Retracing the Steps of the 16th New York

When John Wilkes Booth looked out between the slats of Mr. Garrett’s tobacco barn in the early morning hours of April 26, 1865, the faces he saw staring back at him belonged to the troopers of the 16th New York Cavalry.  Through perseverance and a good bit of luck, the troop of twenty-six men commanded by Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty, detectives Luther Baker and Everton Conger, managed to locate and surround the assassin of President Lincoln.  On the last day of the 2014,  I retraced some of the steps the troopers took which concluded in them successfully locating the most wanted man in America.

Luther Baker, Lafayette Baker, and Everton Conger posed as if planing the capture of John Wilkes Booth. Image animated by Chubachus (

Following the crime of April 14th, numerous troop detachments were sent out to scour the countryside in search of the assassin.  However, with the assistance of others, Booth and Herold always managed to stay one or two steps ahead of the soldiers.  When the pair crossed over into Virginia, they had a huge lead over their pursuers.  While the manhunt succeeded in identifying and arresting some of the major players in the escape (John M. Lloyd, Dr. Samuel Mudd, even Thomas Jones), up until the moment he was killed, the widespread belief among those searching for him held that Booth was still hiding out in Maryland.  The reason the 16th New York had even made its way into Virginia to search for the assassin was due to a serendipitous case of mistaken identity.

On April 16th, two Confederate agents named Thomas Harbin and Joseph Baden, Jr. crossed the Potomac river from a point on the Maryland shore called Banks O’Dee.  Harbin had been introduced to John Wilkes Booth by Dr. Mudd and had apparently agreed to help the actor in his initial abduction plot against Lincoln.  The increased troop detail in Southern Maryland and his acquaintance with the assassin probably motivated Harbin to cross to safer shores in Virginia.  On the 19th of April, while detectives from James O’Beirne’s Washington D.C. provost marshal’s office were in Southern Maryland looking for information and acting as spies, a farmer in Banks O’Dee named Richard Claggett mentioned having seen two men cross the river on the 16th.  As days passed with no other signs of the fugitives, two of O’Beirne’s men followed up on this lead and traveled into the Northern Neck of Virginia where few troops had been deployed.  The detectives found a boat but nothing more.  On the morning of the 24th O’Beirne, himself in the field at Port Tobacco, had a telegraph sent to the War Department about the theory that the fugitives may have already crossed into Virginia.  Lafayette Baker, head of the National Detective Police, decided O’Beirne’s theory warranted further investigation and received permission from  Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to send a cavalry troop.  An order went out for a “reliable and discreet commissioned officer” to command the mission.  Lt. Edward Doherty of the 16th New York Cavalry answered the order.

Edward P. Doherty of the 16th New York Cavalry

Edward P. Doherty of the 16th New York Cavalry

A call then went out for twenty five privates from the 16th New York to join him, and Doherty took the first twenty-five who responded, regardless of their rank.  Lafayette Baker also sent two detectives with the 16th New York.  One was his cousin, Luther Byron Baker, and the other was a former Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger.  Both had served with Lafayette Baker in the District of Columbia Cavalry.  Technically, Luther Baker and Everton Conger were civilians at the time which would have left Doherty as the de facto leader of the group.  However, once Booth was cornered and killed and the applications for reward money came in, battle lines were drawn with Conger and Baker both refuting Doherty’s ownership of the operation, making it difficult to ascertain who Lafayette Baker truly put in charge (if anyone).

Regardless, after receiving their orders to investigate the Northern Necks of Virginia, the detectives and the soldiers of the 16th NY made their way to the Sixth Street wharf in Washington D.C. and boarded the propeller-driven steamer, John S. Ide.  The Ide steamed them down the Potomac, depositing them at Belle Plain, Virginia which is right at the border of King George and Stafford counties.  It had taken Booth and Herold nine days to reach King George County. The troops made it there from D.C. in four hours.

Belle Plain map 1

Here are some pictures Belle Plain today showing the location where the John S. Ide docked and unloaded the soldiers:

Belle Plain 2

Belle Plain 1

Belle Plain Pano

The detachment unloaded here at around 10 pm on April 24th.  Knowing that Booth was suffering from a broken leg, they immediately set about looking for doctors in the area.  Luther Baker recalled the long night of April 24/25th thusly:

“The direction we took I could not tell positively.  We went under the bluffs, and waked up the inhabitants of a house, to ascertain if any physicians resided in that locality.  We learned the names of three of them, found them, and questioned them closely as to whether or not they had attended anyone with a fractured limb, or had heard of anyone with a fractured limb in the vicinity.  We also questioned a negro and a few white persons upon the subject.  All had heard of no such case.”

Around daybreak on the 25th, the 16th New York arrived at the home of Dr. Horace Ashton, the last doctor on their list.  Like the other doctors in the area, Dr. Ashton had neither seen or heard anything in regard to a man with a broken leg in the area.  The doctor was a fairly wealthy man with a large plantation which he called, Bleak Hill.

Bleak Hill map

The doctor fed the troopers’ horses and provided the soldiers with a well deserved breakfast.  Bleak Hill still stands today though the large building on the property apparently dates to 1870.

