A Place in History

TFK visits the courtroom where President Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination trial took place

Nov 15, 2013 | By TFK Kid Reporter Raphael Chambers
DAVID CHAMBERS

TFK Kid Reporter Raphael Chambers stands with Colonel Fern O. Sumpter, joint base commander of Joint Base Fort Myer-Henderson Hall, in Virginia.

John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater, in Washington, D.C., in 1865.
GETTY IMAGES
John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater, in Washington, D.C., in 1865.

“President Lincoln Shot by an Assassin”

On April 15, 1865, this headline appeared in the New York Times. At around 9:30 the previous evening, President Abraham Lincoln was attacked while at a theater with his wife. He died the following morning. Just a few days earlier, Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Civil War. Now, celebration became mourning.

The search was on for Lincoln’s assassin. Within two weeks, John Wilkes Booth was captured and killed. It wasn’t long before eight conspirators were also caught. They were held and stood trial at Fort McNair, which is now part of Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall, a U.S. military base in Fort Myer, Virginia. TIME For Kids visited the base to learn about this important piece of American history.

Inside the Courtroom

In this third-floor courtroom, eight people were tried and found guilty for their role in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865.
DAVID CHAMBERS
In this third-floor courtroom, eight people were tried and found guilty for their role in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865.

In 1863, Fort McNair was a federal penitentiary, or prison. In order for a military tribunal, or trial, to take place, the assistant warden’s office was turned into a courtroom. Near the center of the room, you can still see the witness stand where the conspirators testified. A long wooden table lies in front, where military judges once sat. Also in the center of the room is a table where journalists reported on the sensational trial. Space in the back remains empty: long ago, spectators gathered here. The courtroom was recently renovated and turned into a “mini museum.” Base commander Colonel Fern O. Sumpter told TFK that she hopes to open the courtroom to the public in 2014.

What else will you see if you visit the base? A small room next to the courtroom is thought to have been the cell in which Mary Surratt was held. Surratt was the only woman to be tried for Lincoln’s assassination. Her cell and an adjoining room house artifacts related to the famous trial. Many are replicas from The Conspirators, a 2011 movie about the trial. Mary Surratt’s clothing from the film is there, along with a ladies fan that shows scenes from Lincoln’s death, a letter from President Andrew Johnson, and a photograph of the conspirators. Outside, a tennis court now cuts into the space where four of the conspirators met their end.

Living Legacy

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States.
GETTY IMAGES
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States.

The fact that Fort McNair has a historic tie to President Lincoln has special meaning for base commander Colonel Sumpter: she is the first African-American female commander in her position. It would have been inconceivable in Lincoln’s time for an African-American woman to have such a powerful role. As she told TFK earlier this year (“Tell It With Pride”), Colonel Sumpter sees herself in the military line of African Americans who stem from President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In 1863, this document granted freedom to enslaved African Americans.

In her office at Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall, she added, “During the Civil War, many African Americans, including free and escaped slaves, joined the Union Army’s fight.” She explained that Fort Myer was home to two units of African-American soldiers known as Buffalo Soldiers: the 9th Cavalry regiment, which served from 1891 to 1894, and the 10th Cavalry regiment, which served from 1931 to 1949. “Markers on buildings here denote their service,” she said.

Such facts illustrate “just how far our nation and our Army have come,” Colonel Sumpter said. “So many service men and women of varying ethnicities have served our nation with distinction around the globe in every war—often without recognition, payment, or promotion.”

She continued: “As a nation, I think we still have work to do, but I can think of no other place I’d rather live and serve than right here in the United States of America.”