Letter #24 – APRIL 18, 1865
Thomas Jackson Letter, Page 1
A copy of John Wilkes Booth's letter justifying his act.
The Thomas Jackson Collection
Library of Congress
He speaks of the opinions of some who felt that the assassination was done by an abolitionist on the grounds that Lincoln was not extreme enough in punishing the "southern, slave holder rebels".
No summary can begin to approach the experience of reading this letter, started in the darkness of the early morning and continuing as a vivid eyewitness account of how the citizens of Reading responded to LIncoln's death and funeral..
Reading Penna April 18. 1865. 2 Oclock A.M.
Last Saturday morning I was preparing to go to the rope walk, when an acquaintence came And said it was reported that the president of the United States was shot. I hurried up to the one of our telegraph offices. It wanted 15 minutes of the time the operator should be there. I found about fifty men talking about the report and waiting to have it confirmed or contradicted. The report had come by the coal line telegraph about midnight. This is the rail road Co's telegraph line. It is always in operation for the night and day to regulate the numerous coal & goods trains by, and it was by this line we got the first news of the surrender of Lee & his rebel army.
Well, the anxiety was most intense. The suspense between hope and fear was oppressive in the extreme. The operator came. adjusted his instrument, and in a few minutes told us it was true. Abm Lincoln was shot and died about 7 Oclock that morning. (It was then 8 Oclock, so he had been dead only one hour when the sad news was confirmed here. I am now verging on three score years of age, and have passed through some trying times during my life, but I never before felt as I did then. It is utterly impossible to describe my feelings. Wunder what next. appalled at the past and the present, good men stood agast at the future.
Abm Lincoln, the good, the kind hearted, the generous, the patient, the long suffering, the ever forgiving, the noble and humane Abm Lincoln, president of these United States and victorious defender of freedom, justice and the right, was publicly murdered, and the daring demon who had done the develish deed, with the falsehood of hell on his tongue had shouted "Sic Semper tyrannis" and escaped on the instant, in the horror and amazement of at such a bold and daring and aweful crime. Yes "Sic semper tyrannis" was the motto of the villianous and lying murderer.
And I then stood within a hundred feet of where I had seen northern proslavery demogogues stand, only six months before, and boldly declare that Abm Lincoln was a usurper and a tyrant, worse than Charles 1st of England and as richly deserved to die the death he died. I had heard others assert that he ought to be hanged in the same rope that hung John Brown, and now these teachings have been acted out. These vilely false inculcations have been carried out to the bloody end, and there lays Abm Lincoln, the most tried and the best proved president we ever had, with a rebel bullet hole in his head and his brains blown out. What an aweful crime is this. The president of these United States most foully murdered in the full presence of his family and thousands of his people, crowds of his
Jeff Davis is in some small southern town raving out proclamations. But his power is all gone for ever, and he had better be gone too. For if he is caught now, he is as sure to be hanged as he has a neck to put a rope around. It is well known beyond all doubt that Davis and his rebel cabinet are at the bottom of this infernal plot by which our good man, our best man has fallen. It was a widespread
He was for pardoning every one of the guilty rascals & restoring them all their property (except slaves) all their franchises and privileges and putting them in power again all through the south same as they were before. Never, since the creation, was a more insane, mad act done by man than this develish murder of Abm Lincoln by rebel emissaries. The effect through out all the north is aweful, terrible in the extreme.
Strong men stood weeping in the streets, and women shrieked with horror at the heinous crime. The poor blacks take it very hard and seem entirely inconsolable. They worshipped the slavery destroying president as more than a man, and should the negro troops ever have a chance at the vile rebels again they will take a terrible revenge. But, as to that, the whole of the union soldiers are stung almost to madness, and if all resistance by the south does not immediately cease, God help all taken in battle after this.
The whole north crys for vengence. "Justice without mercy, dig graves and stretch hemp" is preached from the pulpits. And their lays the cruel, bloody handed murderous south utterly defeated and powerless at our feet. There are no southern sympathizers now. It is "more than any ones life is worth now to say a word against Abm Lincoln or in favor of the rebels.
In several places rank copperheads have been beaten to death for expressing satisfaction at this most foul assassination. Those who slandered Mr Lincoln so last election, now hang their heads in shame and are humbly silent. All works of every kind stopped, and all business was suspended on Saturday at at dinner time. only a few hours after the sad news came.
And every day is almost as silent as a sabbath. The only difference is that there are many people on the streets, around the telegraph offices and railway stations, discussing the meloncholy event & anxious to get news, especially of the arrest of the assassin.
