MY FAM­ILY HERO

A con­spir­a­tor be­hind the plot to kill Abra­ham Lin­coln was brought to jus­tice by Adrian Hoare’s an­ces­tor

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.”

Gail Dixon

Troops en­tered the farm­house and ar­rested the slum­ber­ing Atze­rodt in a dawn raid

ADRIAN HOARE has writ­ten an e- book about Wil­liam Reynolds called A Shilling on Good Fri­day.

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