Pursuit of the 16th New York Cavalry
The evidence found in the personal belongings of assassin John Wilkes Booth the night he murdered President Abraham Lincoln gave room for a very early discovery by the government of the design behind his heinous crime. It had been prior to the Chief Executive's second inaugural that assassination had been on the mind the stage actor, but his accomplices had backed out on the scheme until Richmond could be heard from.
The government, the latter part of April 14th 1865 and into the early hours of the following morning had been shifted to the Peterson House across the street from Ford's Theatre. The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton managed the security of the city through written orders of Major General Christopher C. Auger, commanding the Department of Washington. It had been an hour and a half after the shot was fired into the President's head, when the department commander, by order, alerted all surrounding forts, to man their guns and had the guards doubled.
Colonel George W. Gile, commanding the First Brigade of the Veteran Reserve Corps was instructed to detail a party of one commissioned officer and ten enlisted men to accompany the train that was scheduled to leave for Baltimore in the morning. The cars were to be searched at every stop for Booth and any other parties in which he may have deemed to the interest of the service to apprehend. In turn, orders were sent out in all directions in a frantic effort to locate the conspirators and apprehend them as soon as possible. All suspicious persons were to be arrested.
The orders the previous afternoon, for an expedition of the 8th Illinois and 16th New York Cavalry to proceed to Aldie, Virginia via Leesburg, under the command of Brigadier General William Gamble had been countermanded. Instead he was instructed to prepare both regiments to move early on the 15th to await dispatches carried by Major John M. Waite that would guide him further.
Colonel Nelson B. Sweitzer, commanding the 16th New York Cavalry was sent additionally more specific instructions. He was to have Major Waite accompany his command in an effort to rid that section of the country; he was then operating in of detached bands of guerillas and rebels. Blank paroles along with general orders specifying the course of action in paroling these types of irregulars were carried by this acting assistant inspector general. The area of operations had been directed as the entire Northern Neck in which he was to receive all communications by Department of Washington at Boyd's Hole.
By the 22nd of April, the commanding officer's orders had changed. The Quartermaster's Department was to provide him a steamer to embark one battalion of the regiment and proceed down the Potomac River disembarking upon the Virginia shore nearly opposite the Wicomico River. Landing them there, he was to use his troops in the search for Wilkes Booth and any of his accomplices who may have successfully crossed the Potomac. It had been reported, however; that there was no location for a wharf in that vicinity, but, fifteen miles further down, the Coan River had as much as an eight foot draft and plenty of landing area.
Commander Foxhall A. Parker was instructed to provide information to the Department of Washington on the Naval coverage of the lower Potomac as far up river as Washington itself. There had been reports that Wilkes Booth and David Herald had been hiding in the swamps about Allen's Fresh which emptied into the Wicomico River. Major General Auger wished to send a force of cavalry to Nomini Bay. The department commander had asked for soundings of the river in that vicinity for landing them. There had been very little doubt that, the two criminals were seen near Bryantown and had made inquiry about Piney Church. Parker's rigid blockade of the entire Potomac was asked for. All tugs and quartermaster's boats were to be used to prevent the crossing.
Special orders were then entrusted to Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty, of the 16th New York Cavalry to report to Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, special agent of the War Department at 217 Pennsylvania Avenue opposite the Willard Hotel. Taking instructions directly from him, a detachment of twenty five men and horses proceeded down the river aboard the steamer John S. Ide to Belle Plain, where his troops were landed and the steamer anchored off shore to await their return by the evening of the 26th of April.
Having received his instructions directly from Colonel Baker, the small detachment disembarked and rode in the direction of Fredericksburg until the Rappahannock River had been struck, twelve miles above Port Conway. A junction was made about 2 pm with the horse soldiers and Mr. Conger, another War Department agent, who borrowed four privates and a corporal from Doherty, and proceeded to follow the river down stream. Soon Colonel Lafayette Baker joined the escort at the ferry when information from a negro led them to the house of a Mr. Rollins. Photographs produced for the resident gave Lieutenant Doherty and his men the first indication they had been hot on the assassins trail when Rollins positively identified those who were wanted.
Mr. Rollins had named Captain Jett, Lieutenants Ruggles and Bainbridge, three former Confederate officers who had assisted Wilkes Booth in the escape. They were told that Jett was courting a woman from Bowling Green and Baker and Doherty mounted up and rode in that direction with the rest of their detail following close behind.
Coming to the house of Mrs. Clark, having been guided there by another negro; Captain Jett was rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and talked into giving a complete statement on his knowledge of the whereabouts of the assassins and promised to be released if he had. The party was then directed to the house of Mr. Garrett some twelve miles south of Bowling Green; the house surrounded and six of the 16th New York's soldiers were ordered to cover the barn and outbuildings.
Both Colonel Baker and Lieutenant Doherty knocked at the front door of the farm, but Mr. Garrett insisted that the murderers had fled into the woods the night before. It was only when his son came over, that he was convinced to tell the officers the truth. No patience for games, Doherty grabbed Mr. Garrett by the collar and dragged him out of the house, placing his revolver to the man's head when the farm owner admitted the two men they sought after were in the barn.
There had been much talk about firing the barn, but Lieutenant Doherty wished to wait until first light when he intended to rush the barn with his men and take them. The officers engaged in much conversation with the assassin in an attempt to get him to surrender, but he refused to give in.
Sergeant Boston Corbett, of Company L, 16th New York Cavalry came among the officers and requested that he be allowed into the barn by himself, but his superior refused. After more conversation and all terms asked for by Wilkes Booth were denied, they all threatened to fire the barn and gave him ten minutes to make up his mind. About this time, Doherty and his men realized there wasn't one but two men within. Booth called out: "Oh Captain, there is a man here who wants to surrender awful bad." The arms were called on to be handed out to them, but David Herald replied: "I have none." But Baker was adamant: "We know exactly what you've got." Booth then chimed in: "I own all the arms, and intend to use them on you gentlemen." Lieutenant Doherty then ordered: "Let him out." The younger Garrett who had the key unlocked the barn and Herald's hands were called for and the lieutenant dragged him out of the barn.
About the same time, the hay in the rear of the barn was set a fire by Mr. Conger and the barn began to blaze. As the building filled with smoke, Sergeant Boston Corbett, through an open slat in the barn fired one shot which entered the back of Wilkes Booth's head, leaving him paralyzed and dying. He expired about two hours later.
Securing a wagon, the body of John Wilkes Booth was personally sewn up inside a blanket by Lieutenant Doherty. While his detachment began moving north of the Rappahannock River, however, Colonel Baker had taken charge of the corpse and moved off with it along with two guards assigned and Captain Jett as prisoner. An orderly was sent back at a gallop by the lieutenant to find Baker and another detachment of cavalry under Major Bosworth was about to get started when the agent arrived with the copse, but minus Captain Jett. When asked about the prisoner, Baker did not know where he had gone other than he had escaped.
There is no understanding as to where Colonel Baker may have disappeared to with the body, but once placed onboard the John S. Ide the remains continued in the custody of the United States War Department without further examination of those who had sewn it within the blanket that covered it. To Lieutenant Doherty, the 16th New York Cavalry and those government officials, twelve days exhausted in bringing these men to justice; all had been satisfied that their duty had been met. The man hunt for the President's murderer had ended.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com