April 19th. Wednesday. This is the day of our first murdered president's funeral. It is far more strictly kept than any Sunday I have ever seen in america. All Nearly every dwelling house, all the churches and public buildings, are hung with the dark emblems of national sorrow. Many are very tastefully and profusely decorated with the dark habiliments of woe. All the churches are open and crowded full of people all array'd in their nicest and best apparel, and many of them mourning for loved ones lost in this cruel war, and nearly all with wearing badges, with the lamented Lincoln's likeness, or some mark of respect for our departed president. I said nearly every house is draped in mourning. a very few show no sign of respect at all. But they are few. Not over 6 or 7 in the whole city, and
I have not the least doubt that if John Brown had taken revenge for his great wrongs by killing the vile betrayer of his country, James Buchanan, hundreds of abolitionists would have been murdered by bloodthirsty proslavery mobs of the kind that committed those cowardly crimes in New York not long since. And it would have been worse still because slaveholders had all the power then and government would have been slow to stop them, most likely looked on approvingly and done nothing to protect us.
We know this by their infamous course in the Kansas troubles 8 or 10 years ago. Many free state men were shot down publicly, in broad daylight, for trying to make Kansas a free state, and their daring murderers were rewarded with good fat offices under the government by James Buchanan, the traitor president of the united states, by and with the consent of the then proslavery cabinet and senate. It was indeed fortunate for us all that John Browns frenzy for freedom did not take the notion that this Booth's frenzy for slavery has, and lead him to slaughter the then president. If it had, very likely I should never have lived to become your correspondent. Several of these proslavery democrats
Remember me kindly to your parents.
A copy of John Wilkes Booth's letter justifying his act.
John Wilkes Booth
Thomas Jackson Collection
Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.19233/
It is difficult for us to read our Great Great Uncle's account of Lincoln's assassination without feeling his anguish. His accuracy in this on the spot report of Lincoln's death has withstood the test of time for accuracy.
Although not written by Thomas Jackson, our collection also includes this account by Booth which explains his motivations.
LETTER OF J. WILKES BOOTH.
PROOF THAT HE MEDITATED HIS CRIME MONTHS AGO.
Confesses that he was engaged in a Plot to Capture and Carry Off the President
HIS EXCUSES FOR THE CONTEMPLATED ACT.
HIS PARTICIPATION IN THE EXECUTION OF JOHN BROWN.
A SECESSION RAPSODY
The following verbatim copy of a letter, in writing which is in the hand handwriting of JOHN WILKES BOOTH, the murderer of President LINCOLN, has been furnished to us by the Hon. Wm. MILLWARD, United States Marshal of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. It was handed over to that office of by JOHN S. CLARKE, who is brother-in-law are Mr. BOOTH. The history connected with it is somewhat peculiar.
In November 1864 the paper was deposited with Mr. CLARKE by BOOTH, in a sealed envelope, "or safe keeping", Mr. CLARKE being ignorant of the contents. In January last, BOOTH called at Mr CLARKE's house, asked for the package and it was given to him. It is now supposed that at that time he took out the paper and added to it his signature, which appears to be in a different ink from that used in the body of the letter, and also from the language employed could not have been put to it originally. Afterwards he returned the package to Mr. CLARKE again for safekeeping, sealed and bearing the superscription " J. WILKES BOOTH."
The enclosure was preserved by the family without suspicion of its nature. After the afflicting information of the assassination of the President, which came upon the family of Mr. CLARKE with crushing force, it was considered proper to open the envelope. There were found in it the following paper, with some Seven Thirty United States Bonds, and certificates of shares in oil companies. Mr CLARKE promptly handed over the paper to Marshal MILLWARD in whose custody it now remains. From a perusal of this paper, it seems to have been prepared by BOOTH as some sort of desperate act which he had in contemplation; and from the language used, it is probable that it was a plot to abduct the President and carry him off to Virginia. If this was meditated, it failed, and from making a prisoner of the President to his assassination was an easy step for a man of perverted principles. It also appears the BOOTH was one of the party who was engaged in the capture and execution of JOHN BROWN, of Ossawattomie, at which time he doubtless imbibed from WISE and his associates, those detestable sentiments of cruelty which have culminated in an infamous crime. The letter is as follows: --
My Dear Sir:--
You may use this as you think best. But as some may wish to know when, who and why, and as I know not how to direct, I give it (in the words of your master,) "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN"
Right or wrong, God judge me, not man. For my motive good or bad, of one thing I am sure. The lasting condemnation of the North.
I love peace more than life. Have loved the Union beyond expression. For four years, I have waited, hoped and prayed for the dark clouds to break, and for the restoration of our former sunshine. To wait longer would be a crime. All hope for peace is dead. My prayers have proved as idle as my hopes. God's will be done. I go to see and share the bitter end. I have ever held the South were right. The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln, four years ago, spoke plainly, war - war upon Southern rights and institutions. His election proved it . "Await an overt act." Yes, until you are bound and plundered. What folly! The South was wise. Who thinks of argument or patience when the finger of his enemy presses on the trigger? In a foreign war, I too could say, "country right or wrong." But in a struggle such as ours (where the brother tries to pierce the brother's heart,) for God's sake, choose the right. When a country like this, spurns justice from her side, she forfeits the allegiance of every honest freeman, and should leave him, untrammeled by any fealty soever, to act as his conscience may approve.
