Crossing the Bridge

Reader Richard Petersen asked this excellent question on my last post about Silas Cobb:

Question. What was the protocol for Booth and Herold in crossing the bridge? Could they ride across or did they have to dismount and walk?

I believe this to be a very good question and worthy of discussion. The record of what transpired at the Navy Yard Bridge comes from the official statement and the conspiracy trial testimony of Sgt. Silas Cobb. In his statement to authorities specifically, Cobb gives wonderful details about the two riders who crossed his lines. For example, we learn that Booth was wearing a “soft black or dark brown felt hat” and that “his hands were very white, and he had no gloves on”. Cobb even provided details about Booth’s voice stating it was, “rather light, and high-keyed”. For Davy Herold, Cobb described him as wearing, “a light coat, light pants, and a snuff colored felt hat, of rather a light shade.” He even let us know that Davy was, “the heavier of the two”. When it comes to the actual method of crossing the bridge, Cobb does not give specific detail. This is probably due to the fact that crossing people over the bridge was so commonplace to Cobb, that he didn’t consider the way in which Booth and Herold did it to be any more notable than any other person. He does provide a few statements that we can piece together though, to paint a seemingly accurate picture of what the process was.

When both men approached the bridge, the sentry challenged them (assumedly by asking “Halt, who goes there?” or “Friend or Foe”). Booth and Herold both replied “a friend” and Cobb began his interrogation of them. In the trial testimony, Cobb is asked a question about his encounter with Herold:

Q. Did you have a good view of his face? Was there a light?

A. I did. I brought him up before the guard-house door, so that the light shone full in his face and on his horse.

So we know that Cobb moved Davy to be in view of a light. Unfortunately, this statement is inconclusive regarding whether or not Davy was still on horseback, or on foot next to his horse. However, a little while after this, Cobb is asked about Davy’s size:

Q. How would he compare in size with the last man on the row in the prisoner’s dock? [David E. Herold, who stood up for identification.]

A. He is very near the size, but I should think taller, although I could not tell it on the horse; and he had a lighter complexion than that man.

The darken part is very important. Cobb, the man who provided so many details about the men who he crossed over the bridge, was unsure about Davy’s height. It appears his explanation for this is because the Davy stayed on his horse and so Cobb was not able to accurately compare Herold on his horse with Herold on the prisoner dock. This testimony appears to favor Booth and Herold remaining on their horses.

Cobb gives us a bit more (though still not as much as we’d like) with regard to Booth’s crossing:

“He then turned and crossed the bridge; his horse was restive and he held him in and walked him accross the bridge; he was in my sight until after passing the other side of the draw. I do not know with what speed he rode after that.”

During my first few readings of this, I pictured Booth walking his horse as a man would walk a dog. In my eyes it appeared as if Booth (who apparently showed no physical pain supporting Michael Kauffman’s theory that he broke his leg later in a horse fall) kept his horse close to him and acted like a child crossing the street by walking his bicycle. Upon further reading and trying to put myself into the correct 19th century equestrian mindset though, I read this now as Booth riding his horse at a walking pace across the bridge. The last phrase, “I do not know with what speed he rode after that,” implies to me that Booth was already riding his horse and not walking it on foot. I want to believe the detail oriented Cobb would have stated something along the lines of “he remounted his horse” if Booth was actually walking alongside it beforehand.

There is no specific statement by Cobb saying that Booth and Herold ever dismounted their horses. In addition, the few details that Cobb does give regarding the process appears to imply that they remained in their mounts during their entire time they conversed with him. There is no smoking gun or definite answer to Richard’s question, but I believe the majority of the evidence points to Booth and Herold staying on their horses when they crossed the Navy Yard Bridge.

What do you think?

Booth making his escape on horseback.

The Evidence by Williams and Steers
Poore’s version of the Conspiracy Trial (Vol 1)

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on “Crossing the Bridge

  1. tyboots


    • BoothieBarn

      I completely agree that everything Booth wrote in his diary was from his heart. But we know that his heart did not always agree with the facts. Booth’s diary was his only remaining outlet for his own vindication. The phrase, “I struck boldly and not as the papers say,” let’s us know that everything that follows is going to be his own self-serving manifesto. He wrote that he yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis”, before he fired, which we know to be completely untrue. He exaggerates being “chased by gunboats” during his first failing crossing of the Potomac. He blames the government for not printing his letter of explanation. While I’m not coming down on either side of the whole “where did Booth break his leg issue” I’m just trying to point out that it is at least possible that Booth could have exaggerated about that as well.

  2. I believe that JWB and more than likely Herold both stayed on their horses. With his broken leg, JWB would have had trouble mounting and dismounting most definitely and therefore would have been suspect as they would have had to ask him how he injured his leg. No such mention is apparent, so it would be more or less considered that neither man dismounted but were allowed to ride across. Most bridges of that era had laws/rules which stated that horses could go no faster across a bridge than a walk; i.e. no “speeding!”

