The Invalid Corps, the Assassination of President Lincoln, and the Hunt for John Wilkes Booth
So far, the documentary research is moving ahead slowly but steadily. In the next few weeks we will be seeking out more detailed and more specific images that are connected to Fort Stevens, the battle and Early’s raid. Unlike more famous (and more bloody) battles, there are fewer sketches, photos, and even first-person reminisces of the event.
Right now, like the rest of America, we are bombarded by election information. One can’t say we are not in a tumultuous time. Of course, in 1865 it was equally tense. President Lincoln has been dead for less than a week. The North is furious; the South, uneasy. An entire nation mourns but during this time (April 15 to April 26), there is a desperate manhunt for the conspiracy of assassins. What does that have to do with this project and the Invalid Corps? You might be surprised.
It is the night of April 14, 1865. President and Mrs. Lincoln decide to visit Ford’s Theater and see a play, “Our American Cousin.” A little after 10:25, John Wilkes Booth moves into position outside the President’s box. At the line in the play where the lead character says, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out.” John Wilkes Booth pulls out his derringer and fires a bullet into the back of the President’s head. He then leaps from the box to the stage, breaking his leg, but before he escapes through a back stage door, he delivers his last line from center stage: “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (Thus always with tyrants!). Lincoln is dying, and his guard was nowhere to be seen.
Provost Marshal James Rowan O’Beirne of the Invalid Corps was responsible for the safety of the President and his family. The night of Friday April 14, O’Beirne acceded to Mrs. Lincoln request he assign John Parker, a soldier with a record of bad performance to guard the President’s box. When Parker left his post, it cleared the way for John Wilkes Booth to shoot the President. That decision would haunt James O’ Beirne for the rest of his days.
At the start of the Civil War James O’Beirne was a Captain in the Irish Rifles, or the 37th New York Volunteers. During a bayonet charge at the Battle of Chancellorsville he is wounded several times, shot in the head, leg, and chest, puncturing a lung and paralyzing his right arm from shock.
“Guardedly the long line[s] groped through the woods. Glimpses only of the midnight moon flitted through the tall and sentineled forest … and gave a silver, ghoul-like sheen to the battalions. … Occasionally a soldier stumbled and pitched forward. Up! Forward again! No detention, no hesitation! How could he halt? The rear rank and others were striding behind him at close distance.” And then, “It seemed for the moment as if the doors of a blast-furnace had opened upon us.” There was terrible fire from both friend and foe.
O’Beirne survived the Chancellorsville campaign but when he appeared before a Medical Board, he was pronounced unfit for field service. He asked for a transfer into the Invalid Corps. On July 22, 1863, he was commissioned Captain into the Invalid Corps.
“I was detailed on duty at the War Department here In Washington, in the provost marshal general’s bureau. I helped to organize the enlisted men of the Veteran Reserve Corps, composed of wounded soldiers and temporarily invalided men. There were twenty-two regiments of them. Then I was ordered by the Secretary of War to take charge of the provost marshal’s office of the District of Columbia.”
O’Beirne ended up playing a critical role in the defense of Washington during the Battle of Fort Stevens. He was the one who provided arms and equipment to soldiers, clerks, and any man willing to take arms to defend the city. He stood with Lincoln on the ramparts as sniper fire whizzed past them from Jubal Early’s Confederate troops. And when it was over, O’Beirne was the one who ensured care for the wounded and saw to the prisoners.
But even then his job wasn’t done. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, ordered him to chase down Early’s men as they retreated back through Maryland to Virginia. For his efforts, he was eventually promoted to Provost Marshal for the District of Columbia which put him in charge of the President’s safety on that fateful night. Saturday, April 15th, 1865 at 7:30 Abraham Lincoln died and from that moment on O’Beirne was committed to hunting down the President’s killers.
“When I went to get Vice President Johnson and bring him to the bedside of [dying] Lincoln, as I had been ordered to do, he lived at the Kirkwood House, on the spot where now stands the Raleigh Hotel. When I told Mr. Johnson that Lincoln had been shot he informed me his suspicions had been aroused that night at the Kirkwood House. Mr. Johnson had heard footsteps for hours in the room above him. In the morning I went to the hotel again, and in the room which had been let to George Atzerodt, I found Booth’s hank book, a large bowie knife, a Colt navy revolver, and a handkerchief with the initial H embroidered on it. This turned out to be evidence of the complicity of Booth, Herold and Atzerodt, and established the fact that there had been a plot.”
Also included was a map showing Atzerodt’s escape route. O’Beirne followed and ensured his capture. One day passed, and then another, and another. The search for Booth through the countryside was proving fruitless. But O’Beirne followed his instincts and explored intelligence that Booth had crossed over to Virginia. Unfortunately, he was denied permission to search the Port Royal area and was recalled to Washington.
Although Colonel Lafayette Baker and his 16th New York Cavalry, who took over the search, garnered the praise and the place in history for eventually capturing Booth, it was James O’Beirne, Invalid Corps, and his detective work that lead them there.
Thanks for being a part of the Invalid Corps Team!
New York Times Magazine (December 7, 1930): Accounts of John Wilkes Booth’s Capture and Death – Major O’Beirne’s Diary, Recently Brought to Light, Describes The Difficulties of the Chase After Lincoln’s Assassin
*As stated previously, for the purposes of this project (and to keep confusion to a minimum) we will be using the term Invalid Corps throughout the time period of the corps commissioning rather than Veteran Reserve Corps.
Posted on: April 21, 2016