People of the North, to hate tyranny, to love liberty and justice, to strike at wrong and oppression, was the teachings of our fathers. The study of our early history will not let me forget it,and may it never. This country was formed for the white, not for the black man. And looking up on African slavery from the same stand-point held by the noble framers of the Constitution, I, for one, have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both of themselves and for us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation. Witness heretofore our wealth and power. Witness the elevation and enlightenment above their race elsewhere. I have lived among it most of my life, and have seen less harsh treatment from master to man than I have beheld in the North from father to son. Yet, Heaven knows, no one would be willing to do more for the Negro race than I, could I but see a way to still better their condition. But Lincoln's policy is only preparing the way for their total annihilation. The South have not, nor have they been fighting for the continuance of slavery. The first battle of Bull Run did away with that idea. Their causes since for war have been as noble and greater far than those that urged our fathers on. Even should we allow they were wrong at the beginning of this contest, cruelty and injustice have made the wrong become the right, and they stand now (before the wonder and admiration of the world) as a noble band of patriotic heroes. Hereafter, reading of their deeds, Thermopylae* will be forgotten.
When I aided it in the capture and execution of John Brown (who is a murderer on our western border, and was fairly tried and convicted before an impartial judge and jury, of treason, who by the way, has since been made a god,) I was proud of my little share in the transaction, for I deemed it my duty, and that I was helping our country to perform an act of justice. But what was a crime in poor John Brown is now a considered (by themselves) as the greatest and only virtue of the whole Republican Party. Strange transmigration! Vice to become a virtue, simply because more indulge in it.
I thought then, as now, that the Abolitionists were the only traitors in the land, and that the entire party deserved the same fate as poor old Brown, not because they wish to abolish slavery, but on account of the means they have endeavored to used to effect that abolition. If Brown were living, I doubt whether he himself would set slavery against the Union. Most, or many in the most north to do, and openly curse the Union, if the South were to return and retain a single right guaranteed to them by every tie which we once revered as sacred. The South can make no choice. It is either extermination of slavery for themselves (worse than death) to draw from. I know my choice.
I have also studied hard to discover up on what grounds the right of a State to secede has been denied, when our very name, United States, and the Declaration of Independence, both provide for Secession. But there is no time for words. I write in haste. I know how foolish I shall be deemed for undertaking such a step as this, where, on the one side, I have many friends and every thing to make me happy, where my professional alone has gained me an income of more than twenty thousand dollars a year, and where my great personal ambition in my profession has such a great field for labor.
On the other hand, the South has never bestowed upon me one kind word; a place now where nowI have no friends, except beneath the sod; a place where I must either become a private shoulder or beggar. To give up all the former for the latter, besides my mother and sisters whom I love so dearly (although they differ so widely with me in opinion,) it seems insane; But God is my judge. I love justice more than I do a country that disowns it; more than fame and wealth; more (Heaven pardon me if I am wrong) more than a happy home.
I have never been on the battle-field; but O my countrymen, could you all but see the reality or effects of this horrid war, as I have seen them (in every State, save Virginia) I know you would think like me, and would pray the Almighty to create in the Northern mind a sense of right and justice (even should it possess no seasoning of mercy,) and that he would dry up this sea of blood between us ,which is daily growing wider. Alas! poor country, is she to meet her threatened doom?
Four years ago, I would have given a thousand lives to see her remain (as I had always known her) powerful and unbroken. And even now, I would hold my life is naught to see her what she was. O my friends, if the fearful scenes of the last four years had never been enacted, or if what has been had been but a frightful dream from which we could now awake with what overflowing hearts could we bless God and pray for his continued favor!
How I have loved the old flag could never now be known. A few years since and the entire world could boast of none so pure and spotless. But I have of late been seeing and hearing of the bloody deeds of which she has been made the emblem, and would shudder to think how changed she has grown. O how I long to see her break from the midst of blood and death that circles round her folds, spoiling her beauty and tarnishing her honor. But no; day by day she's being dragged deeper and deeper into cruelty and oppression, till now (in my eyes) her once bright red stripes look like bloody gashes on the face of Heaven. I now look upon my early admiration of her glories as a dream. My love (as things stand today) is for the South alone. Nor do I do I deem it a dishonor in attempting to make for her a prisoner of this man, to whom she owes so much misery. If success attends me, I go penniless to her side. They say she has found that "last ditch," which the North have so long derided, and have been endeavoring to force her in, forgetting they are our brothers, and that it's impolitic to goad an enemy to madness. Should I reach her in safety and find it true, I will proudly beg permission to triumph or die in that same "ditch" by her side.
A Confederate doing duty upon his own responsibility.
J. WILKES BOOTH
*Thermopylae was a narrow pass on the coast of Greece, northwest of Athens. In 480 BC It was the site of a famous battle at which the Spartan King Leonidas stood off the Persian armies for a time but was annihilated by the Persians. The name is derived from the hot sulphur springs nearby.
or this website in general.