Category Archives: Irregular Operations

Jefferson Davis Arrives Off Virginia

May 19, 1865 – The ocean vessel conveying former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other captured members of his government arrived at Fortress Monroe, on the tip of Virginia’s York-James Peninsula.

The William P. Clyde had left Port Royal three days ago carrying Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens, Treasury Secretary John Reagan, General Joseph Wheeler, and former Texas Governor Francis Lubbock. Also aboard were Davis’s wife, children, and servants, and other Confederate officials, including Senator Clement C. Clay and his wife Virginia. Mrs. Clay later wrote:

“Our journey on the Clyde, though sorrowful, apprehensive as we were concerning the fate to which the prisoners were being led, was otherwise uneventful. Mr. Davis was exceedingly depressed, and moved restlessly about, seeming scarcely ever to desire to sit down. Always an intellectual cosmopolite, however, he made observations on the natural phenomena about us, commenting from time to time on the beauty of sea or sky. Our meals, which were served at a table reserved for the prisoners, by no means represented the fare of the coastwise steamers of to-day, but few of us were in a mood to take note of culinary deficiencies.”

The Clyde was originally ordered to bring the prisoners up Chesapeake Bay to Washington, but Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had persuaded Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to imprison Davis at Fort Monroe under the command of Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, “the object being to put an officer at Fortress Monroe who will by no possibility (allow) the escape of the prisoners to be confined there.”

The prisoners remained confined aboard the Clyde for three days while arrangements were made to accommodate them. Stanton, worried about political intrigue, wanted the preparations to remain secret. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles explained that “the papers would have the arrivals announced in their next issue,” and “he could not stop the mails, nor passenger-boats, and twenty-four hours would carry the information to Baltimore and abroad in that way.”

Stanton wrote out the orders for dealing with the prisoners, and according to Welles:

“In framing his dispatch, he said, with some emphasis, the women and children must be sent off. We did not want them. ‘They must go South,’ and he framed his dispatch accordingly. When he read it I remarked, ‘The South is very indefinite, and you permit them to select the place. Mrs. Davis may designate Norfolk, or Richmond.’ ‘True,’ said Grant with a laugh. Stanton was annoyed, but, I think, altered his telegram.”

Stephens and Reagan would be placed aboard the warship U.S.S. Tuscarora and sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, while Wheeler, Lubbock, and presidential aide William P. Johnston would go to Fort Delaware in Philadelphia. Davis and Clay would be confined within Fort Monroe. Mrs. Clay remembered:

“On the morning of May 22d a sultry, drizzling rain fell. It was a day exactly calculated to induce melancholy even in the stoutest-hearted. To us, eagerly alert to learn what we might of our fate, it was unspeakably distressful. Shortly after breakfast my husband came quietly into our stateroom. ‘There is no longer any doubt,’ he said, ‘that this fort is the one destined for Davis and me! I have just been notified that we are expected to take a ride on a tug. I am convinced we shall be taken to Fortress Monroe. I can’t imagine why they do not come out boldly and tell us so, but be sure this is our farewell, my wife!’ We took leave of each other in our stateroom, nor did I leave it to follow Mr. Clay to the deck. I stood, instead, at the fourteen-inch window of my cabin, alone with my thoughts.”

The Davises son Jeff wailed upon learning that he would be taken from his father. A soldier told him, “Don’t cry, Jeff. They ain’t going to hang your pa!” Little Jeff replied, “When I get to be a man, I’m going to kill every Yankee I see!” He then ran to his mother and cried, “They say they have come for father, beg them to let us go with him.” Davis confirmed the news and told Varina, “Try not to cry. They will gloat over your grief.”

Davis and Clay were put aboard a tug to take them to the fort, and as Mrs. Davis recalled, “he stood with bared head between the files of undersized German and other foreign soldiers on either side of him, and as we looked, as we thought, our last upon his stately form and knightly bearing, he seemed a man of another and higher race, upon whom ‘shame would not dare to sit.’”

Back aboard the Clyde, Federal troops rummaged through the Davises’ trunks and took whatever they wanted. Tugs carrying curiosity-seekers came out to visit the Clyde, and Mrs. Davis wrote, “They steamed around the ship, offering, when one of us met their view, such insults as were transmissible at a short distance.” When Federals tried getting into Mrs. Clay’s room, she admonished them, “Gentlemen, do not look in here, it is a ladies’ state-room.” One Federal remarked, “There are no ladies here,” to which she replied, “There certainly are no gentlemen there.”

Davis and Clay were confined in subterranean casemates that had been hastily converted into prison cells. Davis later wrote:

“Not knowing that the Government was at war with women and children, I asked that my family might be permitted to leave the ship and go to Richmond or Washington City, or to some place where they had acquaintances, but this was refused… I was informed that they must return to Savannah on the vessel by which we came… why, I did not then know, have not learned since, and am unwilling to make a supposition, as none could satisfactorily account for such an act of inhumanity.”

The New York Herald reported on the 23rd:

“At about 3 o’clock yesterday, ‘all that is mortal’ of Jeff’n Davis, late so-called ‘President of the alleged Confederate States,’ was duly, but quietly and effectively, committed to that living tomb prepared within the impregnable walls of Fortress Monroe… No more will Jeff’n Davis be known among the masses of men. He is buried alive.”

Alfred Waud sketch of Jefferson Davis jailed at Fort Monroe | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Federal guards allowed Davis just the clothes he wore and a small-print Bible. General Miles received orders from the War Department “to place manacles and fetters upon the hands and feet of Jefferson Davis… whenever he may think it advisable in order to render imprisonment more secure.” Davis forcibly resisted being shackled, but the guards overcame him and placed him in chains.

Northern protests soon compelled Miles to remove the shackles. But Davis continued to be subjected to other methods of punishment, including having guards continuously march past his cell, burning lamps around the clock, and exposing him to illnesses brought on by confinement below sea level. Davis’s health declined as sympathetic northerners raised funds to provide him with legal counsel.