Bleak Hill 1

Bleak Hill 2

When the troops departed Bleak Hill, they split into two groups, each tracing a different route down to Port Conway on the Rappahannock River.  Lt. Doherty and the majority of his men took the main road to Port Conway passing through Office Hall.  Unbeknownst to the men, they were now on the trail of Booth and Herold as the pair had also passed through Office Hall on their way between Cleydael and Port Conway 24 hours before.  Baker, Conger and four troopers took a less traveled route and eventually met up with the posse in Port Conway around lunch time.

The horses were again in need of feed and were lucky enough to find hospitality at the home of a wealthy planter named Carolinus Turner.  His large and beautiful home was called Belle Grove and had the distinction of being the site of President James Madison’s birth.  About half of the troopers were served lunch at Belle Grove with the rest being fed elsewhere.  After lunch, Col. Conger, exhausted and suffering the long term effects of previous battle wounds, fell asleep from exhaustion in the hall of Belle Grove.

Belle Grove map

Today, Belle Grove is operated as a beautiful bed and breakfast. As refreshing as Col. Conger’s rest in the hallway must have been, I can say from personal experience that is nothing compared to a night or two in their luxurious Madison Suite.

Belle Grove 1

Belle Grove Front

Belle Grove Hallway

Belle Grove Hallway with Conger

As Conger slept, Lt. Doherty and some of his men made their way the half mile down the road to Port Conway, where they interviewed the inhabitants. It was here, in tiny little Port Conway on the Rappahannock River that the 16th New York finally got their first real lead on Booth’s whereabouts. Local fisherman William Rollins, had seen Booth and Herold as they were waiting to cross the Rappahannock the day before. Even more helpful, Rollins’ wife not only recognized the Confederate soldiers who ended up crossing the ferry with the pair, but knew that one of them, Willie Jett, was courting Izora Gouldman who lived in nearby Bowling Green. With this information in hand, Doherty sent one of his men to wake up Conger and the whole posse began the task of crossing the Rappahannock river. It took a while as the small ferry could only carry a few horses at a time. When the entire group made it across the river, they set about galloping at full speed to Bowling Green. Unknowingly, they rode right past the Garrett farm where Booth and Herold were hiding out.

Bowling Green map

Once in Bowling Green (a place I did not visit on New Year’s but you can see other pictures relating to it in the Bowling Green Picture Gallery), the company found Jett sleeping in the Star Hotel. Surrounded by troopers, he “offered” to take the men to the Garrett place where he had dropped off Booth two days before. The troops, with Jett in tow, headed back to the Garrett Farm.

Garrett's farm map

The rest, as they say, is history. Booth and Herold had been exiled to the tobacco barn that night due to their strange behavior when the troops were originally galloping past on the way to Bowling Green. With the barn surrounded, Herold surrendered while an obstinate Booth asked for 50 paces so that he could come out shooting. Eventually Conger tired of the ongoing parley and set fire to the barn. Sergeant Boston Corbett aimed his pistol through the slats of the barn and shot Booth, striking him in the neck, and paralyzing him. He was pulled to the porch of the farmhouse and died there right after sunrise.

Today the site of the Garrett house is in the wooded median of Route 301, surrounded on all sides by Fort A. P. Hill. The only marker at the site, aside from a warning that digging for artifacts in illegal, is a metal pipe sticking out of the ground which marks the center line of the western most chimney of the Garrett house.

Garrett site 1-1-2015 Pano

Garrett Site 1-1-2015

A visit to the Garrett site on New Year’s day (a tradition of mine ever since I moved to Maryland) ended our retracing of the route of the 16th New York Cavalry. After getting a breakfast and food for their horses at Garrett’s, the troopers returned to Belle Plain. With Booth’s body in tow and Herold taken prisoner, the victorious men reboarded the John S. Ide and steamed back up to D.C. They were Lincoln’s Avengers and no doubt spent that steamship ride dreaming of the fame and reward money that awaited them.

American Brutus by Michael W. Kauffman
The Lincoln Assassination: The Reward Files by William Edwards
Belle Grove Plantation

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 20 Comments

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20 thoughts on “Retracing the Steps of the 16th New York

  1. Rob Grasso

    Well written and many details that I was not aware of. Thank you.

  2. Herb Swingle

    Great article! Being from Rochester,NY,the 16th NY is a revered unit.What really makes it special,is that a friend of mine is related to Lt.Doherty!

  3. rich smyth

    That is right Herb. These boys were mostly from central, upstate New York stretching to Lake Placid. When the war ended, they returned to their farms, raised families and died there. They are buried in little hamlets all over the area. In the Saranac Independence Cemetery where Godfrey Phillip Hoyt is interred a large monument has been erected to the memory of the citizens of the town that served in the Civil War and the five that aided in the capture of John Wilkes Booth.

  4. Herb Swingle

    They were regarded as heroes! My great-grandfather[160th-NY]was a POW in Texas and came home to farm his fertile land[Bloomfield,NY].I inherited his diary about prison life,and wrote about him in a book of short stories[A Yankee prisoner in Texas].

  5. Eva Lennartz

    Great article and photos, Dave! Thanks!

