The American Civil War was over: after four years of bloodshed and three-quarters of a million deaths, the United States had been preserved as a union. But the task of rebuilding – and establishing a nation without slavery – would not fall to the wartime president, Abraham Lincoln. For on 14 April 1865, taking a night off to go to the theatre, he was gunned down by an assassin.


Manhunt, a seven-part historical drama streaming on Apple TV+ from 15 March, offers a new perspective on that infamous night and the ensuing hunt for Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, and his conspirators. As an adaptation of the bestselling 2007 book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L Swanson, it blurs the boundary between fiction and reality, bridging the gap between what we do know, and what we don’t. But what really happened?

The background to the Lincoln assassination

On 9 April 1865, Ulysses S Grant, the top general in the Union army, accepted the surrender of his Confederate counterpart, Robert E Lee, at Appomattox Court House, signalling the effective end of the American Civil War.

Robert E Lee surrenders to Union general Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox
Things came to a head after 9 April 1865, when Confederate commander Robert E Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox. (Image by Getty Images)

At the core of those four bloody years of conflict was the issue of slavery, with the Confederacy in the South fighting to prevent the emancipation of enslaved people. They lost. And what’s more, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed more than three million slaves in the South, and preceded the 13th Amendment that would abolish slavery for good.

Then, two days after Appomattox, Lincoln gave an address from the White House balcony in which he voiced support for limited suffrage for the black population.

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Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States of America. (Photo by Hulton/Archive/Getty Images)

Listening in the crowd was John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and Confederate sympathiser from the slave state of Maryland, who blamed Lincoln utterly for the South’s woes. He had tried to abduct the president in order to cripple the US government; now, desperate, he decided to kill Lincoln.

“That is the last speech he will ever make,” said Booth.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Three days after his address, on 14 April 1865, Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC to see the popular comedy, Our American Cousin. He arrived late, causing the production to stop while he took his seat in the presidential box to the sounds of Hail to the Chief and a rousing ovation.

Joining Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were Clara Harris – a socialite and the daughter of a senator – and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone. The pair had been invited at the last minute: Lincoln’s general Grant was supposed to come, but he cancelled as his wife did not get on with Mary Lincoln.

The play resumed and the president seemed to be enjoying himself, laughing along with the farce. But in the third act, Booth set his plan into motion. Having barricaded the door of the hallway, he snuck into the box.

An illustration showing John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln
An illustration showing John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC in 1865. (Image by Getty Images)

The president’s bodyguard, John Frederick Parker, was nowhere to be seen. He was hardly a good choice as Lincoln’s sole protector that night anyway – a policeman with a long record of misconduct, including drunkenness on duty and frequenting brothels, it turned out he had gone to a nearby tavern in the intermission. The same one, by chance, that Booth had been waiting in.

Perfectly timing it with when he knew there would be a big, loud, laugh, Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 calibre derringer pistol. He then attacked Rathbone with a knife.

Abraham Lincoln’s death

After Booth shot Lincoln, the people inside Ford’s Theatre only realised what had happened, instead of thinking it was all part of the play, when the First Lady screamed.

A doctor in the audience, Charles Leale, immediately attended to the president, who was still alive but not conscious. He was carried across the street into a boarding house owned by William Petersen and placed in a bed – although he had to go diagonally due to being too tall.

Death of Abraham Lincoln
Painting of the death of President Lincoln showing his physician and other notaries, circa 1865. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

With a host of doctors agreeing that there was nothing that could be done, members of his family, including Mary and son Robert, and his cabinet saw out the night at the bedside. At 7.22am, Lincoln died at the age of 56.

At that moment, Stanton reportedly said, “Now he belongs to the ages,” conveying the certain and far-reaching significance of Lincoln’s legacy.

As the next day was Easter Sunday, church congregations came together in huge numbers to mourn what became known as ‘Black Easter’. Lincoln instantly became a martyr, especially among the black population who came to see him as a saviour figure.

The train carrying President Abraham Lincoln's casket
The train carrying President Abraham Lincoln's casket during his funeral, which travelled to 13 cities. (Image by Getty Images)

Lincoln’s body laid in state at both the White House and Capitol, before being taken on a funeral train for a procession to 13 cities. The train tracks were lined with tens of thousands of people despairing at the loss of the president who held the union together.

The last stop of the procession was Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln was buried.

What happened to John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln?

Booth leaped from the box to the stage, landing heavily and breaking his leg, before yelling to the audience, “Sic semper tyrannis!”, the Virginia state motto meaning ‘thus always to tyrants’. Even injured, he escaped from the theatre and onto a horse left for him by a fellow conspirator.

Portrait of John Wilkes Booth
Portrait of John Wilkes Booth, who shot Abraham Lincoln in 1865. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

A massive manhunt ensued, coordinated by secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. After 12 days on the run with the conspirator David Herold, Booth was caught hiding in a tobacco barn in Virginia. Refusing to give himself up, he was shot and killed by a sergeant named Boston Corbett.

Who else was involved in the conspiracy?

Eight other conspirators would be arrested and tried over seven weeks at a military tribunal. Four were executed: Herold, who accompanied Booth on the run; Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, the men tasked with assassinating Seward and Johnson respectively; and Mary Surratt, owner of a boarding house where conspirators met.

Three others – Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlin and Dr Samuel Mudd – received life sentences, although these were later commuted for Arnold and Mudd (O’Laughlin died in prison). Mudd had treated Booth’s broken leg, but the extent of his involvement in the conspiracy remains controversial – many historians believe he did not knowingly involve himself in Booth’s plot.


Finally, Edman Spangler, a stagehand employed at Ford’s theatre who aided the escape of Booth, was sentenced to six years of hard labour. Another man, Surratt’s son John, fled the country and escaped justice. Although he eventually stood trial, the jury failed to reach a verdict, and Surratt was released.


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.