Federal authorities considered trying Davis for treason; Davis welcomed such a charge because it would give him the opportunity to argue for the legality of his cause. Fearing he might win, officials opted not to try him. They also lacked evidence to implicate Davis in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which they had accused him of when they set out to capture him in the first place.

In 1867, Davis was released on a $100,000 bond, which was financed by such prominent northerners as Horace Greeley (editor of the New York Tribune) and Gerrit Smith (one of the financial backers for John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry in 1859). In 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a “pardon and amnesty” to “every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion,” including the former president of the Confederate States of America.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 570; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21337-57, 21791-831; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 592; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 689; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-24; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

Jefferson Davis Escorted to the Coast

May 14, 1865 – Jefferson Davis and what was left of the Confederate government-in-exile was sent under Federal guard to Augusta, Georgia, from which they would be shipped by water to the coast.

Jefferson and Varina Davis | Image Credit: Pinterest.com

Davis and his party were captured by Colonel Benjamin Pritchard’s 4th Michigan cavalry troopers at Irwinville, Georgia, on the 10th. Among the prisoners were First Lady Varina Davis, the four Davis children, Colonel William P. Johnston, presidential secretary Burton Harrison, Treasury Secretary John Reagan, and former Texas Governor Francis Lubbock. They were taken on a three-day trip to the Federal command post at Macon, Georgia.

Reagan accused Colonel Pritchard of looting the prisoners’ personal effects and admonished him, “It does not look well for a colonel of cavalry in the United States Army to steal clothes.” When Pritchard threatened to put the prisoner in irons, Reagan said, “You have the power to do so, but it will not make you a gentleman or a man of truth.” Varina Davis wrote in her memoirs:

“Within a short distance of Macon we were halted and the soldiers drawn up in line on either side of the road. Our children crept close to their father, especially little Maggie, who put her arms about him and held him tightly, while from time to time he comforted her with tender words from the psalms of David, which he repeated as calmly and cheerfully as if he were surrounded by friends. It is needless to say that as the men stood at ease, they expressed in words unfit for women’s ears all that malice could suggest. In about an hour, Colonel Pritchard returned, and with him came a brigade, who testified their belief in Mr. Davis’s guilt in the same manner.”

When the prisoners reached Macon, Davis was brought to the hotel serving as headquarters for Major General James H. Wilson, commanding Federal forces in Georgia. As Davis recalled:

“A commodious room was assigned to myself and family. After dinner I had an interview with General Wilson. After some conversation in regard to our common acquaintance, he referred to the proclamation offering a reward for my capture. I supposed that any insignificant remark of mine would be reported to his Government, and feared that another opportunity to give my opinion of A. Johnson might not be presented, and told him there was one man in the United States who knew that proclamation to be false. He remarked that my expression indicated a particular person. I answered yes, and that person was the one who signed it, for he at least knew that I preferred Lincoln to himself.”

According to Wilson:

“Mr. Davis seemed quite cheerful and talkative, but in his whole demeanor showed no dignity or great fortitude. He remarked with a smile that he thought the U.S. would find graver charges against him than the murder of Mr. Lincoln, and seemed to regret that Mr. L. had been killed. He has asked no favors, but Mrs. D. insinuates once in a while that the ‘President’ is not treated with becoming dignity… The thought struck me once or twice that Jefferson Davis was a mad man. The indifference with which he seemed to regard the affairs of our day savored of insanity. He was polite and gracious in his intercourse with me and almost affectionate in taking leave of me.”

Reagan later wrote:

“After dinner I learned that orders had been received to send to Washington President Davis and Senator (Clement) Clay, who had voluntarily surrendered after President Johnson’s proclamation implicating him in the assassination of President Lincoln; and that I and the others with us were to remain at Macon… I thereupon observed that President Davis was much worn down, and that, as I was the only member of his political family with him, I might be of some service to him, and requested to have the order so changed as to send me on with him… He observed that mine was a queer request, but that he would ask that it be granted. In two or three hours he notified us that the first order had been changed, and that all of us would be sent to Hampton Roads.”

The prisoners spent the night of the 13th in Macon, and the next morning they were escorted to the train station, where they would be sent to Augusta. Virginia Clay, wife of captured Senator Clement C. Clay, later recalled:

“As the cavalry approached the station, the significance of the scene became plain to us. They were a guard, flanking on each side an old ‘jimber-jawed, wobblesided’ barouche, drawn by two raw-boned horses. In the strange vehicle were seated Mr. and Mrs. Davis. Mr. Davis was dressed in a full suit of Confederate grey, including the hat, but his face was yet more ashen than was his garb… the alien and motley crowd along the walks yelled and hooted in derision. But not all–one heartless Union soldier tried the patience of a sorrowful ‘rebel’ onlooker. ‘Hey, Johnny Reb,’ shouted the first, ‘we’ve got your President!’ ‘And the devil’s got yours!’ was the swift reply.”

During the Davis party’s day-long train ride, word arrived in Washington that Davis had been captured. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary: “Intelligence was received this morning of the capture of Jefferson Davis in southern Georgia. I met (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton this Sunday P.M. at (Secretary of State William) Seward’s, who says Davis was taken disguised in women’s clothes. A tame and ignoble letting down of the traitor.”

That night, Federals loaded the prisoners on the tugboat Standish, bound for Port Royal outside Savannah. Confederate General Joseph Wheeler and Vice President Alexander Stephens were also aboard as prisoners, having been captured elsewhere. The trip lasted over 24 hours, with the vessel arriving in the pre-dawn morning of the 16th. From there, the prisoners were transferred to the ocean side-wheeler William P. Clyde to take them up the Atlantic Coast. The Clyde was escorted by the warship U.S.S. Tuscarora. The trip would take three days.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 23177-85; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 569; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21179-99, 21228-68, 21327-47; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 684-86; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-24; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

The Booth Conspiracy Trial Begins

May 12, 1865 – The eight people accused of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln finally received legal counsel and pleaded not guilty to the military commission trying them.

