MY FAMILY HERO
A conspirator behind the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln was brought to justice by Adrian Hoare’s ancestor
On Good Friday 1865, the American Civil War was finally drawing to a close after four years of bloodshed. President Abraham Lincoln and his wife were watching a play, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC. Minutes before the curtain was about to fall, a gunshot rang out from the Presidential box. The man who had liberated millions of slaves had been mortally wounded by actor and Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth.
In the pandemonium that ensued, Booth was able to escape by jumping on to the stage and racing out to a back alley where his horse awaited. He fled through Maryland to Virginia, where he hid out on a tobacco farm.
Another plotter, George Atzerodt had been assigned by Booth to shoot the Vice President, Andrew Johnson. However, Atzerodt had got drunk that night and decided against it. The War Department offered a reward of $100,000 for the conspirators’ capture and one of the biggest manhunts in American history began.
Adrian Hoare discovered a family connection to the assassination of Lincoln when he was just a boy, which led to a lifelong fascination. “While helping my father to sort through my grandmother’s possessions, I found a framed and yellowing newspaper cutting of the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne,” says Adrian. “I didn’t have Granny down as a royalist, so it was quite a puzzle.
“Behind the newspaper cutting was a beautiful watercolour painting of a young Victorian boy, with a parrot on his arm. He looked angelic and was dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy.”
The boy turned out to be William Reynolds, a cousin of Adrian’s grandmother. He was born in Malta in 1842 and grew up in Portsea, Hampshire. “My father gave me a bundle of old family letters and some were written by William to his mother. I was just a teenager at the time and it was thrilling to read that one of my ancestors had served in the American Civil War.”
As a 15-year-old, William joined the Navy, although it was much against his will. He served on HMS Cygnet, a gunboat attached to the North America and West Indies station. In 1862, a disillusioned William jumped ship in Canada and travelled to America, where he enlisted in a New York regiment, serving the Union. He saw action in the Red River Campaign and later joined a company based at Fort Dix in Maryland.
“In 1865, William wrote to his mother telling her that after the assassination of President Lincoln, he was placed in charge of 12 foot soldiers and sent out to search for Atzerodt. They were despatched without tents or overcoats and told not to return until the conspirator was killed or captured. The men marched for three days through constant rain, and some dropped out due to illness. William was left with only five soldiers.
“On the road, they met a Sergeant Gemmill and six troopers of the 1st Delaware Cavalry, who were also scouting for Atzerodt. Gemmill asked William to join his party and he did so readily. The cavalry had been informed that the fugitive was hiding out in Germantown, at his cousin Hartman Richter’s farmhouse. Atzerodt thought he was safe, but had already made a fatal mistake. On Easter Sunday morning, he met an old friend and accepted a lunch invitation. There were other guests present and conversation inevitably turned to the assassination. Atzerodt’s behaviour and comments did him no favours and suspicion arose.
“A few days later, Gemmill and William’s troops closed in on Richter’s farm, and entered the farmhouse and arrested the slumbering Atzerodt in a dawn raid. He was transported to Washington to await trial.”
Wilkes Booth was shot dead in a stand-off with troops in Virginia. Atzerodt was found guilty and executed with three other conspirators in July 1865.
William’s bravery on that long march through heavy rain took a severe toll on his health. In a letter to his mother he writes that he has “caught a cold that will cost me my life”.
“William lived less than a year and died of consumption aged 23. He passed away in Philadelphia with his pregnant teenage wife at his side. His early death is tragic, however, it is wonderful to find a family link to such a key moment in history.”
Troops entered the farmhouse and arrested the slumbering Atzerodt in a dawn raid