Troy Cowan Topic: William Garrett: eyewitness to history.

William Garrett: eyewitness to history.

William Garrett was born on April 18, 1845, in rural Virginia. As a teenager, he enlisted in the Confederate army along with his brother Jack. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox, both brothers swore that they would never again take up arms against the U.S. and they were allowed to return home. William was nineteen.

The following story appeared in the April 1921 issue of the Confederate Veteran magazine. This was fifty years after Lincoln’s assassination and a year before William’s death.

William was under pressure to avoid implicating himself or his family in aiding Booth's escape. William could not admit that he knew John Wilkes Booth and he could not admit that his family willingly gave assistant to Booth. If he did, he and his family would be in jeopardy of being hanged or imprisoned as a co-conspirator. For his and his family's safety, important information had been left out or modified.

Many believe that James William Boyd was the man killed in the Garrett barn. Boyd was in his late thirties and he was an old soldier. Boyd also had an old war wound to his ankle that sometimes caused problems. It seems likely that William Garrett blended the two men into one to create a unifying whole acceptable to his critics.


There have been so many contradictory statements in regard to the capture of John Wilkes Booth that I shall try to write a correct account of it, I being one of the Garrett's who were at home at the time of his capture and death. I had just returned from the war. About three days after arrival there came to my father's home a man by the name of Captain Jett, with a man riding behind him on the one horse. He introduced this man to my father as John Boyd, a Confederate soldier from the army of Lee, who had been wounded near Petersburg. He said he had returned his home in Maryland, but the authorities required him to give the oath, so rather than do that he would return to the army. He did not know that Johnston had surrendered in the West.

Captain Jett then requested my father to enter in "Mr. Boyd," and he would call for him on Wednesday. That night when I came to the house my father introduced me to "Mr. Boyd", an old soldier. [Booth was twenty-seven, not an old soldier.] I was struck with his looks, as he was the handsomest man I had ever seen. He stayed that night, the next day, and the next night, when he was shot. The first night he slept in the same room with brother Jack and myself. He seemed to sleep well. The next day he remained about the premises with me and the children.

During the noon meal my brother, who had been to a shoe maker's, said he had heard that President Lincoln had been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, and a reward of a hundred thousand dollars had been offered for his arrest. I made the remark: "I wish he would come this way. I would like to get that amount.

Mr. Boyd looked at me without showing any excitement and said: "Would you do such a thing?" I replied: "That is a big sum." My father then said: "He is young and foolish. He doesn't mean what he says." Then the conversation turned to other topics. After the meal Boyd returned to the porch. My sister, Annie, said to him that she thought the death of Lincoln was most unfortunate thing to have happened at this time. He replied that it was the best thing that could have happened, Andrew Johnson would be made President, and he was a drunken sot. It would cause a revolution and would be the best thing for the South.

About three o'clock three men came to within about three hundred yards of the house and beckoned to Mr. Boyd. He talked with them and they remained in conversation about half an hour; then two of the men left, leaving one behind whom Mr. Boyd introduced as a friend of his. Sometime later, two men returned, and the other man went to meet them, came back and said he was notified that there was a body troops coming from the direction of Port Royal. They became excited and left for the woods, where they remained until dusk. On their return they learned that the troops had passed on toward Bowling Green, which seemed to satisfy them.

My father had become Suspicious that these men were not what they claimed to be, as Captain Jett had not called for Mr. Boyd as promised, so after supper he told them they could not stay in his house that night; and they had better go back to the woods. They said they were not criminals and requested him in let them sleep in some outhouse, so he told them they could sleep in the tobacco house.

Brother Jack and I went with them to the barn, and after they had entered, fearing they might in the night come out and take our horses, we locked the door. Not being satisfied with that precaution, as there were doors that fastened on the inside, we concluded to sleep in a shuck house nearby to guard our horses. We were aroused about one o'clock by the barking of the dogs and quite a commotion going on. Jack said he would investigate and for me to remain in the shuck house. He was met by a posse of soldiers and ordered to surrender. He replied: "Where is your commander? Take me to him." He was conducted to the house, where he found that they had taken my father out of doors in his night clothes and were calling for a rope to swing him up by because he could not tell them where the men were. Jack told them to let father alone, that he would take them to the barn, for there were two men out there, but he did not know who they were. They found the barn door locked, and I took the key to them. Then they made my brother go and tell the men that they must surrender, as there were fifty men around the barn, and they could not escape.