The defendants were confined in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington. A courtroom was built on the third floor of that building, where a military commission charged–

“That David E. Harold (Herold), Edward Spangler, Lewis Payne (or Powell or Paine), John H. Surratt, Michael O’Loughlin (O’Laughlen), Samuel Arnold, George A. Atzerott (Atzerodt), Samuel A. Mudd, and Mary E. Surratt, did on April 15, 1865, combine, confederate, and conspire together to murder President Abraham Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson, Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, and Secretary of State William H. Seward.”

The defendants were also charged with “traitorously” conspiring with Jefferson Davis and “others unknown.”

Those accused were granted legal counsel, and by the 12th they had obtained lawyers of surprisingly high quality. However, the lawyers were not allowed to consult with their clients except in the courtroom, with guards listening in. The commission prohibited the defendants from testifying on their own behalf. Unlike a civil trial, only five of the nine members on the tribunal needed to vote guilty to convict, and only six of nine were needed to impose a death sentence.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Proceedings began on the 12th. Major General David Hunter, the judge advocate general of the military tribunal, issued passes for spectators to witness the trial. After each defendant pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, the taking of testimony began. It quickly became apparent that this would be more than just a trial of eight defendants; it would be a trial of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government for supposed crimes against the North.

Over a dozen prosecution witnesses testified that Confederate operatives in Canada had been plotting and funding acts of terror against the Federal government since early 1864. The witnesses claimed the Confederates had devised numerous incredible plots that included poisoning the New York City water supply, destroying Federal property throughout the North, and even launching biological attacks.

A witness named Godfrey Hyams alleged that he helped distribute trunks carrying clothing “carefully infected in Bermuda with yellow fever, smallpox, and other contagious diseases.” Prosecutor John Bingham claimed this caused the deaths of nearly 2,000 soldiers in a yellow fever epidemic in North Carolina. Of course, it was not discovered that mosquitoes carried the yellow fever virus until 36 years later.

Sanford Conover testified that Jacob Thompson, heading the Confederate Secret Service (formerly U.S. secretary of the interior under President James Buchanan), plotted to “leave the government entirely without a head” by killing Lincoln, Johnson, Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Grant. Conover claimed that Thompson said there was “no provision in the Constitution of the United States by which, if these men were removed, they could elect another President.”

Conover added that he had attended a meeting between Thompson and John Surratt (son of defendant Mary Surratt) in Montreal, during which Surratt delivered ciphered dispatches from Jefferson Davis regarding assassinating Lincoln and other Federal leaders. According to Conover, “Thompson laid his hand (on the messages) and said, ‘This makes the thing all right.’” Another witness testified that Surratt visited Davis and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond prior to this meeting. It was later revealed that Conover’s real name was Charles Durham, and his testimony was almost completely false.

Henry Van Steinacker, who was imprisoned for deserting the Federal army, testified that he spoke with John Wilkes Booth in the summer of 1863, when Booth told him, “Old Abe must go up the spout, and the Confederacy will gain its independence.” Steinacker, whose real name was Hans Von Winklestein, was freed from jail shortly after testifying, leading many to question if he had simply been told what to say as part of a quid pro quo.

Richard Montgomery, a Federal double agent operating in Canada, testified that Thompson said in January 1865 that it would be a “blessing” to “rid the world” of Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant. According to Montgomery, Thompson said a “proposition” had been made by “bold, daring men” to kill them. Montgomery attested that Richmond had rejected the plot, with one of Thompson’s operatives stating it was “too bad that the boys had not been allowed to act when they wanted to.”

Samuel Chester alleged that Booth had wanted his help to kidnap Lincoln and bring him to Richmond, where he could be exchanged for Confederate prisoners of war. Several witnesses testified that Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay (another Confederate secret agent) often met with Booth, Lewis Paine, and John Surratt in Montreal. The prosecution argued that these meetings in Canada indicated a conspiracy between the defendants and the Confederate government. Bingham declared:

“What more is wanting? Surely no word further need be spoken to show that John Wilkes Booth was in this conspiracy; that John Surratt was in this conspiracy; and that Jefferson Davis and his several agents named, in Canada, were in this conspiracy… Whatever may be the conviction of others, my own conviction is that Jefferson Davis is as clearly proven guilty of this conspiracy as John Wilkes Booth, by whose hand Jefferson Davis inflicted the mortal wound on Abraham Lincoln.”

Much of the so-called evidence was circumstantial at best and at worst outright false. Some prosecution witnesses were allowed to testify in secret, some were later found to have perjured themselves, and some were even paid by Federal officials for providing false testimony. Despite the dubious testimony and questionable evidence, there was little doubt about the guilt of three men: Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt.

Lewis Payne or Powell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Witnesses positively identified Powell as the man who attempted to murder Seward, and since it was established that he had visited Booth and John Surratt at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse several times, there was no doubt that he was involved in the Booth conspiracy. Captain William E. Doster, Powell’s attorney, did not deny his client’s guilt, but only asked the commission to spare his life because he was most likely insane.

Doster said, “I say he is the fanatic, and not the hired tool. He lives in that land of imagination where it seems to him legions of southern soldiers wait to crown him as their chief commander.” When Doster asked Powell why he tried to kill Seward, Powell said, “I believed it was my duty.” Doster argued, “We know now that slavery made him immoral, that war made him a murderer, and that necessity, revenge, and delusion made him an assassin. Let him live, if not for his sake, for our own.”

David Herold | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

There was also no doubt about Herold’s guilt, having admitted to a Confederate after fleeing with Booth into Virginia, “We are the assassinators of the President.” Herold’s attorney, Frederick Stone, tried convincing the commission that his client had the mind of a child. One defense witness testified of Herold, “In mind, I consider him about 11 years of age.” Another called him “a light and trifling boy… easily influenced.” Such a man, said Stone, “was only wax in the hands of a man like Booth.”