  3. Rich Smyth

    I think you are correct in your conclusions Dave.

  4. Laurie Verge

    I agree with your assessment also. I would like a clarification as to what the normal protocol was throughout the war. Was there any mandate that riders had to dismount and walk across the bridge with their horses? It just seems logical to me that, once a rider had cleared the sentries, there was no need to have to move slowly across a bridge (any bridge).

  5. Julie

    That’s funny, I had thought the same thing whenever I read about Booth “walking his horse,” I thought he got off and led the horse slowly across the bridge (which would make him look innocent anyway) but it meant he was just riding it slowly. I liked reading about Cobb’s sharp memory of details about Booth and Herold. My favorite was that he recalled asking Davey why he was late, and Davey quickly made up the excuse of “he was with a prostitute.” LOL! I wonder if that was ever authenticated, or became lore by writers later on?

    • BoothieBarn

      In his statement, Cobb says that Davy’s reasoning for departing the city so late was:

      “I stopped to see a woman on Capitol Hill, and couldn’t get off before.”

      Later, at the Conspiracy Trial, he testifies to the following:

      “I asked him how it was that he was out so late. He made use of a rather indelicate expression, and said he had been in bad company.”

      The first interchange Cobb reported doesn’t seem to imply anything uncouth in my eyes. Whether he was remembering the conversation in greater detail at the trial or he was exaggerating it, we don’t know. Davy did blame his late departure on a woman, and I suppose it’s up to us to determine for ourselves what he meant to imply through his fictional narrative.

      • Heath

        In your conversation with Kaffman, did you ever discuss this with him? It seems pretty conclusive evidence that Booth did not walk across the bridge. I would love to hear his comments.

  6. J. Beckert

    I think you got it, Dave. I’m sure Booth didn’t have the only skittish horse in Washington and I’m sure most folks were skilled riders. Walking a skittish horse across a long bridge while traveling into the darkness seems risky. If the horse pulled away and ran into the night, you’d be stuck. It just doesn’t seem practical to make a rider dismount. If the horse was such a “bad little bitch”, as Booth put it, she may have wanted to run any time she was tethered or walked.

  7. Art Loux

    Evidence abounds that Booth lost his hat at Ford’s Theatre, yet Cobb, an excellent observer, noted Booth was wearing a hat when he reached the bridge. Mike Kauffman theorizes that Booth carried a spare hat in his saddle bags. I don’t believe he had saddle bags, so I am mystified as to how he obtained a hat. Any ideas?

    • BoothieBarn

      The mysterious hat falls into the same realm of Booth’s brace of pistols. It has also been theorized they too were in a saddle bag. I’ll have to look at Cobb’s statement again, but I don’t recall any mention of saddle bags.

      Perhaps Booth made a quick pit stop somewhere before exiting the city that we don’t know about.

  8. Laurie Verge

    Bill Richter’s Last Confederate Heroes theorizes that Booth stopped at the Surratt boardinghouse upon leaving Ford’s and before heading out of town. I don’t support that theory, but I do not know where the hat came from. Like Art, I don’t ever recall a reference to saddlebags.

    Also, I know nothing about horse gear. However, when Booth switched horses somewhere outside the city, I would imagine that stirrups would have to be adjusted, etc. What else might have to be done and how long would it take?

  9. Art Loux

    In his statement Herold said that Booth didn’t have the pistols until Saturday afternoon. According to Lloyd Herold rode across to the stable just before the two rode away. It is possible Herold picked up the belt which held two pistols there. Alternatively he could have picked them up at Dr. Mudd’s. It is also possible he picked them up at Huntt’s in T.B.

  10. Richard Sloan

    I’d like to know, Dave, where you got such a detailed and high-quality picture (which I believe is from the ornate fan depicting scenes from the assassination story) of Booth riding his horse that accompanied the piece about Booth crossing the bridge. Do you have a high-quality color photograph of that fan? if so, I’d like to have a copy. Maybe either you,or another reader has some info about it that they’d like to share on this site. I know there are a couple of these in existence. I think Dan Weinberg of the Lincoln bookshop has or had one for sale. It may be the same one that Dr. Lattimer owned. He bougfht it rather cheaply from one of the original “Boothies,” Father Robert Keesler . It’s one of my favorite association pieces! .

  11. Laurie Verge

    Art – The Huntts were up feeding a baby at the time that Booth and Herold (or some two riders moving quickly) rode through the village. The New Cut Road that they were on was within fifty feet of the front of our house (before the house was moved in 1950). My family story is that they heard the riders and dogs in the village barking. There is a slight possibility that the pistols were given to them in T.B., but certainly the Huntts wouldn’t brag about that.

    A more likely place in T.B. would have been the hotel/tavern in the village. That is where Herold had spent the night of March 17 after the aborted kidnap scheme. It had all the appearances of a Confederate safe house during the war. Its proprietor, John Chandler Thompson, was questioned during the 1865 investigation.

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