Of all the stories regarding Everton J. Conger and his successful capture of John Wilkes Booth, one that has always intrigued me is why did Conger decide it was time to fire Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn after hours of making what seemed empty threats to do so?
From Conger’s own testimony all we get is that after David Herold’s surrender, he decided that Booth wasn’t going to come out and hence decided it was time to fire the barn. Conger took this action on his own, without discussing it with his partner, Luther Byron Baker or with Edward P. Doherty, commander of the detachment of the 16th New York Cavalry.
Most historians have accepted Conger’s words at face value, but I think there’s much more to this than Conger was willing to admit, especially later in life. It has to do with the two war wounds that Conger suffered.
The first came on Oct. 23, 1862 on a reconnaissance mission Conger spearheaded when he rode as captain of Company A, 3rd West Virginia Cavalry. Near Bristoe Station, Va., Conger’s group of 40 men came under attack by a larger Confederate force of 125 horse soldiers. Conger’s little group routed their opponents, but not before Conger was shot off his horse with a hip wound. Lying on the ground Conger was struck in the wrist by a rebel soldier’s sword. His men, who were in a hurry to get out of there, decided their commander was dead and left him. But he wasn’t. Conger spent the frigid October night lying on the ground. How he didn’t bleed to death is hard to fathom.
He was discovered to be alive the next day and taken to a local doctor’s home, where he was treated. His whereabouts were discovered by Captain Ulric Dahlgren and eventually Conger was paroled as a POW back to his command. However, he wasn’t ready to return to the field until nearly a year later. With little chance of promotion, Conger asked for and was given the Major’s slot in the First District of Columbia Cavalry.
In 1864, while riding with the 1st D.C., Conger, who by now was Lieutenant Colonel and had de facto command of the regiment, again was wounded on the Wilson-Kautz Raid. As fate would have it, he was again shot in the hips (while his men were dismounted, Conger had to ride his horse because he couldn’t walk very quickly. How it was determined that he was fit for duty is beyond me). This time he was left behind when General James H. Wilson was forced to retreat after the Battle of Ream’s Station, but he later was brought to headquarters where again he was hospitalized. This time, however, he was declared unfit for military service and given a discharge.
The colonel of the 1st D.C. was the notorious Lafayette Baker, who was also the head of what he called the “National Detective Police” which was an arm of the War Department. In what I believe to be an attempt to keep Conger from becoming destitute, Baker gave him a job as a detective. It was in this role that Conger became involved in the manhunt for Booth.
For the remainder of his life, Conger suffered from these wounds immensely. In fact, he once said that he was never able to sleep lying down, instead having to get rest in a seated position in a chair. Why Conger was ever allowed on the manhunt is another question I will have to answer in my biography. Walking was a major ordeal for Conger, who lived his life addicted to both morphine and alcohol in an attempt to mask the pain he constantly felt.
My theory as to why Conger decided it was time to burn the barn is that he simply could not physically take it anymore. He took it on his own initiative to set the barn ablaze because his war wounds were aggravating him to the point of intense physical pain. Conger never mentioned this, however, because he knew it would add to the controversy of him receiving the largest chunk of the reward money issued by the government for Booth’s capture. Indeed, during the trial of John Surratt Conger testified that he was “a little lame” when he went into the field. Saying that Conger was “a little lame” is like saying the war was “a little bloody”. When Luther Byron Baker, who received much less of the reward money than he felt was due him, began to lecture on his role in capturing Booth, he painted Conger as an invalid who had no business being there, and was only there because Conger begged Baker to let him ride, which, simply put, is nonsense. But Conger was sensitive to this attack, so he never mentioned it for the remainder of his life.