The prosecution had damning evidence against Atzerodt as well. Colonel W.R. Nevins testified that Atzerodt approached him at the Kirkwood Hotel, where Andrew Johnson was staying, and asked him where Johnson was. Police officer John Lee testified that the day after Lincoln’s assassination, he searched Atzerodt’s room at the Kirkwood and found a loaded revolver under a pillow, a bowie knife, a map of Virginia, and Booth’s bank book. It was established that Booth and Atzerodt often met in front of the Pennsylvania House in the capital.

George Atzerodt | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Doster, representing Atzerodt, argued that his client was too cowardly to be seriously involved in the conspiracy. Doster said, “I intend to show that this man is a constitutional coward; that if he had been assigned the duty of assassinating the Vice President, he could never have done it; and that, from his known cowardice, Booth probably did not assign to him any such duty.” Defense witnesses confirmed that Atzerodt was a “notorious coward,” “remarkable for his cowardice.”

Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen had been involved in a past conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, but no tangible evidence suggested that they helped assassinate him. Authorities found a letter on Booth’s body from Arnold, dated March 27, stating Arnold’s willingness to help kidnap Lincoln: “None, no, not one were more in favor of the enterprise than myself.”

Walter Cox, Arnold’s attorney, argued that Arnold “backed out from this insane scheme of capture,” which was “abandoned somewhere about the middle of March.” Cox stated that there “is no evidence that connects” Arnold with the “dreadful conspiracy” to assassinate top officials. Arnold’s “mere unacted, still scheme” to kidnap Lincoln was “wholly different from the offense described in the charge.”

Evidence against O’Laughlen included a few vague telegrams from Booth telling him, “Don’t fear to neglect your business.” Several witnesses testified that O’Laughlen had gone to Stanton’s home on the night of April 13. Walter Cox, also representing O’Laughlen, argued that the witnesses could not have seen him in the dark, and he was attending the “night of illumination” victory celebration in the capital. Cox asserted that O’Laughlen spent the day of the assassination drinking at the Lichau House before leaving for Baltimore on the 15th.

Dr. Samuel Mudd | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Regarding Dr. Samuel Mudd, several prosecution witnesses claimed that he and the conspirators had a close relationship well before Mudd set Booth’s broken leg on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. One claimed that Mudd had helped Booth buy a horse last November, while another claimed that Mudd met with John Surratt at Washington’s National Hotel. An investigator who questioned Mudd after Booth and Herold had left Mudd’s home testified, “When we first asked Dr. Mudd whether two strangers had been there, he seemed very much excited, and got pale as a sheet of paper and blue about his lips, like a man frightened at something he had done.”

Witnesses also attested to Mudd’s hatred of Lincoln. A slave testified that one of Mudd’s friends told the doctor that “Lincoln was a goddamned old son of a bitch and ought have been dead long ago.” Mudd replied “that was much of his mind” as well. Another witness stated that Mudd had said (perhaps jokingly) in early 1865 that “the President, Cabinet, and other Union men” would “be killed in six or seven weeks.” Another slave asserted that Mudd criticized Lincoln for having “stole (into office) at night, dressed in women’s clothes,” and if “he had come in right, they would have killed him.”

Mudd’s attorney, Thomas Ewing, argued that Mudd had met Booth just the one time in November, and all other testimony stating that Mudd met with Booth were lies. Ewing asserted that there was no crime in setting a man’s broken leg, even if that leg was Booth’s. He further stated that the prosecution did not sufficiently prove that Mudd had helped the conspirators in any meaningful way. The prosecution countered that Mudd had shown Booth and Herold the route out of Maryland after setting Booth’s leg.

Mary Surratt | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Mary Surratt, being a woman, was the most controversial defendant of them all. Several witnesses testified that Booth, Powell, Herold, and John Surratt (Mary’s son who had fled to Europe to avoid prosecution) met at Mary’s boardinghouse to develop their scheme. Because of this, President Johnson called Mary the keeper of “the nest that hatched the egg.”

In addition, Mary had lied when asked if she knew Powell, telling officials, “Before God sir, I do not know this man.” Witness Louis Weichmann testified that Mary had met with Booth several times at her boardinghouse, with money exchanging hands on one occasion. Tavern owner John Lloyd testified that Mary came to his tavern on the day of Lincoln’s assassination and told him that men would be collecting the “shooting irons” left there by John Surratt, Herold, and Atzerodt.

Frederick Aiken, representing Ms. Surratt, argued that Lloyd’s testimony was not credible because he was “a man addicted to the excessive use of intoxicating liquors,” and he sought to “exculpate himself by placing blame” on Mrs. Surratt.

The tribunal continued into June.

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References

Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140-58; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19876-86; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21762-72; law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 688

The Capture of Jefferson Davis

May 10, 1865 – Federal cavalry seized Confederate President Jefferson Davis and members of his party near Irwinville, Georgia.

Davis had reunited with his wife Varina and their children on the 9th out of fear that they might be vulnerable to nearby marauders. Once their combined wagon train reached Irvinville that night, Davis felt confident that his family was safe, and he therefore planned to separate from them again the next morning to keep them out of Federal danger. Davis hoped to continue south before turning west and carrying on the fight beyond the Mississippi River.

During the night, troopers of the 4th Michigan Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin C. Pritchard surrounded the Davis encampment after learning the party had traveled south from Abbeville. Just before dawn, Davis’s coachman notified him that men were approaching. Thinking they were marauders, Davis told his wife, “Those men have attacked us at last; I will go out and see if I cannot stop the firing; surely I will have some authority with the Confederates.” According to Varina:

“Just before day the enemy charged our camp yelling like demons. Mr. Davis received timely warning of their approach but believing them to be our own people deliberately made his toilette and was only disabused of the delusion, when he saw them deploying a few yards off. He started down to the little stream hoping to meet his servant with his horse and arms, but knowing he would be recognized, I pleaded with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof wrap which had often served him in sickness during the summer season for a dressing gown and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized.

“As he strode off I threw over his head a little black shawl which was around my own shoulders, saying that he could not find his hat and after he started sent my colored woman after him with a bucket for water hoping that he would pass unobserved. He attempted no disguise, consented to no subterfuge but if he had in failure is found the only matter of cavil.”

