Friday, November 13, 2009

Everton Judson Conger and John Wilkes Booth

Everton Judson Conger and John Wilkes Booth

Some say there was blood on the moon that awful April. President Lincoln's martyred body lay in a black coffin. Men wept and cursed in Washington's muddy streets. Flags draped at half staff. Bells tolled.

Panic stricken officials send soldiers and secret service men scurrying off in all directions on a hell-bent hunt for a crazed actor who had assassinated the President at Ford's Theater the night of April 14.

Somewhere in southern Maryland John Wilkes Booth was hiding. His flight with a co-conspirator, David Herold, was delayed by a broken leg, smashed when he arose from the kill in the Lincoln box and jumped to the stage.

Peace, then Rage

Five days before a triumphant nation had hailed a peace at Appomattox. Now an enraged North was baying like a bloodhound.

Every April, Carmi, Ill., feels close to that scene in the swamps along the Potomac, the winding roads around Port Tobacco, the swollen Rappahannock, a certain tobacco barn near Port Royal, Va.

There's a house on Carmi's Main Street to remind folks of that hunt for John Wilkes Booth. There's a Carmi family bearing the name of the man who caught Lincoln's assassin.

Used Reward Money

Remodeled and beautified; the house at 302 West Main Street was built 105 years ago by Col. Everton J. Conger. He paid for it with part of the money he received as a reward for commanding the troops who cornered and killed Booth.

Col. Conger lived in Carmi for 11 years, from 1869 to 1880. Here he studied law in the office of a brother, the late Judge Chauncey S. Conger. Here he was admitted to the bar in 1871, elected police magistrate. He practiced law in Carmi until 1880, when President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him to the Federal bench in Montana territory.

Was Ohio Dentist

When the Civil War started, Everton Conger was a 26-year-old dentist in Fremont, Ohio. He enlisted, raised a company in his state, was commissioned captain and attached to the West Virginia cavalry. He was a handsome, slender, black-bearded man with high forehead, large expressive eyes and a dashing mustache.

He was his hardest fighting at Petersburg and during the Richmond campaign, being wounded several times. In one battle he was on the ground when an enemy attacked with a broad sword. He raised an arm to ward off the blow and his arm was cut off.

Recovering from his wounds, Conger returned to duty and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was with the First District of Columbia Cavalry when Lincoln was assassinated. His chief was Col. LaFayette C. Baker.

Human Ferret

Col. Baker, brown-haired, grey-eyed, was a human ferret; more of a spy or secret agent than he was a military man. He had served with the San Francisco vigilantes. When war came he was sent to Richmond to spy for Seward's State Department. He was so successful as a detective that he was taken over by Secretary Stanton and made chief of the War Department's large force of secret agents. It was then that he was given a Colonel's commission.

And so, the stage was set that fateful April.

Booth and Herold escaped into Maryland on horseback. They crossed the Navy Yard bridge over the Anacostia River, hoping to reach Virginia. Booth's broken leg was swelling in his boot. The throbbing pain forced the fugitives to turn from their escape route and make for the Maryland home of Dr. Samuel Mudd.

Capitol in Chaos

When Lincoln died the morning of April 15 Washington was in chaos. Secretary Steward was unconscious from knife wounds inflicted by another conspirator, Lewis Paine. War Secretary Stanton took command as a dictator, ignoring the new President, Andrew Johnson. Stanton issued orders to soldiers, policemen and secret service agents. The hunt was on. Col. Baker rushed back from New York on orders from Stanton, who greeted him tearfully with these words: "My entire dependence is upon you."

After Lincoln's funeral train started wending its way back to the Illinois prairies, Stanton seemed to get a grip on himself. The hunt for the conspirators had been a frustrating farce. April 20 Stanton offered rewards totaling $100,000, a sum of $50,000 for Booth and $25,000 each for Herold and John H. Sturrat.

Col. Baker Ignored

Lack of coordination between the hunters in their hopes to grab the rewards enabled Booth and Herold to make their way to the Potomac. Col. Baker was ignored at General Christopher Augur's military headquarters. For a week he made little progress, while certain Army sleuths were in full cry on a hot trail in Virginia.

By Monday, April 24, Col. Baker received secret information that Booth and Herold had crossed the Potomac and that Major James R. O'Beirne's search party was closing in on the fugitives.

Conger On Trail

It was then that the wily Baker pulled strings which put him and Col. Conger on the trail. Major O'Beirne was suddenly recalled and Baker was put in charge of the hunt.

He sent for Col. Conger and Lieut. L.B. Baker, a cousin, both of whom were in the First Cavalry. Conger and the lieutenant watched while Col. Baker showed them a map, pointing out where the fugitives had crossed the Potomac and the route he believed they would take.

He ordered Conger and Baker to leave at once and to search the area around Port Royal, Va. Col. Baker asked Stanton for some troops to support his two officers and he was assigned a detachment of Sixteenth New York Cavalry.

Trail Grew Hot

Mindful of the huge reward, Col. Baker placed Conger in command of the expedition. By evening of the 24th, Conger's hard riding horsemen were warm on the trail in the swamps of St. Mary's County, Maryland. On April 25 they found a Confederate officer who had helped Booth and Herold cross the Potomac. It was he who hinted where Booth might be found.

It was after midnight. There was an April chill on the night air. Horses and men were bone tired, but there was no time to lose. Guided by the Confederate captain, the weary horsemen hurried toward the farm of Richard Garrett.

It was 2 a.m. when the troops halted at Garrett's gate. Col. Conger have quiet orders for the cavalrymen to surround the. ... When the soldiers were in place their carbines poised, Conger told Lieut. Baker to rap on the kitchen door. He knocked and gave a loud halloo.

Hiding in Barn

In drawers and nightshirt. ... man Garrett opened the door looked into the night, and the of Baker and Conger. He said and Herold had left, but his John, spoke up and blurted out the fugitives were hiding in the barn.

Trooper Seized Young Garrett

They held cocked pistols at and led him toward the Soldiers surrounded the hide Conger and Baker went up to barn door. Calling out loudly told those inside that they sending Garrett's son into get their weapons; that they the fugitives to surrender arms and come out or they set the barn on fire.

Herold Seized

Pushing the boy inside, Conger and Baker heard Booth curse and refuse their proposal terrified boy retreated After haggling for a few minutes with Booth, they heard him call that Herold wanted to surrender. Unarmed Herold came through door. He was seized and handcuffed. When he started whining innocence, Conger threatened to have him gagged.

While Booth was still arguing a chance to make a run for his Col. Conger slipped around the and set it afire. The barn ablaze inside when Conger looked through a crack. He saw Booth standing in the glare of the flames his broken, infected leg supported by a crutch. Booth held a carbine intent on shooting the man who had set fire to the barn.

Corbett Disobeys

Suddenly he turned, rifle and made a dash for the determined to shoot it out. Just Sergeant Boston Corbet disobeyed orders. Peering though a hole in the barn, he raised his and shot Booth, the bullet entered the back of the neck.

Booth collapsed in the burning barn. Col. Conger and sergeants rushed in, picked Booth and carried him outside placing him on the grass.

"Bring water," Col. Conger ordered. They threw some on the assassin's face. He opened his eyes for the last time. His lips moved, "Tell mother.. I did.. for

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