Boston Corbett on John Wilkes Booth’s Death

Boston Corbett was the sergeant who shot and killed John Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865 in Port Royal, Va.

Corbett, whose real name was Thomas P. Corbett, was a London immigrant and a deeply religious man who changed his first name to “Boston” after experiencing a religious conversion at a church revival in Boston.

Corbett later joined the Union army at the outbreak of the Civil War and eventually became a sergeant in the 16th New York Cavalry. On April 24th, Corbett was one of the selected cavalrymen from his unit sent to hunt down John Wilkes Booth, who was still at large.

Corbett’s detachment unit tracked down Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, at Garrett Farm in Port Royal, Va and found them hiding in a tobacco barn. The troops set the barn on fire and ordered them to surrender. Herold complied but Booth refused, saying they would never take him alive. Corbett said that he approached the barn and when he saw Booth through a gap in the wall, he fired. He was quickly arrested for disobeying orders but was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.

Boston Corbett photographed by Mathew Brady 1865 - 300 x 495

Boston Corbett photographed by Mathew Brady in 1865

Since the day of the shooting, many sources have stated that Corbett deliberately ignored orders to take Booth alive and fired upon him out of revenge for Lincoln’s assassination. Frustrated by these reports, Corbett wrote a letter, in May of 1865, in an attempt to clear his name. The letter was published a few days later in the New York Times. Although he denied disobeying orders, he suggested that God willed him to shoot Booth:


DEAR RROTHER BROUGHTON: I thought it high time to keep my promise and send you a letter and at this time I thought it might be desirable, as there are many false reports in the papers charging me with violation of order, &c., in shooting BOOTH, but my commanding officer of the expedition not only clears me from all blame, but recommended me to the attention of the Commanding-General, for my untiring exertion to bring the murderer to justice. He was a desperate man, and fully determined to die rather than to be taken alive; and it was only when it was actually necessary that I shot him. When I first saw him by the light of the burning hay, he turned toward the fire, either for the purpose of putting it out or else of shooting the one who set it on fire.

I was on that side, and then he was quite near to him, and I had a full front-breast view of him, and it would have been much easier to have hit him then than when I did, but I waited till I was satisfied his purpose was to use his arms and try and fight his way out of the door that HARROLD had just been taken out of. I then fired on him, and he fell, and when I saw where the ball had struck him — in the neck, near the ear — it seemed to me that God had directed it, for apparently it was just where he had shot the President.

H. HARROLD’s trial is now going on. I do not know how long it will be before I may be allowed to return home, but I should like to do so soon by furlough, if I cannot obtain my discharge.

Inclosed please find one of the photographs made by BRADY, of me, after we returned. Yours, &c.,


Sergeant Company L, 16th, N.Y. Cavalry,

Washington, D.C.”


Kansas Historical Society: Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett:

The New York Times; May 15 1865: The Manner of Booth’s Death Letter from Boston Corbett:

Captain Sidney Clarke’s Firsthand Account of the Lawrence Massacre

On August 21, 1863, a rebel guerrilla group called Quantrill’s Raiders, led by William Quantrill, raided the pro-Union town of Lawrence, Kansas. The raiders killed close to 200 men and boys and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from residents and businesses in the town.

It is believed the group targeted the town not only because of its pro-Union stance but because it also served as a center for militia and vigilante groups such as Jayhawkers and Redlegs, who were know for attacking farms and plantations in Missouri’s pro-slavery counties. According to the book “William Quantrill: His Life and Times,” Quantrill himself admitted he raided Lawrence to “plunder, and destroy the town in retaliation for Osceola” (a Union attack on Osceola, Mo in September of 1861.) Quantrill’s Raiders were never caught or punished for their actions in Lawrence and later went on to commit similar atrocities, with the help of Jesse James, at Centralia, Mo in 1864.

Below is a firsthand account of the massacre from Captain Sidney Clarke, who was serving as both a captain and an acting assistant Provost-Marshal-General for Kansas at the time of the incident:

The Destruction of the City of Lawrence Kansas and the massacre of its inhabitants by the rebel guerrillas August 21 1863

“The Destruction of the City of Lawrence, Kansas and the Massacre of its Inhabitants by the Rebel Guerrillas, August 21, 1863.” Harper’s Weekly illustration published September 5, 1863

“August 25, 1863, Leavenworth City, Kans.,
Captain Sidney Clarke to Colonel James B. Fry
Leavenworth City, August 25, 1863.
Provost-Marshal-General, Washington, D.C.:
COLONEL: I have the honor to submit for your information the following brief report of facts connected with the destruction of Lawrence, and the books, records, and enrollment lists of the provost-marshal’s office for the Southern District of Kansas.
I make this report from personal observation, as I was in Lawrence on the morning of the massacre and barely escaped the clutches of the guerrillas.
The attack was made by the notorious guerrilla chief Quantrill, with a force of about 300 men, at sunrise on the morning of Friday, the 21st instant.
The guerrillas entered the city from the south, and at once commenced an indiscriminate murder of its citizens. The work of death was continued for three hours, and whenever a citizen made his appearance, or escaped from a burning building, he was shot down in the streets.
Fires were set to buildings in all parts of the town, and all the business portion of the city and many of the private residences were burned. In many instances men were murdered in their homes in the presence of their wives and children, and the dead bodies burned. With the exception of those who were shot down in attempting to escape, the citizens were first robbed and then murdered.
Up to the present time 150 dead bodies have been found, and many more will doubtless be found in the ruins.
The provost-marshal’s office, with all the records, papers, and enrollment lists, was entirely destroyed, and Captain Banks was taken prisoner and held during the occupancy of the town.
The value of the property destroyed will reach $2,000,000, and the money secured by the guerrillas cannot be less than $100,000.
A fearful state of excitement exists throughout the State of Kansas, and the people are unanimous in attributing the Lawrence massacre, and the present deplorable state of affairs upon the border, to the policy now being pursued by the commander of the Department of the Missouri.
The guerrillas of Western Missouri have been largely re-enforced by men from Price’s army, and have never been so active and defiant as now. From this time forward the war on this border promises to be one of extermination. Two or three thousand of the citizens of Kansas are in arms, and bidding defiance to the policy of General Schofield and General Ewing. They are determined to invade Missouri for retaliation. I am of the opinion that this result will be inevitable, taking into consideration the determined character of the people of Kansas, growing out of a long border contest, intensified by the massacre without parallel in the history of civilized warfare.
I have deemed this statement necessary to a full understanding of the peculiar condition of affairs in Kansas, and which must necessarily affect the administration of this bureau.
Asking for such instructions as you may think necessary,
I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Captain and Actg. Asst. Provost-Marshal-General.”


“William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Times”; Albert E. Castle; 1962 KCArchives: