City Desk

Today in D.C. History: A Foiled Lincoln Assassination Plot and ‘Tractor Man’ Snarls Traffic

On March 17, 1865, two Confederate sympathizers, John Wilkes Booth and John Surratt, were positioned near the intersection of what is today 7th Street NW and Georgia and Florida avenues, hoping to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, who had been expected to visit Campbell General Hospital, one of the city's three dozen Civil War military hospitals. Lincoln liked to visit military hospitals unannounced, meeting with wounded soldiers, going from ward to ward.

According to this history on the Campbell General Hospital assassination plot:

John Wilkes Booth learned that President Lincoln was supposed visit wounded soldiers at Campbell General Hospital for a performance of Still Waters Run Deep on March 17, 1865 and arranged an ambush. "With an hour's notice, according to John Surratt, the gang raced out waited until they saw a carriage approach. Riding alongside, they saw the man in the vehicle was not Lincoln. It may have been Salmon P. Chase, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who did attend the show," wrote historian Robert H. Fowler. President Lincoln had changed his schedule and greeted a group of Indiana soldiers instead. He never showed up—thus postponing his assassination for nearly a month.

On March 17, 2003, just as the United States prepared to invade Iraq, a North Carolina tobacco farmer protesting cuts to federal tobacco subsidies, crashed his tractor into Constitution Gardens and claimed he had explosives. Dwight Watson's two-day standoff near the intersection of 17th Street NW and Constitution Avenue snarled traffic in all directions, blocking major commuter routes in and out of downtown. Watson would soon be called the "Tractor Man," whose protest amounted to a major annoyance, ill-timed with the U.S. invasion, which dominated news coverage.

As Timothy Noah wrote in Slate at the time:

Tractor Man's main impediment, of course, was the war. With the most ambitious U.S. military action in decades about to commence, he couldn't have picked a worse time to try to focus the country's attention on his chosen cause, which was to protest the federal government's tobacco farming policies. If his aim was to spotlight that cause, he couldn't have chosen a less popular or meritorious one than the injustice of lowering tobacco price supports and attempting to keep cigarettes away from minors. If, on the other hand, Tractor Man just wanted to kill people, he'd have done better to stay in North Carolina and continue farming tobacco. The cops couldn't have laid a finger on him.

Watson's standoff ended peacefully and there were no explosives found on his tractor. He was tried and convicted on charges related to his threats and was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison.

Image courtesy Library of Congress

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