As the president left the tent, a Federal trooper rode up and ordered him to halt. Davis refused and the trooper raised his rifle toward him. Davis turned as if to charge the man, but Varina came forward and threw her arms around him. The Davises and the trooper exchanged angry words as more troopers rode up. Davis finally said, “God’s will be done,” and sat down at a fire near the tent.

Northern version of Davis’s capture | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Davis, his wife, and their four children became prisoners, along with aide Colonel William P. Johnston (son of the late General Albert Sidney Johnston), secretary Burton Harrison, Treasury Secretary John Reagan, former Texas Governor Francis Lubbock, and some others. The Federals plundered Davis’s camp, seeking incriminating documents and the millions of dollars that Federal officials claimed he carried. Colonel Pritchard later reported:

“Upon returning to camp I was accosted by Davis from among the prisoners, who asked if I was the officer in command; and upon my answering him that I was, and asking him whom I was to call him, he replied that I might call him what or whom I pleased; when I replied to him that I would call him Davis, and after a moment’s hesitation he said that was his name; when he suddenly drew himself up in true royal dignity and exclaimed, ‘I suppose that you consider it bravery to charge a train of defenseless women and children, but it is theft–it is vandalism!’

“After allowing the prisoners time to prepare breakfast, I mounted them on their own horses, taking one of the ambulances for my wounded, and one of the wagons for the dead, using the other two ambulances for the conveyance of the women and children, and started on my return by the direct route to Abbeville, where I arrived at sunset the same day. Here I halted for the night and called in the rest of my regiment from its duty along the river, and resumed my march toward Macon at an early hour on the morning of the 11th, after having buried our dead and performed the last solemn rites of the soldier over his fallen comrades; sending couriers in advance to announce the success of the expedition.”

As news of Davis’s capture reached the North, rumors quickly spread that he had been captured while disguised in women’s clothing. However, Davis actually wore a raincoat and shawl due to the rain. Reagan later asserted:

“As one of the means of making the Confederate cause odious, the foolish and wicked charge was made that he was captured in woman’s clothes; and his portrait, showing him in petticoats, was afterward placarded generally in show cases and public places in the North. He was also pictured as having bags of gold on him when captured. This charge of his being arrested in woman’s clothes is disproven by the circumstances attending his capture. The suddenness of the unexpected attack of the enemy allowed no time for a change of clothes. I saw him a few minutes after his surrender, wearing his accustomed suit of Confederate gray, with his boots and hat on, and I have elsewhere shown that he had no money.”

With the capture of Jefferson Davis, all that was left of the Confederate government ceased to exist.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 145; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 23150-69; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 569; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 840-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 590; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 83; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 687; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 209; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-24; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 832-33; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

The Davis Family Reunites

May 7, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis reunited with his family at Dublin, Georgia, after responding to rumors that they were under attack by desperate Confederate troops.

Jefferson and Varina Davis | Image Credit: Pinterest.com

Davis and his small escort had camped on the Oconee River on the night of the 6th. First Lady Varina Davis and the couple’s children were part of a different group about 20 miles away. When Davis learned that his family might be in danger, he rode out to catch up to their wagon train. The rest of Davis’s party chose to join him, and they rode all night along dark, unknown roads while Federal forces combed the nearby countryside looking for them.

The president finally caught up to his family near Dublin. This marked the first time that the Davises had seen each other since Varina and the children left Richmond just before its fall. When Davis questioned the men guarding the camp, they assured him that the rumors of straggling troops attacking their wagon train were false and the family was not in danger.

Meanwhile, Federal cavalry was closing in on the Davis party. Major General James H. Wilson, commanding the Federals in Georgia, wrote to Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Department of North Carolina:

“Davis’ escort has been crowded so closely on all sides that it has been disbanded. Three regiments have given themselves up to us here, and many others are surrendering in Northern Georgia. Davis himself and a small party, variously reported from six to forty men, are supposed to have turned south from Washington. I have the Ocmulgee picketed from its head to Hawkinsville, and by 6 p.m. to-morrow will have it closely watched from Hawkinsville to Jacksonville. I have a line of stations along the railroad from Atlanta to Eufaula and Albany, and have directed McCook, at Tallahassee, Fla., to send scouts to north and eastward in all directions.”

Wilson wrote in his official report:

“The troops occupied almost a continuous line from the Etowah River to Tallahassee, Fla., and the mouth of the Flint River, with patrols through all the country to the northward and eastward, and small detachments at the railroad stations in the rear of the entire line. It was expected that the patrols and pickets would discover the trail of Davis and his party and communicate the intelligence by courier rapidly enough to secure prompt and effective pursuit.”

Wilson dispatched Colonel Robert Minty’s cavalry division to guard the Ocmulgee and Flint rivers, south of Macon, in case the Davis party tried moving in that direction. Minty in turn ordered Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin C. Pritchard to lead the 4th Michigan Cavalry to block any crossing of the Oconee River between Spalding and Hawkinsville, in case the Davis party managed to escape the dragnet covering the Ocmulgee and Flint. Minty sent another detachment to Randolph. According to Minty’s orders:

“You will take possession of and guard all Government property which you may find, not interfering, however, with that turned over to the State authorities by the major-general commanding for the benefit of the poor. All supplies needed for your command will be taken from the country, but proper vouchers will invariably be given by your quartermaster or commissary.”

At Dublin, Davis directed his secretary Burton Harrison to take the excess baggage and ride with Varina and the children while Davis went off with the small presidential escort. Harrison later wrote that the president “bade us goodbye and rode forward with his own party, leaving us, in deference to our earnest solicitations, to pursue our journey as best we might with our wagons and incumbrances.”

