- Historic Sites
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
Time’s up! Come out peaceable, or you’ll be burned out!” The men in the tobacco barn won't come out. In a mixture of whining and bombast one of them parleys with the federal troopers, begs them to give a poor cripple “a fighting chance.” Back and forth it goes for a half hour or more, and then David Herold, the young simpleton who has come south with the assassin, stumbles from the barn and is werstled to the ground. He whimpers. He never meant anybody any harm. “I always liked Mr. Lincoln’s jokes.”
The officer commanding fires the barn. The dry wood takes quickly; the soldiers can see a man thrashing about inside. They are under orders not to fire on him, to take him alive. But among them is a cavalry sergeant who is not listening to the officers. He is listening to God. As the fire grows, Boston Corbett either raises—or doesn’t raise—his pistol and shoots—or doesn’t shoot—John Wilkes Booth.
Somebody did. When the soldiers brought the actor from the barn, they found a bullet driven through the back of his head in almost the same spot where he shot the President nearly two weeks earlier.
The problematic Corbett had been taking his orders from God a good many years before that night on the Virginia farm made him famous. He was born Thomas P. Corbett, the son of English parents who brought him to America at the age of seven in 1839. The Corbetts settled in Troy, New York, where Thomas became a skilled hatter. He moved to New York City and married while still very young. When his wife died trying to bear his child, Corbett spent what money he had burying them, then took to drink and made his way up to Boston. There, during a night of drunken roaming, he stopped to listen to a streetcorner evangelist, and was saved. He changed his first name to that of the city of his spiritual rebirth and set about saving others.
This he did with ferocious vigor. He grew his hair long in imitation of pictures he’d seen of Christ, and attended revivals, where, an acquaintance of his reported, his “amens at times were too vociferous.” His shouts of exaltation disrupted the meetings, and at the hat factory his fervor made work almost impossible for his fellows. It was piecework, a sort of early assembly line where one hatter would do his part and pass the hat along to his neighbor. Whenever anyone cursed or wished for a drink, or was otherwise ungodly, Corbett would fling aside his tools, drop to his knees, and attempt to lead his co-workers in prayer.
Evangelists shied away from Corbett’s noisy assistance, and he struck out on his own. In 1858, while exhorting the passers-by on North Square, the preacher was approached by two prostitutes. Tormented by the thoughts they aroused in him, he went home and castrated himself. He spent a month recovering, then returned to his calling.
The coming of the Civil War perfectly suited his crusader’s spirit. According to the historian Lloyd Lewis, he vowed to his congregation that he would enlist and do all the killing he could. “I will say to them, ‘God have mercy on your souls’—then pop them off.”
He signed up with the 12th New York Militia. His fellow soldiers quickly took to calling him the “Glory-to-God Man,” and the difficult recruit made it clear from the start that he felt himself in the service of a higher authority than mere army officers.
Nevertheless, he was a fighter. After his enlistment with the 12th was up, he joined the cavalry, and saw a good deal of action. At Culpeper, Virginia, in 1864, according to his own account, “I faced and fought against a whole column of them [the Rebels], all alone, none but God being with me, to help me, my being in a large field and they being in the road. …” They took him when he ran out of ammunition, and he went to Andersonville. There, he moved energetically through despair and rot: “Bless the Lord, a score of souls were converted, right on the spot where I lay for three months without any shelter.”
Exchanged later in the year—one of two survivors from his company of fourteen—Corbett applied for reinstatement, and his papers came through just in time for him to be on hand at Booth’s capture. His role in it made him a national figure, though just what that role was remains cloudy. Booth was already dead and the sun high in the sky before it occurred to Corbett to announce that he’d done the shooting, adding, “Providence directed me.” This supreme piece of insubordination should have got him a court-martial, but by the time the unit returned to Washington the news had gone out over the wires, and Corbett was a hero.
Mustered out of the service with a commendation and $1,653.85—his share of the reward money, which the government divided equally among the troopers—he went back to his preaching and his hat-making. The voices he heard wouldn’t let him rest, and he drifted out to Kansas, where he put together a lecture on the Booth capture, complete with magic-lantern slides. But on the podium the spirit would take him, and soon he would be shouting scripture at his restless audience.