Booth’s Escape Route (conclusion)

By ECW Correspondent Pat Tintle.

In the days following the president’s assassination, while American citizens mourned the death of their leader, Union troops searched surrounding rural areas for Booth. In the morning following Lincoln’s death, Union troops set up headquarters in the Bryantown, unbeknownst that Booth laid just four miles away with his broken leg at Mudd’s house.

Union troops also made their way to Port Tobacco, Maryland in pursuit of Booth. The small village of roughly 15 residents is historically marked today. The little corner of Maryland is centered around the Port Tobacco Courthouse & Museum, which is a large brick building complete with authentic-looking cobblestone paths. A white historical sign introduced the village to Phill and I as the site where “Detective Captain William Williams unsuccessfully offered Thomas Jones $100,000 for information that would lead to the capture of John Wilkes Booth.” After a decline from Jones, the Union troops proceeded to find the most wanted man in the country.

Now in the Maryland wilderness, Booth and Herold purposely avoided Bryantown and Port Tobacco, a decision that proved to be crucial for their immediate survival. But the two fugitives would need help from another southern sympathizer—Colonel Samuel Cox. On April 16, Easter Sunday, Cox fed and sheltered both Booth and Herold, even knowing that Booth was an assassin.

As Phill and I approached Rich Hill, it was clear that the structure is private property today. But, from a distance, the house (which was built long before the Civil War was even imagined) is similar to most other homes of the time period. It is dressed with white, and peeling, paint and is surrounded by seemingly unkempt grass and shrubs with a dirt road leading to the house. Cox knew that he could not keep both high-profile men in his home without raising suspicions. Booth and Herold were then led to a nearby thicket, just across the road from Cox’s residence.

From April 16-21, Booth and Herold would be prisoners of the Maryland woods. Rather than supporting the assassins himself, Cox called upon his foster brother, Thomas Jones (who dealt with Union troops in Port Tobacco), to take care of Booth and Herold, who now hid in the thicket across the street from Cox’s home. Jones obeyed. Among other things, Jones provided Booth and Herold with food and whisky (Booth’s favorite). But it was in the Maryland woods that Booth would receive a great shock.

Jones brought Booth newspapers everyday. And with those papers, Booth read that his intention of patriotism was interpreted as condemnation. While Booth expected most northern newspapers to take this stance, even southern papers (probably the Baltimore Sun) portrayed Booth as a mad murderer. And the biggest hit to Booth’s heart—Lincoln had been transformed from a controversial president to an innocent victim. Booth may have succeeded in killing the president, but he only enhanced Lincoln’s martyrdom.

Peering into the thicket in which Booth and Herold hid for six days, one thought crossed my mind. What exactly did these two men do for six whole days? Paranoia must have settled in Booth’s mind in due time. Every crunch of leaves or snapping of a twig must have felt like a death sentenced for a man on the run from the entire country. With no form of entertainment but newspapers, each story about the assassination must have been read over and over again by Booth, trying to make sense of it all. Nights were probably sleepless and lonely for both men, whose only visible friend came from the southern wild surrounding them.

And how appropriate the southern wild was. Booth’s act was, after all, an attempt to preserve the culture of the land he loved so much. Now that land was his escape.

But one big hurdle stood in the way of Booth’s escape; the Potomac River. After days of waiting in the pine thicket, Booth was finally able to continue his journey. He gave Jones 18 dollars for a small, humble boat, and he and Herold made their first attempt at crossing the mighty Potomac. However, boating in the middle of the night proved to be a difficult task. Neither Booth nor Herold were especially experienced seamen, and their first attempt to land on Virginia was a failure. The two men ended up landing on the western shore of Maryland; not on Virginia land. However, the following morning their attempt to cross the Potomac was successful.

But little did Booth know that his long escape was about to come to an end. It was now April 24, and once on Virginia land, Booth and Herold sought assistance in the town of Port Royal. The two men went to the Brockenbrough-Peyton House, accompanied by a group of Confederate soldier the fugitives befriended in their escape. Also in tact to this day, the Brockenbrough-Peyton House was one of the most beautiful houses in Port Royal in its time. But today, the house looks more like an abandoned home than a historical site. Wooden planks board windows and the exterior of the building has a metaphorical sense of rot, as if the house is embarrassed by its own position in American history.

Booth and his party were turned down by Sarah Jane Peyton, who redirected the group to a small farm just three miles down the road. With no other choice, Booth began the final stage of his journey.

That farm Miss Peyton directed Booth toward was the now famous Garrett Farm. Booth and Herold approached the residence and told the Garrett family that he and his friend (both claimed to be former Confederate soldiers) were seeking shelter. Sympathizing with the seemingly trustworthy men, Mr. Garrett allowed Booth and Herold to stay overnight in his home, and in his tobacco barn the following night.

Located next to a two-lane highway (U.S. 301), the Garrett Farm land is still undeveloped, but the tobacco barn is forever lost. Trespassing is not allowed, but most of the land is visible even from the road, with a historical marker citing the events that took place over 150 years ago.

Union forces learned of Booth’s location after interrogating the Confederate soldiers the assassin had met in Virginia. The Union troops finally cornered Booth and Herold just before dawn on April 26, and ordered Booth and Herold to surrender.

Herold obeyed, but Booth had other plans.

“I prefer to come out and fight,” Booth yelled to the troops. Booth never got that chance to fight. Union forces then torched the barn with Booth alive inside. Booth did not burn alive, but was shot in the neck as the forces peered through the cracks in the wooden barn. Instantly paralyzed, Booth’s escape was over. He was taken to the Garrett’s front porch where he died three hours later, just as the sun began to peek over the low Virginia hills.

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