Most people spend New Year’s Day recovering from the night before, or perhaps watching sports on television and eating all kinds of tasty treats to celebrate the New Year. Kathi and I did something a little out of the ordinary this year, we followed the escape route of John Wilkes Booth.
There are lots of maps to choose from marking all the places Booth stopped after his frantic ride from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Some of the places are still standing, like the Surratt House (his first stop heading south)
and Dr. Samuel Mudd’s home where Booth had his broken leg set. But we were surprised and disappointed to discover that the terminus (in more ways than one) of Booth’s trip, the Garrett farm, is no longer extant. All that’s left of this historic moment in our history is a four lane highway separated by a tree-lined median. Even the marker indicating its significance is located almost two miles from the original site.
Once it became known as the place where Booth died, the Garrett farm initially attracted all kinds of curiosity seekers and souvenir collectors. Eventually the house fell into disrepair since the family’s livelihood was destroyed by the burning of the tobacco barn where Booth was hiding. However, the site still existed (barely) as recently as World War II when the federal government took over the property and built Fort A.P. Hill (named in honor of a famous Confederate general). Visitors may no longer stop along the road and walk on the property.
Some may question why we should preserve the steps of this man’s horrific act in our nation’s history. I can certainly understand why in the early years after the Civil War’s end that people did not wish to create a monument to Booth and make a martyr out of a man who assassinated one of our greatest and most beloved presidents. But we then have to ask ourselves, why preserve the Texas Book Depository? At one of my favorite museums in DC, the Newseum, they have preserved the shed of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who spent his days in rural Montana plotting his serial murders. They also have the automobile of the Beltway Snipers who randomly shot ten people from a hole in the trunk.
The Civil War Trust is a great organization whose goal is to preserve Civil War battlefields. There may be other such organizations out there I’m unaware of, but if we can preserve so much of this period of our history, we need to also be concerned with preserving the uglier parts of that history as a reminder of where we’ve been and how it affects us now and in the future.
The photos accompanying this blog were taken along the escape route which observes its 150th anniversary this April. “Enter History” is a door of an original building at Mary Surratt’s Tavern. “Restoration” is of Dr Samuel Cox’s house at Rich Hill, a stop close to where Booth crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. Booth was hidden in a stand of pine trees near this house. The last photo is the Maryland spot where Booth rowed across the river to Virginia.
KI Thompson’s first novel, House of Clouds, is a love story which occurs during the first year of the Civil War.