On the night of the 8th, Davis sent word to Harrison that Federal patrols were nearby. The Harrison party rode through a terrible storm to Abbeville, where the Davis party had stopped for the night to rest their horses. Harrison recalled:

“As we passed through the village of Abbeville, I dismounted and had a conversation with the President in the old house, where he was lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket. He urged me to move on, and said he should overtake us during the night, after his horses had had more rest. We kept to the southward all night, the rain pouring in torrents most of the time, and the darkness such that, as we went through the woods where the road was not well marked, in a light, sandy soil, but wound about to accommodate the great pines left standing, the wagons were frequently stopped by fallen trees and other obstructions. In such a situation, we were obliged to wait until a flash of lightning enabled the drivers to see the way.”

The next day, the Davis and Harrison parties joined once more and continued southward. The joint group made camp around 5 p.m. near Irwinville, Georgia, about 70 miles from the Florida state line and 120 miles from the Gulf Coast. Davis planned to continue on before dawn.

Pritchard’s 4th Michigan rode into Abbeville earlier that day, where they met elements of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. The commander of the 1st Wisconsin informed Pritchard that a wagon train had crossed the Ocmulgee and halted at Abbeville to rest the horses before continuing south toward Irwinville. The commander said the train might include Mrs. Davis but most likely did not include the president. Pritchard rode along and heard several other eyewitness accounts of the train’s crossing.

Pritchard led his troopers through the woods to the outskirts of Irwinville, arriving there around 1 a.m. on the 10th. They soon learned there was an encampment near the town on the Abbeville road. Pritchard deployed his men to surround the camp, careful not to make their presence known. Pritchard planned to attack at daylight, to prevent those encamped from escaping into the darkness of night.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 568; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21248-68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 590; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 686; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

Jefferson Davis Reaches Sandersville

May 6, 1865 – Jefferson Davis and his small Confederate escort reached the banks of the Oconee River in Georgia, while Federal forces rapidly closed in on them.

Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

After holding what would be his last council of war, Davis and his party left Abbeville, South Carolina, and crossed the Savannah River on the 3rd. Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin dropped out because he could no longer ride a horse. Davis urged Benjamin to try to escape from the U.S. via the Caribbean, get to Europe, and appeal for foreign aid. But by this time, Benjamin’s chances of getting to Europe were slim, and his chances of getting foreign aid were almost none.

Meanwhile, the Confederate guards escorting the presidential party were on the verge of mutiny. Fearing they might loot the gold being hauled along in the treasury, Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge paid them from the reserves. But in the rush to get the money, some took too much while others got nothing. That night, Breckinridge wrote Davis, who was riding in the front of the column:

“Nothing can be done with the bulk of this command. It has been with difficulty that anything has been kept in shape. I am having the silver paid to the troops and will, in any event, save the gold and have it brought forward in the morning, when I hope Judge (Treasury Secretary John) Reagan will take it. Many of the men have thrown away their arms. Most of them have resolved to… make terms. A few hundred men will move on and may be depended on for the object we spoke of yesterday (i.e., escaping to Mexico).”

Pres. Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The party reached Washington, Georgia, on the 4th, where Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory dropped out. He had resigned on the 2nd and would now go tend to his family at LaGrange, Georgia. He offered to arrange for a boat to take Davis up the Indian River to Cuba or the Bahamas, but Davis refused to leave the Confederacy as long as men continued fighting for it. He held a cabinet meeting at Washington and explained that he was reluctant to disband the government because there was no provision for such a thing in the Confederate Constitution.

Davis directed Reagan to turn over the remaining treasury assets to designated naval officers, who were to secret them to Charleston, Savannah, or some other port where they could be shipped away. The assets were to go to the Confederate envoy in England, currently stationed at Nassau in the Bahamas. Before doing this, Reagan saw to it that the officers still present were paid.

Meanwhile, First Lady Varina Davis and the couple’s children were also on the run, moving under a different escort farther south than the presidential party. Davis received a letter from Varina while in Washington:

“Do not try to meet me. I dread the Yankees getting news of you so much, you are the country’s only hope, and the very best intentioned do not calculate upon a stand this side of the river. Why not cut loose from your escort, go swiftly and alone with the exception of two or three?”

Heeding Varina’s advice, Davis directed Breckinridge to take command of the five cavalry brigades riding with the party and went off separately with an escort of about 350 horsemen. Of these 350, Davis quickly discharged all but about 10 volunteers. These men were to protect the president, three of his military aides, and various servants, teamsters, and secretaries. They were to also protect Reagan, who insisted on staying with Davis, possibly because Davis planned to head for Reagan’s home state of Texas.

By this time, Federals were scouring the countryside in search of the Confederate president, and President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation reached Federal troops in nearby Macon, Georgia:

“One hundred thousand dollars Reward in Gold will be paid to any person or persons who will apprehend and deliver JEFFERSON DAVIS to any of the military authorities of the United States. Several millions of specie reported to be with him will become the property of the captors…”

Major General James H. Wilson, commanding Federal forces in Georgia, reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at Washington, D.C.:

“One of our scouts says Davis left Washington (Georgia) with only six men. This I regard as probable. He can’t possibly get through the country with an escort… Our scouts are already on every road in North Georgia, by tonight, I will have a complete watch in every part of the State as far down as Hawkinsville on the Ocmulgee.”

Wilson then wrote Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Department of North Carolina:

“My own impression is that we have yet no definite clue to his movements, and therefore I am filling the country full of scouts and watching every crossing and road… If Mr. Davis is a fugitive and well mounted, it will be exceedingly difficult to stop him, but I will spare no effort… Mr. Davis was guarded by about seventy-five officers who had volunteered for that purpose. The troops were supposed to number about 3,000, but were deserting very rapidly. The leading officers were to have held a council at Cokesbury, but the approach of our troops from the north broke it up.”

The small Davis party arrived at Sandersville on the 6th and camped that night on the east bank of the Oconee River. Wilson had guessed that Davis would try crossing the Oconee, but he did not have time to cover all the crossings. Davis’s aides received word that Varina’s party was about 20 miles away, and rumors quickly spread that it had been robbed by straggling troops.

