Lincoln Assassination Timeline: How the Plot Unfolded

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What are the details of the Lincoln assassination timeline? Were the co-conspirators successful in killing their other targets?

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer provides the details of the Lincoln assassination timeline. The timeline from the president’s arrival at Ford’s Theatre until the assassins scattered after the attacks is an important part of understanding the larger assassination plot.

Keep reading to learn the Lincoln assassination timeline.

At Ford’s Theatre

Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and their guests Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris arrived at the theater after the play had begun. However, the director stopped the play, the band played “Hail to the Chief,” the audience cheered, and Lincoln bowed to the crowd.

After having a drink at a saloon, Booth entered the theater lobby at 10 p.m. and climbed the stairs to the balcony, where he opened the vestibule door unimpeded. He closed and blocked it behind him, and waited outside another door to Lincoln’s box. He could see through a peephole that he may have made that Lincoln was seated in a rocking chair closest to the door holding Mary’s hand. Their guests were seated on Mary’s other side.

Four scenes remained in the play. Booth pulled out his pistol and knife. He waited until there was just one actor on stage, Harry Hawk, who he knew would speak a big applause line generating a reaction that would muffle his shot. He opened the door and entered the president’s box at 10:31 p.m.

No one in the box noticed as Booth stepped toward Lincoln and raised the pistol to shoulder height. When Hawk spoke the line, “You sockdologizing old mantrap,” the audience burst into laughter, and Booth fired. The bullet struck Lincoln on the left side of his head below his ear, then traveled through his brain and stopped behind his right eye. Lincoln’s head fell forward, and he slumped in the chair.

Some theatergoers heard the shot and thought it was part of the play. However, the Lincolns’ guest, Major Rathbone, recognized it as gunfire. As he got up and moved toward Lincoln, Booth stabbed at him with his knife, shouting “Freedom!” Booth then climbed over the box railing and jumped to the stage, landing awkwardly and injuring his left leg. He yelled the state motto of Virginia, in Latin, “Thus always to tyrants,” and then “The South is avenged!” He ran into the wings, slashing at anyone in front of him, while an audience member heard Booth say, “I have done it.” Booth reached the back door to the alley, mounted his horse, and galloped away.

The Attack on Seward

As we examine the Lincoln assassination timeline, we need to see how some key events happened simultaneously. As the attack unfolded at the theater, about a mile from the White House, Secretary of State Seward lay in bed with his daughter Fanny by his side. With David Herold waiting outside, Lewis Powell knocked on the door and told the servant who answered that he had medicine from Seward’s doctor, which he needed to give directly to the patient. He pushed past the doubtful servant and started upstairs, running into Seward’s son Frederick on the way. 

They scuffled, and Powell tried to shoot him but his pistol malfunctioned. Powell beat Frederick with the gun as the servant ran for help. Fanny looked out of her father’s bedroom door, inadvertently revealing his location, and Powell barged into the room. An army nurse also in the bedroom fought Powell and Powell stabbed him. Powell managed to stab Seward in the side of the face while Fanny tried to protect him.

Outside, Herold could hear the commotion and took off on his horse, leaving Powell to fend for himself. Another Seward son, Augustus, awoke and joined the fray, and the defenders wrestled Powell out of the bedroom and into the hall. Powell finally fled, finding his horse outside but not Herold. He threw his knife on the ground and rode away. While Seward was seriously injured, he managed to whisper that he was alive, and the householders sent for doctors and police.

A Mortally Wounded President

The Lincoln assassination timeline now takes us back to Ford’s Theatre. A 23-year-old Army surgeon in the audience, Dr. Charles Leale, had rushed to the president’s box after Booth’s escape. He examined Lincoln, who wasn’t breathing, and found the large bullet hole in his head. He removed the blood clot at the bullet hole to relieve pressure, then worked to start the president’s heart and breathing. Although Lincoln’s breathing resumed, Leale pronounced his wound mortal. 

Lincoln was carried through the crowds and across the street to a boarding house bedroom where more doctors arrived and a death watch began. Other government officials were notified, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived and took charge of mobilizing troops to hunt for Booth and for Seward’s attacker. Stanton also sent guards to Johnson’s and every cabinet member’s house, believing this was a Confederate plot to bring down the government.

The Co-Conspirators Scatter

Here, as in the case of the attacks on Johnson and Seward, the Lincoln assassination timeline doesn’t go as planned. Although Booth’s plan called for the co-conspirators to meet on a particular hilltop in Maryland after carrying out their assignments, Atzerodt and Powell improvised.

Atzerodt: Although he was supposed to simply knock on the vice president’s unguarded Kirkwood House hotel room door and shoot or stab him when he answered, Atzerodt instead drank awhile in the hotel lobby, then got on his horse and returned to his own hotel room for the night without attempting the assassination.

Powell: After his botched attack on Seward, Powell became lost in the city without Herold as a guide. After sleeping in a tree for two nights, he remembered Mary Surratt’s Washington boarding house, which he’d visited with Booth, and decided to try and find it.

Booth and Herold: Booth and Herold followed the planned escape route out of the city, with Herold some distance behind. Both crossed the Navy Yard Bridge after questioning by a guard, who let each of them pass after some hesitation. They rode 13 miles toward Mary Surratt’s tavern in Maryland, with Herold catching up with Booth near the meeting point. With Booth in increasing pain from his injured leg, they arrived at the tavern, collected the stashed weapons and supplies, and continued riding southeast in search of Dr. Mudd, who lived on a farm near Bryantown, Maryland.

The Lincoln assassination timeline helps us understand the bigger picture of the plot.

Lincoln Assassination Timeline: How the Plot Unfolded

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of James L. Swanson's "Chasing Lincoln's Killer" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Chasing Lincoln's Killer summary:

  • A vivid account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination
  • The 12-day pursuit of killer John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators through Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia
  • A story that is condensed to be suitable for readers of all ages

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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