When John Wilkes Booth looked out between the slats of Mr. Garrett’s tobacco barn in the early morning hours of April 26, 1865, the faces he saw staring back at him belonged to the troopers of the 16th New York Cavalry. Through perseverance and a good bit of luck, the troop of twenty-six men commanded by Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty, detectives Luther Baker and Everton Conger, managed to locate and surround the assassin of President Lincoln. On the last day of the 2014, my girlfriend Kate and I retraced some of the steps the troopers took which concluded in them successfully locating the most wanted man in America.
Following the crime of April 14th, numerous troop detachments were sent out to scour the countryside in search of the assassin. However, with the assistance of others, Booth and Herold always managed to stay one or two steps ahead of the soldiers. When the pair crossed over into Virginia, they had a huge lead over their pursuers. While the manhunt succeeded in identifying and arresting some of the major players in the escape (John M. Lloyd, Dr. Samuel Mudd, even Thomas Jones), up until the moment he was killed, the widespread belief among those searching for him held that Booth was still hiding out in Maryland. The reason the 16th New York had even made its way into Virginia to search for the assassin was due to a serendipitous case of mistaken identity.
On April 16th, two Confederate agents named Thomas Harbin and Joseph Baden, Jr. crossed the Potomac river from a point on the Maryland shore called Banks O’Dee. Harbin had been introduced to John Wilkes Booth by Dr. Mudd and had apparently agreed to help the actor in his initial abduction plot against Lincoln. The increased troop detail in Southern Maryland and his acquaintance with the assassin probably motivated Harbin to cross to safer shores in Virginia. On the 19th of April, while detectives from James O’Beirne’s Washington D.C. provost marshal’s office were in Southern Maryland looking for information and acting as spies, a farmer in Banks O’Dee named Richard Claggett mentioned having seen two men cross the river on the 16th. As days passed with no other signs of the fugitives, two of O’Beirne’s men followed up on this lead and traveled into the Northern Neck of Virginia where few troops had been deployed. The detectives found a boat but nothing more. On the morning of the 24th O’Beirne, himself in the field at Port Tobacco, had a telegraph sent to the War Department about the theory that the fugitives may have already crossed into Virginia. Lafayette Baker, head of the National Detective Police, decided O’Beirne’s theory warranted further investigation and received permission from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to send a cavalry troop. An order went out for a “reliable and discreet commissioned officer” to command the mission. Lt. Edward Doherty of the 16th New York Cavalry answered the order.
A call then went out for twenty five privates from the 16th New York to join him, and Doherty took the first twenty-five who responded, regardless of their rank. Lafayette Baker also sent two detectives with the 16th New York. One was his cousin, Luther Byron Baker, and the other was a former Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger. Both had served with Lafayette Baker in the District of Columbia Cavalry. Technically, Luther Baker and Everton Conger were civilians at the time which would have left Doherty as the de facto leader of the group. However, once Booth was cornered and killed and the applications for reward money came in, battle lines were drawn with Conger and Baker both refuting Doherty’s ownership of the operation, making it difficult to ascertain who Lafayette Baker truly put in charge (if anyone).
Regardless, after receiving their orders to investigate the Northern Necks of Virginia, the detectives and the soldiers of the 16th NY made their way to the Sixth Street wharf in Washington D.C. and boarded the propeller-driven steamer, John S. Ide. The Ide steamed them down the Potomac, depositing them at Belle Plain, Virginia which is right at the border of King George and Stafford counties. It had taken Booth and Herold nine days to reach King George County. The troops made it there from D.C. in four hours.
Here are some pictures Belle Plain today showing the location where the John S. Ide docked and unloaded the soldiers:
The detachment unloaded here at around 10 pm on April 24th. Knowing that Booth was suffering from a broken leg, they immediately set about looking for doctors in the area. Luther Baker recalled the long night of April 24/25th thusly:
“The direction we took I could not tell positively. We went under the bluffs, and waked up the inhabitants of a house, to ascertain if any physicians resided in that locality. We learned the names of three of them, found them, and questioned them closely as to whether or not they had attended anyone with a fractured limb, or had heard of anyone with a fractured limb in the vicinity. We also questioned a negro and a few white persons upon the subject. All had heard of no such case.”