When Davis heard this, he immediately called for his horse and announced, “This move will probably cause me to be captured or killed. I do not feel that you are bound to go with me, but I must protect my family.” The rest of the party opted to go with him, heedless of the Federals closing in.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 565, 567; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21219-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 589-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 685-86; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

Jefferson Davis Stops at Abbeville

May 2, 1865 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his dwindling government-in-exile held what turned out to be their last council of war in their southward flight to avoid Federal capture.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As May began, Davis and his party reached Cokesbury, South Carolina. Unbeknownst to them, President Andrew Johnson had issued a proclamation declaring that Davis and other Confederate officials were responsible for assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Despite no tangible evidence linking Davis to the crime, Johnson offered a $100,000 reward for Davis’s capture.

The Davis party arrived at Abbeville, South Carolina, on the afternoon of the 2nd. They were met by Confederate Navy Lieutenant William H. Parker’s escort, which turned over the Confederate archives and treasury they had been guarding to Davis and his cabinet. Cabinet officials were directed to destroy most official government papers to prevent Federals from confiscating and using the documents against them.

Parker disbanded his force of midshipmen, with orders to “report by letter to the Hon. Secretary of the Navy as soon as practicable,” once they got home. But that would prove more difficult than supposed because on this day Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory resigned, citing the “dependent positions of a helpless family.”

At 4 p.m., Davis held a “council of war” with Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, General Braxton Bragg, and the five brigade commanders heading the president’s military escort. One of the brigade commanders, Brigadier General Basil W. Duke, later wrote that if this could be called a war council, “It was, perhaps, the last Confederate council of war held east of the Mississippi River, certainly the last in which Mr. Davis participated.” The eight men assembled in a private residence in Abbeville that Davis had made his headquarters.

The president announced: “It is time that we adopt some definite plan upon which the further prosecution of our struggle shall be conducted. I have summoned you for consultation. I feel that I ought to do nothing now without the advice of my military chiefs.” His “military chiefs,” by this time only a handful of brigadiers, could muster no more than 3,000 men to guard Davis and somehow continue the fight.

Davis was not (or at least pretended not to be) discouraged. He said, “Even if the troops now with me be all that I can for the present rely on, three thousand brave men are enough for a nucleus around which the whole people will rally when the panic which now afflicts them has passed away.” The president then asked the commanders to offer suggestions on how best to carry on the fight.

The brigadiers looked at each other in amazement. The top two Confederate field generals, Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, had already surrendered, and Richard Taylor was about to surrender all Confederate forces in Alabama and Mississippi. None of them believed that the fight should go on, yet all were too awestruck to disagree with Davis. Someone finally spoke up, and then all five unanimously agreed that further resistance was futile.

They explained that the people were not “panic-stricken” as Davis believed, but exhausted and impoverished and unwilling to fight anymore. According to General Duke:

“We said that an attempt to continue the war, after all means of supporting warfare were gone, would be a cruel injustice to the people of the South. We would be compelled to live on a country already impoverished, and would invite its further devastation. We urged that we would be doing a wrong to our men if we persuaded them to such a course; for if they persisted in a conflict so hopeless they would be treated as brigands, and would forfeit all chance of returning to their homes.

“He (Davis) asked why then we were still in the field. We answered that we were desirous of affording him an opportunity of escaping the degradation of capture, and perhaps a fate which would be direr to the people than even to himself, in still more embittering the feeling between the North and South. We said that we would ask our men to follow us until his safety was assured, and would risk them in battle for that purpose, but would not fire another shot in an effort to continue hostilities.”

Davis sternly declared that he would not discuss any efforts to save himself. He appealed to their patriotism, their sense of honor, and their duty as gentlemen and warriors. When none of this moved the commanders, Davis rose and said, “Then all is indeed lost.” According to Duke, “He had become very pallid, and he walked so feebly as he proceeded to leave the room that General Breckinridge stepped hastily up and offered his arm.” After Davis left, Breckinridge and Bragg, who had been silent up until now, told the brigadiers that they agreed with their assessment. Duke later wrote:

“They had forborne to say anything, because not immediately in command of the troops, and not supposed, therefore, to know their sentiments so well as we did. But they promised to urge upon Mr. Davis the necessity and propriety of endeavoring without further delay to get out of the country, and not permit other and serious complications to be produced by his capture and imprisonment, and perhaps execution.”

Davis’s options were dwindling, and frustration was setting in. Lashing out at those he believed had forsaken him, the president wrote to his secretary Burton Harrison about the “three thousand brave men”: “I have the bitterest disappointment in regard to the feeling of our troops, and would not have any one I loved dependent upon their resistance against an equal force.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 564-65; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21179-99, 21209-19; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 589; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 684-85; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-24; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

The Booth Conspirators on Trial

May 1, 1865 – President Andrew Johnson authorized the formation of a military commission to try the eight people accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

17th U.S. President Andrew Johnson | Image Credit: learnnc.org

Johnson issued an executive order:

“Whereas, the Attorney-General of the United States hath given his opinion: That the persons implicated in the murder of the late President, Abraham Lincoln, and the attempted assassination of the Honorable William H. Seward, Secretary of State, and in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate other officers of the Federal Government at Washington City, and their aiders and abettors, are subject to the jurisdiction of, and lawfully triable before, a Military Commission; It is ordered:

“1st. That the Assistant Adjutant-General detail nine competent military officers to serve as a Commission for the trial of said parties, and that the Judge Advocate General proceed to prefer charges against said parties for their alleged offenses, and bring them to trial before said Military Commission; that said trial or trials be conducted by the said Judge Advocate General, and as recorder thereof, in person, aided by such Assistant and Special Judge Advocates as he may designate; and that said trials be conducted with all diligence consistent with the ends of justice: the said Commission to sit without regard to hours.

“2d. That Brevet Major-General Hartranft be assigned to duty as Special Provost Marshal General, for the purpose of said trial, and attendance upon said Commission, and the execution of its mandates.

“3d. That the said Commission establish such order or rules of proceeding as may avoid unnecessary delay, and conduce to the ends of public justice.”

