Pursuit of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth could have ended at the capital city limits if the man guarding the Navy Yard Bridge had simply followed orders. Instead, Booth escaped the city to lead Union forces on a 12-day chase across Maryland into Virginia.
Booth's Escape from D.C.
April 14, 1865: With President
Abraham Lincoln fatally wounded behind him, John Wilkes Booth fled Ford’s
Theatre, mounted his horse, and raced out of the capital. His exit route took him to the Navy Yard
Bridge at the foot of 11th
Booth could get past the guard, he could cross the bridge spanning Anacostia
creek and head south towards Virginia. Booth arrived at the bridge at about 10:30
p.m. A sentry named Silas Cobb demanded
he stop and give his name, because the bridge was closed at 9 p.m. for security
reasons. Booth gave his real name and the password “TB” (Tobacco Road). After further interrogation, Booth was allowed
to cross. Booth was lucky. He had already been stopped for suspicion (he
lacked proper identification) and held at this bridge earlier that day. The supervisor let him go and so Booth
entered the capital and carried out his assassination plot against the
Booth’s co-conspirator David Herold, whose attempt to kill Secretary of
State William Seward caused only serious wounds, arrived at the bridge minutes
later. Herold was allowed to pass
without incident. A third horseman, John
Fletcher arrived soon after Herold, but did not cross the bridge. Fletcher was pursuing Herold to recover the
rented horse he rode. However, when Cobb
informed Fletcher he could cross the bridge but would not be allowed to re-cross
until morning, Fletcher ended his pursuit. The capture of Booth could have happened
within a day if sentry Cobb had followed his orders. That order was General Order #5, issued
January 24, 1863, saying: No
person excepting General Officers will be passed over any of the several
crossings between the hours of 9:00 P.M. and daylight without the countersign
and a pass.” It was ninety minutes past
9 p.m., only one had the countersign, and none had a pass.
After crossing the Navy
minutes apart, the two fugitives passed through Uniontown (now Anacostia) and
met up later at Soper’s Hill. From
there, they traveled together. They next
stopped shortly at the Surratt’s Tavern for weapons and supplies. By midnight they were in flight again. After 12 days, two rivers crossed, numerous
houses visited, 5 days hiding in the woods, and Union soldiers on their heels,
the two men were finally brought to justice at Garrett’s farm, where Herold was
arrested and Booth was killed.
The Navy Yard Bridge connected Washington,
D.C. to Uniontown (now Anacostia), Maryland. Uniontown was part of an 1850s development of
numerous suburbs by land speculators. A
developer built the town in 1854 to attract employees of the Navy Yard who
could live in his town and walk across the bridge to work.