Lincoln’s assassination occurred during the last month of the four-year American Civil War (1861-1865), in which 600,000 people died. It was an extremely violent time. People across the country had fought to uphold the principles of the North or South, but often had to fight for their lives as a result, either on the battlefield or to recover from sickness or injury. There had also been enormous economic devastation, which made gaining money or resources a matter of survival. Throughout Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, the way people seek to use violence to prove their principles often goes astray. Violence, the threat of violence, or danger often fails to have the effect of supporting the principles that those committing the acts of violence hope to serve.
Whether Booth got caught or escaped, it was unlikely that he could ever continue his profitable career as a touring actor, and so he saw assassinating Lincoln as an honorable sacrifice of his happy life and career for his principles. The death of Lincoln and the rest of his cabinet was meant to spur the Confederacy to continue fighting to preserve the South as he saw it: a land of honor, defined by codes of conduct that called for hospitality to strangers and a willingness to sacrifice your life to defend your principles. Yet Booth’s act had the opposite effect: he turned Abraham Lincoln into a martyr and demoralized the South.
Lincoln was shot in the back of the head while relaxing at the theater, so he was not aware of the principle for which he died. Still, as Chasing Lincoln’s Killer emphasizes, the fact that his body fought a strong battle to hold onto life became part of the way that his death was recast in the public imagination. His death was seen as a martyrdom for the principles of freedom that he had led the nation in war to uphold.
The attack on Seward was also interpreted differently from the way Booth and his co-conspirators had hoped. Because Powell attacked innocent members of the Seward family, his attempt to kill for a principle (to take down the government of the North) was mainly viewed as the act of a terrifying madman.
The manhunters hoped to capture Booth alive and force him to stand trial, undergo months of scrutiny by the press, and face execution by hanging. This, they believed, would have created a clear connection between his death and the defeat of the Confederate principles he fought for in the public imagination. But once again, the attempt to control life and death in order to prove a principle came up short. Boston Corbett shot Booth to protect the other nearby soldiers, placing the survival of his comrades above the principles the authorities sought to emphasize through Booth’s public trial and execution.
The book describes combat, injury and death in detail, putting a magnifying glass up to a few acts of violence. In each case, the fight for life or survival itself becomes the most important thing during the moment of combat, while the principles that someone may think he is killing or dying for are not necessarily the ones that history or public opinion will keep in mind when remembering the violence.
Survival vs Principles ThemeTracker
Survival vs Principles Quotes in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
"Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away….With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
As Lincoln spoke, one observer, Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, a free black woman, standing a few steps from the president, remarked that the lamplight made him “stand out boldly in the darkness.” The perfect target. “What an easy matter would it be to kill the president as he stands there! He could be shot down from the crowd,” she whispered, “and no one would be able to tell who fired the shot.”
At this supreme moment, the people cheered the man who, after a shaky start in office, learned how to command armies, brought down slavery, and became a most eloquent and moving speaker. And as he promised he would, he had saved the Union. Lincoln stood in the box and bowed to the audience.
Booth scrambled to center stage, turned to the audience, and stood up straight. Though every second was precious to his escape, he knew that this was his last appearance on the American stage. This would be the performance he would be remembered for. All eyes were on him. He stood still, paused to build suspense, and thrust his bloody dagger victoriously into the air. The gas stage lights shone on the shiny blade now stained with blood. "Sic semper tyrannis!" he thundered. It was the state motto of Virginia: "Thus always to tyrants." Then Booth shouted, "The South is avenged!"
The sergeant and Augustus wrestled Powell into the hall and into the bright gaslight. Powell and Augustus, their faces inches apart, fixed their eyes on each other. Then Powell spoke. In an intense but calm voice, the assassin confided to Augustus, as though trying to persuade him, the strangest thing: “I’m mad. I’m mad!”
All Atzerodt had to do was knock on his door and the moment Johnson opened it, plunge the knife into his chest or shoot him dead. Compared with the challenges that faced Booth and Powell, Atzerodt had the easiest job of all. But that night, Johnson escaped death. Atzerodt could not do it. He drank in the hotel lobby, and the more he drank, the worse the plan sounded. He did not knock on Andrew Johnson's door. He left the bar and walked out. Abandoning his mission, Atzerodt got on his horse and rode away. He wasn't sure what to do next.
Within a few minutes of the assassination, the news began spreading, first by word of mouth from Ford's, then by messenger. It traveled no faster than a man could run on foot or ride on horseback. Between 10:30 and 11:00 P.M., more than fifteen hundred people spilled out from the theater onto the streets. They fanned out in all directions, like an unpaid army of newsboys shouting, "Extra!"
Stanton knew that if any person in Washington deserved a precious lock of the martyr’s hair, it was Mary Jane Welles. She later framed the cherished relic with dried flowers that had decorated Abraham Lincoln’s coffin at the White House funeral. Stanton gazed down at his fallen chief and wept.
The nation could hardly bury its martyred Father Abraham with a lead ball lodged in his brain. They cut it out, marked it as evidence, and preserved it for history. His blood, according to a newspaper report, was drained from his corpse by an embalmer, transferred to glass jars, and preserved. When they were finished, Mary Todd Lincoln sent a request: Please cut off a lock of his hair for her.
When Jones went to the Confederate capital, Richmond, at the beginning of April 1865 to collect the money owed him by the Confederacy, he discovered that the army had evacuated the city and he went unpaid. He lost $2,300 owed to him for three years of service, along with all the money he had invested in Confederate bonds at the beginning of the war. All this meant Jones needed as much money as he could lay his hands on.
Whatever papers Booth read, they all condemned him for his heinous act. Even worse, Booth saw the beginning of a change in how Abraham Lincoln was viewed by America. Lincoln was transformed from a controversial and often unpopular war leader into a martyr and hero. Stories reported in the papers condemned Booth by name in the most unforgiving, vicious language.
As Jones grabbed the stern of the boat and shoved it off, a grateful Booth thrust a fistful of Union greenbacks at Jones. Jones refused the gesture, saying that he had not helped him for money. Under protest, he agreed to accept just eighteen dollars, the price he had paid for the boat.
Booth decided it was better to die than be taken back to Washington to face justice. He did not wish to bear the spectacle of a trial that would put him on public display for the amusement of the press and curiosity seekers. Nor did he wish to endure the rituals of a hanging: being bound and blindfolded, parading past his own coffin and open grave, climbing the steps of the scaffold. The shameful death of a common criminal was not for him. It was far better to perish here.
Another hunt, the one for reward money, began before Booth's corpse had even cooled. With Booth dead, and his chief accomplices under arrest, awaiting trial, it was time to cash in. Hundreds of manhunters rushed to claim a portion of the $100,000 reward offered by the War Department. Tipsters with the slightest connection to the twelve-day search for Lincoln's killer tried to get their piece of the reward.