Boyd said to my brother: "Get out of here at the risk of your life. You have betrayed me." Brother reported what he said to the officer, who told him to lock the door. He then told my brother and me to pile brush near the side door, which we did. While doing so Boyd said: "Stop that. If you put any more there, it will be at your peril."

The officer then told us not to put any more there, and he commenced to parley with Boyd and his companion. He told them to come out and surrender. Boyd refused." saying: "I do not know to whom I am to surrender. I do not know who you are. You may be my friends."
The officer said: "It makes no difference: I know who you are. I came for you, and I am going to take you."
Boyd then said: "There is a man in here who wishes to come out."
The officer said: "Tell him to leave his arms and come out."
Boyd said: "He has no arms; they are mine."

The officer then ordered my brother to unlock the door. He made the man put forth his arms, and cuffs were placed on them, and he was jerked out and the door fastened as quickly as if they feared a tiger might bounce out on them. Boyd then came to a crack in the barn and said to the officer; "Captain. I have a bead on your heart. I could kill you, but I do not wish to shed innocent blood. Call your men off fifty yards and open the door and I will come out and fight. Give me some chance for my life."

The officer said: "No, I did not come to fight; I came to capture you." He then placed my brother and me each at a corner of the barn by a light from a candle, with a guard over us with instructions that if the man inside fired a shot we were to be shot and not allowed to escape.

Boyd said to the officer; "Those men are innocent. They do not know who I am. I will not surrender, so prepare a stretcher for me. Here is one more stain on the glorious banner. Do your worst."

Then it was that an officer, whom I afterwards learned was Colonel Conger, twisted some straw and lighted it and set the barn on fire. As soon as the barn was lighted up a shot was heard.

An officer, Lieutenant Baker, was standing near the front door, and when the shot was heard he said to me: "Give me the key; he has shot himself."

I unlocked the door, and he and I ran in and took hold of the man to lift him up. We found that he could not walk. I then left them to go and work on the fire, hoping to put it out and save the barn, but it could not be saved; it was burned with all its contents. The loss was about two thousand dollars, for which no compensation was ever made.

I then learned for the first time that it was John Wilkes Booth who had been shot. He was shot by Sergeant Corbitt, a religious crank, who claimed that the Lord had directed him to avenge the death of the President. The ball passed through Booth's neck and paralyzed him from his neck down. He was taken to the house and placed on the porch floor. A mattress was then put under him, and he lived about two hours. All he said was to Lieutenant Baker, "Tell my mother good-by. What I did I thought was for the best." Then he passed away.

I learned that the young man who came with him was David Harrold. He was tied to a tree in the yard with his hands behind him.

Booth was sewed in a blanket and a one-horse carryall was hired from a negro man, Ned Freeman, who took him to Belle Plain, a wharf on the Potomac. My brother, Harrold, and I were taken to the same place, each behind a soldier. Then we took the same boat that was brought down from Washington, and we returned to Washington. We were taken to the arsenal; brother and I escorted by four detectives, one on each side of us. We were placed in a cell 6x8 feet the first night. The next day we were given the liberty of the guardroom with the soldiers. We remained there about five days. During the time the public heard of the capture and of our being confined there, and a mob made a raid on the arsenal to take us out, what to do with us I do not know unless to hang us.

They had to double the guard and place cannon in front of the gates. The commotion kept up most of the night. We were well treated, Irish soldiers guarding us. We were then taken to the old Capitol Prison under a heavy guard. They formed a hollow square and placed us in the middle. All the way to the old prison we were hissed at and followed by the cry of "Rebel! Rebel!" We were placed in a room with a Confederate colonel who had been arrested as a suspect. He seemed to be a man of means, brought his dram, and kept drunk most of the time.

