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

As a public historian, I am dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich history of Alexandria, Virginia, and the surrounding region. With a deep passion for bringing the past to life, I serve my community in this meaningful role.

Before this, I enjoyed a fulfilling career as a businessman and entrepreneur. Now retired, I have found a new sense of purpose in my work as a public historian.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as the Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Alexandria. This cemetery holds a special place in my family's history, as it was started in the early 1800s by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, a historic congregation dating back to 1772 that is situated one mile east in the heart of Old Town. The cemetery is the final resting place of my parents, and the Meeting House is where I have worshipped for over 60 years.

As a public historian, I am thrilled to lead tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery, which has thirteen cemeteries in a complex with over 35,000 interments. It is considered the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States. These sacred grounds offer a fascinating glimpse into the story of Alexandria and its people. I also enjoy guiding tours of nearby Civil War battlefields, combining my passion for history with the compelling narratives of those who fought and fell on these hallowed grounds, bringing their stories to life. I primarily lead tours of Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, and the Antietam Battlefields, along with tracing the footsteps of those involved in the Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. I am also a licensed tour guide in Washington, D.C.

To further engage the community, I manage a blog focused on Alexandria's cemeteries, where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized. I am also an active Board Member of the Alexandria Historical Society and the Lee-Fendall House Museum.

Whether you are a resident or a visitor to the area, I invite you to explore Alexandria's rich history by joining one of my cemetery or battlefield tours, reading my blog, or connecting with me on social media. It is my sincere pleasure to bring the city's captivating past to life and serve my community meaningfully.

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