Around daybreak on the 25th, the 16th New York arrived at the home of Dr. Horace Ashton, the last doctor on their list. Like the other doctors in the area, Dr. Ashton had neither seen or heard anything in regard to a man with a broken leg in the area. The doctor was a fairly wealthy man with a large plantation which he called, Bleak Hill.
The doctor fed the troopers’ horses and provided the soldiers with a well deserved breakfast. Bleak Hill still stands today though the large building on the property apparently dates to 1870.
When the troops departed Bleak Hill, they split into two groups, each tracing a different route down to Port Conway on the Rappahannock River. Lt. Doherty and the majority of his men took the main road to Port Conway passing through Office Hall. Unbeknownst to the men, they were now on the trail of Booth and Herold as the pair had also passed through Office Hall on their way between Cleydael and Port Conway 24 hours before. Baker, Conger and four troopers took a less traveled route and eventually met up with the posse in Port Conway around lunch time.
The horses were again in need of feed and were lucky enough to find hospitality at the home of a wealthy planter named Carolinus Turner. His large and beautiful home was called Belle Grove and had the distinction of being the site of President James Madison’s birth. About half of the troopers were served lunch at Belle Grove with the rest being fed elsewhere. After lunch, Col. Conger, exhausted and suffering the long term effects of previous battle wounds, fell asleep from exhaustion in the hall of Belle Grove.
Today, Belle Grove is operated as a beautiful bed and breakfast. As refreshing as Col. Conger’s rest in the hallway must have been, I can say from personal experience that is nothing compared to a night or two in their luxurious Madison Suite.
As Conger slept, Lt. Doherty and some of his men made their way the half mile down the road to Port Conway, where they interviewed the inhabitants. It was here, in tiny little Port Conway on the Rappahannock River that the 16th New York finally got their first real lead on Booth’s whereabouts. Local fisherman William Rollins, had seen Booth and Herold as they were waiting to cross the Rappahannock the day before. Even more helpful, Rollins’ wife not only recognized the Confederate soldiers who ended up crossing the ferry with the pair, but knew that one of them, Willie Jett, was courting Izora Gouldman who lived in nearby Bowling Green. With this information in hand, Doherty sent one of his men to wake up Conger and the whole posse began the task of crossing the Rappahannock river. It took a while as the small ferry could only carry a few horses at a time. When the entire group made it across the river, they set about galloping at full speed to Bowling Green. Unknowingly, they rode right past the Garrett farm where Booth and Herold were hiding out.
Once in Bowling Green (a place Kate and I did not visit on New Year’s but you can see other pictures relating to it in the Bowling Green Picture Gallery), the company found Jett sleeping in the Star Hotel. Surrounded by troopers, he “offered” to take the men to the Garrett place where he had dropped off Booth two days before. The troops, with Jett in tow, headed back to the Garrett Farm.
The rest, as they say, is history. Booth and Herold had been exiled to the tobacco barn that night due to their strange behavior when the troops were originally galloping past on the way to Bowling Green. With the barn surrounded, Herold surrendered while an obstinate Booth asked for 50 paces so that he could come out shooting. Eventually Conger tired of the ongoing parley and set fire to the barn. Sergeant Boston Corbett aimed his pistol through the slats of the barn and shot Booth, striking him in the neck, and paralyzing him. He was pulled to the porch of the farmhouse and died there right after sunrise.
Today the site of the Garrett house is in the wooded median of Route 301, surrounded on all sides by Fort A. P. Hill. The only marker at the site, aside from a warning that digging for artifacts in illegal, is a metal pipe sticking out of the ground which marks the center line of the western most chimney of the Garrett house.
A visit to the Garrett site on New Year’s day (a tradition of mine ever since I moved to Maryland) ended our retracing of the route of the 16th New York Cavalry. After getting a breakfast and food for their horses at Garrett’s, the troopers returned to Belle Plain. With Booth’s body in tow and Herold taken prisoner, the victorious men reboarded the John S. Ide and steamed back up to D.C. They were Lincoln’s Avengers and no doubt spent that steamship ride dreaming of the fame and reward money that awaited them.