We remained there about seven days, then we were taken before the chief of the detective department. We were then paroled to report each day at nine o'clock. We then learned that we were to be used as witnesses, and we were sent to a boarding house kept by a gentleman of color. We were never taken to court, but our affidavit was taken and used in favor of Lieutenant Baker as being the first man to place his hand on Booth after he was shot. Corbitt who did the shooting, thought the reward was his, so he installed him-self in a hotel, taking two rooms. He took quite an interest in us, having us to call on him, and when leaving he placed a Bible and twenty-five dollars in our hands. It was said that he died insane.

After being kept there a month we were given our transportation home. From Baltimore we took the first traffic boat that had been up the Rappahannock River since the war. Arriving home in the night, our people were wild with joy at seeing us, for they had not heard a thing from us since we left.

It has been said that my brother Jack betrayed Booth. Here are a few more facts; [William Garrett was not present at the time Booth crossed the river and this information must be considered hearsay.] Two men came to Port Conway on the King George side of the river, and hailed the ferryman, Bill Rollins, who was out fishing. He did not come at once, so in the meantime there rode up three soldiers of Mosby's command—Captain Jett and Lieutenants Ruggles and Bainbridge—who also wished to cross.

While waiting one of the two men, the youngest, came up and met the three, and during their conversation he said: "That man on the log is Booth, who shot Lincoln." The man heard him and said, "I did not wish you to tell that; you have killed us," or something to that effect.
They were put across the river by Rollins and a negro, Jim Thornton, but I do not know that they were told who they were taking over. On reaching Port Royal they tried to get lodging at Mr. Gibbs's, who kept an inn there, but he was not at home; so the soldiers brought Booth to my father's place, Captain Jett bringing him to the house on his own horse. Jett then went to Bowling Green, where the soldiers found him and brought him back to my father's the night Booth was killed.

Colonel Baker, chief detective of the War Department, received notice that two men were seen leaving the Maryland shore one dark night. It was his impression that that was the route they would take, as he (Booth) had traveled it several times going to Richmond as a spy. So he ordered a detachment of soldiers, with two of his trusted detectives, and gave them orders to land at Belle Plain, on the Potomac, and to proceed to Port Conway, on the Rappahannock, believing he would strike the trail. When they arrived there, they of course inquired of the ferryman, Mr. Rollins, about the men. He informed them that such men had crossed.

Now who betrayed Booth? Did Captain Jett or Bill Rollins or Jack Garrett or Colonel Baker, chief detective? I give the facts.

(Statement found in the Confederate Veteran (1921) p.129-130.)


In 1903, a man claiming to be John Wilkes Booth died in Enid, Oklahoma. Over a decade later, while doing research on Booth's connection to Oklahoma, W. P. Campbell of the Oklahoma Historical Society had an idea. He believed that the only way new information could be obtained about Booth would be from the memories of the people that knew him. He wrote many letters asking for any remembrances about Booth. A decade later, one of his letters fell into the hands of W. P. Carneal, the postmaster of Lent, Virginia. It was a year after William died.

Mr. Carneal knew William Garrett for decades and heard him tell the story of Booth escape many times. Mr. Carneal wrote the following statement from memory and sent it to Mr. Campbell.

William Garrett’s story
as remembered by Mr. Carneal

One evening a while before dark, a couple of men on horseback and in Confederate uniforms came to our place, having with them another young man who had no uniform but had a sore leg. They wanted the crippled young man taken in until arrangements could be made to get him to a place of safety.

At first father didn’t want to do it, but the Confederate officers said they would see that he got into no trouble, so the young man was taken in and the two cavalry men paced off to keep picket and give warning if any federals came up, so the crippled man told us. He stayed in the kitchen that night where brother Jack and I sleep.

The next evening when the crippled man was in the front yard on the grass the two cavalry men came up as fast as they could, said something about they must get to the woods, so one of them took the crippled man on the horse and they started toward the heavy woods this side of the Port. One of the cavalry men started toward Bowling Green. They were in such a hurry that they didn’t say goodbye or if they would come back.

