The night of 14th April 1865 was one that Major James Rowan O’Beirne, Provost Marshal of the District of Columbia, would never forget. President Abraham Lincoln lay dying in William Petersen’s Boarding House, having been shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre. Secretary of State William Seward had been stabbed in his own home, and Vice President Andrew Johnson had only escaped assault due to the loss of nerve of his would be assassin. O’Beirne was now given the responsibility of escorting the Vice President from his lodgings at the Kirkwood House to President Lincoln’s deathbed; this unenviable duty would prove to be only the first of many tasks he would undertake in the coming weeks.
Major James O’Beirne had seen his fair share of the war. As a Captain in the 37th New York Rifles, the Ballagh, Co. Roscommon native had been grievously wounded in the chest, head and right leg at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. He somehow survived the ordeal and had risen to become a Major and the Provost Marshal of the District of Columbia. Although no longer in the front line it was to be at this moment, with the war all but over, that he would receive his most important orders. On the 16th April, with the President dead, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton instructed O’Beirne that he was ‘relieved from all other duty at this time and directed to employ yourself and your detective force in the detection and arrest of the murderers of the President and the assassins who attempted to murder Mr. Seward’.
O’Beirne did not need to be asked twice. Indeed, he had already begun the work shortly after the President’s death. He returned to the Kirkwood House where he discovered the room of George Atzerodt, the man who had failed to attack the Vice President. There he discovered a revolver and ammunition, a bowie knife, a handkerchief belonging to David Herold (who had guided one of the conspirators to William Seward’s house) and a bank book belonging to one John Wilkes Booth. One of the key finds in the room was a map of lower Maryland- the hunt was on. O’Beirne kept a diary of events throughout the investigation.
Booth and Herold had escaped Washington together, and were now in Maryland. So was O’Beirne. He and his team went to the Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville where a lodger, John M. Lloyd, was arrested. Under questioning he revealed that Booth and Herold had stopped there on the night of the assassination. O’Beirne’s next stop was at the house of Dr. Samuel T. Mudd, where Booth, who had broken his leg during his escape was treated. O’Beirne recorded in his diary that Mudd had ‘Served more than two years in the rebel army. Is a black hearted man and possibly was a conspirator. See after him.’ The Irishman knew the assassins would attempt to cross the Potomac and enter Virginia. His diary records ‘Cob Neck is the whole section of land between the Potomac and Wicomico River. Pope’s Creek has been a crossing. The conspirators are there if they have not crossed over to the Virginia side, which examine into and follow up.‘ As the information mounted, he added ‘A boat passed over the river Sunday evening. Young Claggett can tell all about it…Mr. Wills tells me that old man Claggett had a conversation with the two men who went over the river on Sunday and that they said they were refugees from Virginia and had been working for two weeks for Mr. Dent. That they went over once and came back before they went away.’ Further details emerged that a man called Samuel Cox had been cooking provisions and taking them to people hiding in the nearby swamp; this was Booth and Herold. Cox’s foster brother, Thomas Jones, took the assassins to the river so they could row across to Virginia. They effected the crossing on Saturday 22nd April. O’Beirne was close- he wrote ‘send the men over to Mattox Creek and to work their way up and arrest Jones’. A further report recorded in his diary seemed to confirm that the crossing had now taken place: ‘Boy at Mrs. Lewis’s states to the detectives that the two men landing at White Point started off in the direction of King George’s Court House on Sunday after landing’.
O’Beirne was convinced that Booth and Herold had gone into Virginia, and he followed their trail into that State, discovering the boat they crossed in and keeping up the chase as far as Port Royal. Here, with his men ‘tired out and leg weary’ he returned to Maryland for further orders. In the meantime another report came in that suggested the fugitives had not yet crossed the Potomac. Chief of the National Detective Police La Fayette C. Baker arrived at O’Beirne’s headquarters in Port Tobacco, Maryland where orders were issued for him to follow the lead in Virginia while O’Beirne continued the search in Maryland. It would be Baker and his force who would eventually surround Booth and Herold in Garrett’s Barn on the 26th April, prompting a confrontation in which Herold was captured and Booth mortally wounded. They would be remembered as the men who found Abraham Lincoln’s killer. Having led the chase for so long, it must have been difficult for Major O’Beirne not to be present when Booth was finally run to ground. Recognition in another form was to follow for James O’Beirne; he was breveted Brigadier-General in September 1865, and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for maintaining the line of battle until ordered to fall back at Fair Oaks, Virginia in 1862. However, the Roscommon man should also receive due recognition for the integral role he played in hunting down the most infamous murderer in American history- John Wilkes Booth.
Eicher John & Eicher David 2001. Civil War High Commands
New York Times December 7th 1930. A New Version of the Greatest Man Hunt: Major O’Beirne’s Diary, Recently Brought to Light, Describes the Difficulties of the Chase After Lincoln’s Assassination
Oldroyd, Osborn Hamiline & Harris, Thomas Mealey 1901. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln; Flight, Pursuit, Capture, and Punishment of the Conspirators