Life of Boston Corbett
We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth. But how many of us were taught the ending of the story? Who killed Booth?
Thomas B “Boston” Corbett is the soldier who shot John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. Prior to the Civil War Corbett was a drifter and drunk on the streets of Boston but he got religion and turned to being a street evangelist.
He preached the “good-word” but his fanatical style resulted in few followers. At the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted in the Army and then was sentenced to be shot, for walking off his post while on guard duty. But due to his sermons while incarcerated, his colonel prevailed upon President Lincoln to spare his life and Corbett was pardoned by the President. Corbett soon re-enlisted and one of the most unbelievable, gruesome, and extraordinary careers ever to befall one man followed.
At the Battle of Culpepper, he almost single-handedly held off a detachment of Moseby’s Raiders while shouting prayers for them and shooting them in great numbers. Corbett was finally captured but not without praise from the enemy for his marksmanship and bravery. He was sent to the infamous prison at Andersonville where over 13,000 Union soldiers died of disease and ill treatment. Even the prison commander, Henry Wirtz couldn’t cope with the fanatical Corbett, and sought means of disposing of him. In the meantime, Corbett escaped and was hunted down with bloodhounds, but for some strange reason, he wasn’t shot.
The exchange of prisoners had been halted by General Grant but Wirtz finally persuaded the Northern officials to take Corbett back.
After the assassination of President Lincoln, historians agree that for a time, Edwin M. Stanton, a native of Steubenville, assumed control and gave implicit orders that the assassin be taken alive. A special task force for this purpose was created and Corbett was one of the 25 men chosen to track down and capture John Wilkes Booth.
Stanton prayed the assassin would be delivered to his hands. During the chase that ended at Garrett’s barn, Boston Corbett acting against orders, fired a single shot, through a crack in the wood and hit Boothe in precisely the same spot where Booth had shot Lincoln.
Corbett was taken back to Washington to face charges of disobeying an officer, and instead of being in chains, he had become a national hero.
In defense of his actions, he claimed, “God made me do it.”
Condensed from the writings of the late Frank Y. Linton and donated to the Jefferson County Historical Association by Dorothy Linton Yohn.