On our last trip to Advocacy Day, in 2013, my sister Lisa and I visited Ford's Theatre, where we both picked up a copy of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson, on the enthusiastic recommendation of the clerk at the museum bookshop. A year later, I had finally gotten around to reading it, and it's just excellent -- one of those nonfiction books that is so well-written it reads like a fiction suspense thriller. I had just finished it before heading off for this year's D.C. trip, and thought, what a perfect opportunity! Why not start off our road trip by leaving D.C. following the route that John Wilkes Booth used to escape Washington after the assassination? Fortunately, there are plenty of Lincoln assassination nuts Lincoln history enthusiasts out there that plenty of information on the route is easily available on the web, complete with GPS coordinates for the historical markers.
Our first stop was the Surratt Tavern in present-day Clinton (then Surrattsville), Maryland, where a guided tour of the house is available for just a few dollars' admission fee. The tour was well worth it, as Michael and I made up half of the group, and the guide (in period dress) was extremely knowledgeable and happy to answer as many questions as we sent her way. The tour was supposed to be about 45 minutes long, but with all our questions and the details the guide provided, we spent easily over an hour in the house. The house also provided a bit of a surreal experience of eras colliding, as it sits on its little corner lot on the edge of a busy state highway, across the corner from a gas station, and it's an odd experience to stand in an 1860s parlor with traffic whizzing by outside, and contemplate the fact that 150 years ago, men sat in this very room plotting conspiracies that would ultimately lead to Lincoln's assassination.
From Surratt's Tavern, we proceded to the farmhouse of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth's broken leg when he and his co-conspirator David Herold arrived there in the small hours of the night. We were too late to take the tour, but the house is clearly visible from the road and marked by historical plaques. The rest of our John Wilkes Booth tour was a journey from historical marker to historical marker (thank you, Internet and GPS!) Even by car at today's speeds, it's astonishing how much ground Booth and Herold covered, especially given Booth's injury. Still today, once you leave the neighborhood of the Surratt Tavern, much of the area they passed through is quiet and not heavily travelled. It's easy to just take a moment, filter out the modern surroundings and imagine what it might have looked and sounded and felt like then.
Right at the spot where the marker describes Booth and Herold's Potomac Crossing, there also happen to be a couple of places to get fresh Maryland crab -- a nice little reward for an afternoon of history sleuthing for those with a taste for it:
Just near the end of Booth's route, the trail takes you to Port Royal, VA, a tiny little town that was once a vital port on the Rappahannock River. I'd considered it a minor stop on our tour, but I was surpised to find that there's a bit of history to explore there beyond the Booth connection. It's laid out on a perfectly neat little grid, with almost every quaint house pinned with marker dating it to sometime in the early 18th century. By the time we arrived, it was late in the evening and the sun was going down, but I'd love to go back and check out the local history museum someday.