on, and it became clear that the cavalry and John Garrett were gathering kindling. “Captain,” came the call from the barn, “I know you to be a brave man, and I believe you are honorable. I am a cripple. I have got one leg. If you will withdraw your men in line one hundred yards from the door, I will come out and fight you.”

“We did not come here to fight you,” came the obvious reply, “we simply came to make you a prisoner. We do not want any fight with you.”

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Again came the plea. “Give me a chance for my life.”

But no. No. The assassin would have to come out. And if he would not, the burning barn would force him.

The fire started and spread quickly. And soon it was inside. The assassin tried as he could to fight it, but it was too swift. He moved to the center of the barn, away from the flames. “One more stain on the old banner,” he shouted.

Through the flames, he was watched by all in the cavalry save one, Sergeant Boston Corbett, who had made his way to the other side of the barn unnoticed. He had a shot, if he wanted it, but declined. “Making no demonstration to hurt anyone,” he revealed, “I did not shoot him, but kept my eye upon him steadily.”

All expected the assassin to flee the flames and choking smoke. But that is not what happened. He made for the door, but stopped, and leveled his carbine as if to shoot. Sgt. Corbett saw and decided. “My mind was upon him attentively to see that he did no harm,” he testified, “and when I became impressed that it was time, I shot him. I took steady aim on my arm, and shot him through a large crack in the barn.”

At first, when they rushed the barn after hearing the report of a pistol, they believed that he had shot himself. The blood came from the neck, and it was suicide. They picked up the assassin, and carried him outside. He was not dead, but dying.

Water was thrown on his face, and he opened his eyes. Those around him hear faintly the whisper. “Tell mother,” it began before he nearly fainted. But he came to. And again he tried. “Tell mother I die for my country.”

But those were not his last. The ball had passed through his neck. The next word he spoke: “Kill me, oh kill me” came as the sun began to rise. But no. “We do not wish to kill you.” The wound, they hoped, was not fatal. And they spoke. William Jett’s name was mentioned. “Did Jett betray me?” But the question was ignored.

It was seen that he was paralyzed. The ball must have severed part of his spinal cord. He looked down at his hands. “My hands,” he said. One of his captors, who was cradling him in his lap, washed the assassin’s hands in ice-water. There must have been no feeling.

“Useless, useless.”

His lips were swelling, as was his throat. He was now gasping, panic and terror filling the eyes of the assassin. His throat now closed completely, and his body shuddered, convulsing and unable to live. And with the sun fully up, death finally claimed him.1



  1. Sources: Various accounts and testimony cobbled together from The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence edited by William C. Edwards and the Impeachment Investigation conducted by Congress in 1867. I used Manhunt by James L. Swanson for the timeline of events. []

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