That night brother Jack and I kept awake much of the time thinking the men might come back, and father told us not to let any more strangers stay there. A while before day when it was as dark as charcoal outside I heard someone tap on the back door. I crawled out of bed without making any fuss because I didn’t want to wake father and mother who were asleep upstairs. So I opened the door but it was so dark I could only see that there were two of them and one was larger and seemingly older by his voice, but the younger one done most of the talking.

He said they had come a long ways on foot and was going to some court house but was too tired to go any farther without rest, and they wanted a place to stay. I told them father didn’t want to let any strangers stay there, but if they would be careful and not wake the folks they could stay awhile. They said as they might want to leave at any moment they would prefer some outhouse or crib, so they could go there without disturbing the “old folks” as they called them.

I told Jack to not for anything wake father and mother and the men would be gone so they needn’t know they had stayed there. So I showed the strangers to the crib. It was so dark you could not see your hand before you, but I knew the place so well I found the crib door and let them go in where there was hay and cornstalk blades for them to rest on. I stopped around awhile to see that they didn’t take the horses as they had none.

Pretty soon I heard noise at the house and hurried there where a lot of men in Union uniforms and one of them an officer had the door open demanding that a light be lit and “damn’d quick.” Just then I heard mother raise the upstairs window and ask who was there and what they wanted. “No matter who we are —we want a light.”

Then I heard father coming downstairs and he lit a candle and when he went to the door another officer came up and said “You have someone in here and we want him.” Father tried to tell the new officer that there had been a man there but he wouldn’t let him. “We are not going to listen to any of your excuses,” said the officer. “Where is he?” Then father told him they had gone. “Gone where?” said the officer, and father told him to the woods.

Then brother Jack began ransacking the house to see if the crippled man had come back. But the officer grabbed father and pulled him on the porch and called for a rope and said he would swing him to one of the sycamore limbs. I then told them not to harm father and I would tell them. “Father is scared. He don’t know,” I said. I was grabbed by the arm like all savage and I saw I had to tell them something, so I told them, “They went to the crib. I’ll show you where they are.”

One of the officers took the candle and we went to the crib, but it was dark as could be in there and not a sound. Pretty soon there was a rustle in the fodder and the officer said I must go in and tell the man in there to give up his arms and surrender. I didn’t want to go but he said I must, and he called to the man in there that he would send me in for the arms and he must surrender. Just then there was whispering, showing that there was more than one in there. One of them said to the other he could “go and be damned; I don’t want you here anyway.”

As soon as I got in the man inside snatched up something I thought was a gun and told me to get out, that I had given him a cold deck, or something, and I rushed back to the door and told them the men in there were armed to the teeth and would shoot me. I was let out and the officer again called for surrender or there would be a bonfire and a shooting match. But one of the men in the crib said, “There is a damned young fellow in here who wants to give himself up. As for me—I want time to study.”

The officer told him he could have just two minutes. Then one of the men inside told the other to “go, you damned coward! I don’t know you! You have betrayed me and I don’t want you to stay.” He kept cursing him to the last.

About this time someone set fire to some hay and poked it through a crack and almost as if it was a powder house the whole inside of the crib was ablaze, and for the first time the men inside could be seen, although they could see those outside. One of the men at once began running from one side to the other looking for a way to get out or a crack to pop anyone who got in the way.

The door was broke open and one of the men grabbed the young man and piled on top of him and was dragging him out when someone shot through a crack and the other man inside bounded toward the door and fell on his face. In an instant one of the officers was on him and his clothes was afire. The young man was taken outside and tied to a tree, and the other man was taken out before he burned and carried to the porch and put on some planks with an old coat and a pillow for his head.
“Who was it got shot?” asked the young man who had given up.
“You know well enough who it was,” answered the officer.
“No, I do not know who it was.”
"Yes, you do,” said the officer. “You know it is Booth.”
 “No, I tell you, I don’t know it was Booth,” said the young man. “He told me his name was Boyd.”

Booth was known as a man with excellent social refinements, he did not cuss. On the other hand, Boyd was known to be very profane. In this statement, it said that the man in the barn kept cursing him to the last. This does not sound like Booth. It does sound like Boyd.

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