Alexandria National Cemetery

The Tragic Incident of the Black Diamond: the Untold Story of Civilian Casualties in Pursuit of Lincoln’s Assassin

The final resting place for four individuals from the United States Quartermaster Department is found in the Alexandria National Cemetery. These four individuals died on April 24, 1865, in a tragic incident involving the coal barge they were aboard, named “Black Diamond.” A large sidewheel steamer called the “Massachusetts” or “JWD Pentz” struck the barge. This steamboat was in transit between Alexandria and City Point, Virginia, navigating the waters of the Potomac River. Among its passengers were around 300 individuals, including numerous Union soldiers recently released from prisoner-of-war camps in the Southern states.

Regrettably, the collision resulted in the unfortunate demise of 87 individuals. This toll included the four civilian members from the Quartermaster’s Department who were on the Black Diamond and a significant number of others. Tragically, the remains of those who lost their lives, apart from the mentioned four individuals, were never recovered.

Before the tragic Black Diamond events, the Massachusetts (also recognized as JWD Pentz), a privately owned vessel, had undertaken multiple excursions for the Potomac Flotilla, all unmarred by mishaps. (Sourced from the Naval History and Heritage Command)

Positioned near St. Clements Island on the Potomac River, the Black Diamond was a vigilant sentry ship to prevent J. Wilkes Booth and his accomplice, Davey Herold, from traversing the Potomac River’s expanse from Maryland to Virginia. This strategic placement was established following the assassination of President Lincoln, as Booth and Herold sought to evade capture. It’s worth highlighting that some accounts erroneously place this event along the Rappahannock River, a misconception that should be clarified.

The pivotal event occurred when Booth, having fatally shot President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, while the President was attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, fled the scene alongside Herold. In a clandestine move, the fugitive pair had already crossed from Maryland to Virginia on April 22, 1865, prior to the incident in question, evading the awareness of law enforcement authorities.

A snapshot from the past: Employees of the U.S. Quartermaster Department captured in a photograph outside their headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Among them were volunteers from the affiliated U.S. Steam Fire House, who met their fate aboard the Black Diamond. (Image sourced from the Library of Congress)

Two days later, on April 26, 1865, Booth and Herold were discovered in a barn on Richard Garrett’s farm near Port Royal, Virginia. The ones who located them were members of the 16th New York Cavalry. While Herold agreed to surrender, Booth, driven by his desire to continue the fight, encountered a fateful confrontation with Boston Corbett. Corbett, uttering the words “Providence guided me,” fired upon Booth within the confines of the barn. To force Booth out, the barn was deliberately ignited. It was on that morning that Booth met his demise on the porch of the Garrett farmhouse. This occurrence unfolded almost 12 days after Lincoln’s passing, synchronously with Lincoln’s death in the Petersen House in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 1865.

Adjacent to the cemetery’s flagpole, a substantial granite rock stands bearing a distinctive plaque that pays tribute to the four men who lost their lives that fateful night and now rest in its grounds. This memorial was positioned on July 7, 1922, precisely fifty-seven years after the execution by hanging of four individuals linked to President Lincoln’s assassination at the Washington Arsenal. Among these individuals was David Herold, the very person whom the members of the “Black Diamond” were endeavoring to apprehend.

Photograph captured by D. Heiby showcasing a granite boulder adorned with a commemorative plaque honoring Petter Carrol, Samuel N. Gosnell, George W. Huntington, and Christopher Farley at the Alexandria National Cemetery.
In Memory
Who lost their loves April 24, 1865
While in pursuit of Booth the assassin
of our beloved President
Abraham Lincoln
Caption on the memorial plaque in the Alexandria National Cemetery

In an intriguing turn of events, the Alexandria National Cemetery finds its location at the termination of Wilkes Street, a designation attributed to John Wilkes, a British Member of Parliament. It’s worth noting that John Wilkes bore a connection to Booth, the individual responsible for the assassination. You can explore the blog post “The Ugliest Man in Britain” at this [link].

Sources of Information

Steers, Jr., Edward. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. University Press of Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky. 2005.

Swanson, James L. Manhunt: The 12-Day Hunt for Lincoln’s Killer. Mariner Books. Boston, Massachusetts. 2008.

See the official website of Southern Maryland, This is Living Magazine, for an excellent article on the Black Diamond Disaster.

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By David

Hello. My journey has taken me through various paths, from owning businesses to delving deep into the annals of history. For many years, I dedicated myself to researching and leading tours of Civil War Battlefields, bringing the past to life for those eager to learn.

In 2015, I assumed the role of Superintendent of the Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium within the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Alexandria, Virginia. This cemetery holds a profoundly special place in my heart. It's owned by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, where I was baptized and raised, and my parents are laid to rest. It's also the place where I will one day be buried. This responsibility allowed me to assist families during pivotal moments and opened a unique avenue for me. Most Saturdays, I lead tours within the complex, combining my passion for teaching history with the stories of the 35,000 souls resting there. To further share these narratives, I established this blog focusing on the lives and tales of those buried in Alexandria.

In addition to my work at the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, I am honored to serve as a dedicated Board member of the Alexandria Historical Society and the Lee-Fendall House Museum. I am a Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium member dedicated to preserving endangered cemeteries throughout the region, representing the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex.

If you're intrigued by history or curious about the stories that shaped Alexandria, I invite you to join me on my tours, read my writings, or connect with me on Facebook or Instagram.

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