  6. Gary

    All your stories are so informative and interesting. Thanks so much for all the work you put into your web site

  7. J. F. Stanton

    I see that you are getting deep into these guys, so, for your amusement :
    Thomas N. Conrad married Emma S. Ball, who lived at “FAIRVIEW” (as in Fairview Beach) King George Co., VA on 4 Oct, 1866, at “FRIEDLAND”, the Ruggles homestead. and Mortimer Ruggles was his Best-man.
    Going back to April 1865, Mortimer Ruggles was Conrad’s second-in-command, at Conrad’s Spycamp – called “Eagle’s Nest”. He was “one mile back from the River, on the Hampstead Road” (Quote TNC), on the “Boyd’s Hole Farm” owned by Fanny Dade. (That’s another Story.)
    Conrad said that Booth rode his horse “Old Whitey”, from the Rappahannock to the Garrett Farm. Conrad said that “Whitey” was his “Day time” horse and he had a Black horse that he rode at night.
    TNC. b1841, in Fairfax, VA , d 5 Jan 1905 in D.C., burial Blacksburg, VA.
    EMMA, b1844, d 4 Oct.1906, burial Blacksburg.( they had about 10 children)
    I visited “Friedland” some years ago, with a graveyard jn the woods, and saw that Edward Seymore Ruggles had used a diamond to scratch “My love forever” in the dining room window. -or words somewhat similar. I didn’t write that down, and I am now subject to “Senior Moments” – occasionally.

    • Herb Swingle

      JWBooth used a diamond to etch-in his initials at Tudor Hall also!

      • Herb,

        While someone has etched onto a pane of glass at Tudor Hall, I truly don’t think it was Booth. The etching just looks like a scribble and in no way resembles “JWB”. Tom Fink, who runs the Junius Brutus Booth society, is also very dubious of it being from any of the Booths.

        • Herb Swingle

          Thanks,but my facts and story of the etching comes from my deceased brother in law.He was a realestate appraiser from Baltimore.He got the legend from the people from Tudor Hall.However,the story might not be true.I tend to agree with you for various reasons of BS.

  8. eileen

    EBay currently is auctioning items related to JWB and the Garrett family and the search for Booth.

    • Eileen,

      The recent eBay auctions for pricey assassination related items are connected with the the upcoming auction of the Donald Dow collection of Lincolniana. Mr. Dow had a massive and impressive collection of artifacts and they are going to be auctioned off on January 24th. Hertiage Auctions is also putting them up on eBay are a way to publizie the auction. I would LOVE to own Richard Baynham Garrett’s handwritten lecture notes, but the price is way out of my league.

  9. Laurie Verge

    John, Surratt House has photographs of both Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Nelson Conrad – a very handsome couple. They were given to us by a great niece, who also gave us copies of his books.

    One of my daughter’s best friends as a child (as well as our next door neighbor) was a descendant of the Conrads.

  10. J. F. Stanton (Slater)

    Dave. I like what you are doing here and would like to help. Would you like to show the spycamps on your maps. (Conrad, Caywood, Brogden, Etc). P.S. I have an 1865 map of this area showing where everybody lived. It extends into Caroline Co. (Trapp, Clark’s, Garrett’s etc.).How about a “tree” showing the relationship of Jones, Harbin, etc.? P.S. I have some letters, written from “Liberty” in 1865, complaining about Wat Bowie living there and not helping with the farm work. He left here to Kidnap the Governor of MD, by got killed .Let me hear from you.

    • John,

      One of these days I must make it over to King George to visit you and absorb some of your vast knowledge. Thank you for the offer.

  11. Anonymous

    You DO know that you are trespassing at the Garrett Farm right? That is Fort AP Hill land and they don’t like it when folks show up there.

    • You are correct that the land on which the Garret house once stood in on the property of Fort A. P. Hill. However, pretty much up to last year the site was freely accessible to anyone, even though I’m sure A. P. Hill wasn’t thrilled by that. They have since done a wonderful archaeological survey of the site and are in the process of trying to hand the land over to Caroline County. So, hopefully, in the future, it will be back to being public land again. In the mean time, Caroline County, Historic Port Royal, and A. P. Hill often have events that allow visitors to the site. I took part in a clean up day there last fall put on by A. P. Hill.

  12. Herb Swingle

    Tough Noogies! It is for history’s sake! Why don’t you idenify yourself? It always safe to be Anonymous!

  13. Today, on the 150th Anniversary of the capture of John Wilkes Booth, the Town of Saranac Historian in Clinton County, NY, will conduct a cemetery tour of several men from the 16th NY Cavalry who helped capture him. The tour starts at 12 with a stamp cancellation starting at 11. For information, you can contact

  14. marilyn miller

    i don’t know if this site is still active but…my son’s father’s ancestor, heinrich (henry) bierwirth served with the 16ny. my oldest son paul did his dissertation on henry in the 16th. your visual/written trip in time is very special for 2 reasons, the 16th & va. i have i friend who lives in an old farmhouse near manassas & when young my sons would try & find musket balls on her property. we didn’t know about henry or the 16th at that time. thank you for sharing highlights of your trip. marilyn

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