Assistant Adjutant General Edward D. Townsend appointed nine loyal Republicans to preside over the military tribunal: Major General Lew Wallace, Brigadier Generals Robert S. Foster, Thomas M. Harris, Albion P. Howe, and August Kautz, Colonels James A. Ekin and Charles H. Tompkins, and Lieutenant Colonel David Ramsay Clendenin. Major General David Hunter presided over the commission as judge advocate general.

Brigadier General Joseph Holt, the judge advocate general of the army, headed the prosecution team. Holt was an old friend of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton who had established controversial commissions to prosecute citizens accused of “disloyal practices” during the war. In a conflict of interest, Holt would also serve as legal counsel to the commission. Congressman John A. Bingham would examine witnesses, and Major Henry L. Burnett rounded out Holt’s prosecution team.

Although it was unconstitutional to try civilians by a military court where civil courts functioned, Attorney General James Speed argued that if the defendants acted as “public enemies,” they “ought to be tried before a military tribunal.” The tribunal was to establish the trial rules. While a civil court required a unanimous jury verdict for conviction, the tribunal only needed a simple majority. Only a two-thirds majority was required to sentence the defendants to death.

Evidence requirements tended to be less stringent in a military tribunal, and punishment tended to be more severe. If convicted, the defendants could appeal to no one except President Johnson. Lincoln’s former attorney general, Edward Bates, declared, “If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs for half the world.”

The eight defendants were:

  • David E. Herold, who had accompanied Booth out of Washington after the assassination before surrendering to Federal authorities
  • Lewis Powell (or Paine), who had attempted to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward
  • George Atzerodt, who had been assigned to assassinate then-Vice President Johnson but lost his nerve
  • Edward “Ned” Spangler, who had held Booth’s horse outside Ford’s Theatre during Lincoln’s assassination
  • Dr. Samuel Mudd, who had set Booth’s broken leg and had known Booth prior to the assassination
  • Michael O’Laughlen, who had been Booth’s friend since childhood and allegedly conspired to kidnap Lincoln
  • Samuel Arnold, who had allegedly been involved in the kidnap plot
  • Mary Surratt, who had run the boardinghouse where the conspirators plotted the assassination

Federal officials held the men in shackles in Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary, with hoods over their heads. The hoods were padded to prevent the prisoners from hearing anything or ramming their heads against the walls. Small slits were cut for air and food. Officials did not require Mrs. Surratt to wear a hood or shackles. Federal authorities had never treated defendants so harshly in American history.

Hoods worn by the Lincoln conspirators | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The commission assembled on the 8th in a new 45-foot-by-30-foot courtroom on the third floor of the Old Penitentiary. General Hantranft went to each defendant’s cell to read the charges against them. He recalled, “I had the hood (of each prisoner) removed, entered the cell alone with a lantern, delivered the copy, and allowed them time to read it, and in several instances, by request read the copy to them, before replacing the hood.”

Authorities removed the hoods from the male prisoners before they entered the courtroom. The commission issued its specific charges against the defendants:

“That David E. Harold, Edward Spangler, Lewis Payne, John H. Surratt, Michael O’Loughlin, Samuel Arnold, George A. Atzerott, Samuel A. Mudd, and Mary E. Surratt, did on April 15, 1865, combine, confederate, and conspire together to murder President Abraham Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson, Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, and Secretary of State William H. Seward.”

These charges reflected the general assumption throughout the North that the defendants had conspired with the Confederate government to murder high-level Federal officials as a means of prolonging the war. Upon learning that the defendants had not been allowed legal counsel yet, the commission adjourned to grant it to them. Pleas and testimony would begin on the 12th.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-58; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19876-86; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 564, 567-68; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21762-72; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 588, 590; law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 684-86; Pittman, Benn, The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (U.S. Army, Military Commission, Cincinnati and New York: Moore, Wilstach & Boldwin, 1865), p. 406; Steers, Edward, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (University Press of Kentucky, 2001);  “The Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators” (Law.umkc.edu, archived from original 12 May 2011, retrieved 28 May 2011)

Jefferson Davis Reaches South Carolina

April 29, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis and his Confederate government-in-exile reached South Carolina, but Federal patrols were closing in on them.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By this time, Davis had learned that General Joseph E. Johnston had disobeyed him by surrendering all Confederates in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. He also learned of Johnston’s proclamation to the governors of those states blaming “recent events in Virginia for breaking every hope of success by war.”

Davis, who never had a very high opinion of Johnston anyway, deeply resented his decision to surrender. Unlike Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Johnston’s army had not been surrounded and still had the means to fight when he gave it up. Even worse, Johnston surrendered the troops in the three states that Davis needed to travel through if he hoped to get west of the Mississippi River.

On the 26th, Davis held his last cabinet meeting before leaving Charlotte. Despite the surrender of nearly every Confederate soldier east of the Mississippi, Davis resolved to continue fleeing so he could carry on the struggle out west. He planned to join Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s small Confederate army in Alabama, and they would then go to Texas and join with Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi army. Attorney General George Davis announced that he would not go with the president; he was a North Carolinian and needed to tend to his motherless children in Wilmington.

Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, whose cavalry force was part of the army that Johnston had surrendered, vowed to continue the fight, and he urged Davis to travel under his guard. But then Hampton started having doubts about traveling with the president, as he explained to Johnston: “If I do not accompany him I shall never cease to reproach myself, and if I go with him I may go under the ban of outlawry.”

Meanwhile, First Lady Varina Davis was traveling with her children as part of Lieutenant William H. Parker’s naval escort guarding the Confederate archives and treasury. Their party headed for Abbeville, South Carolina, which was the presumed point where they would rejoin the presidential party. Davis wrote to Varina of an “increasing hazard of desertion among the troops.” However, Hampton “thinks he can force his way across the Mississippi. The route will be too rough and perilous for you and children to go with me.”

From Washington, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton warned Major General George H. Thomas, commanding at Nashville, that Davis was trying to escape to Texas with anywhere from $6 to $13 million in gold and silver. Stanton directed Thomas to “use all possible means to prevent the escape of Davis.”

What remained of the Confederate government left Charlotte that night and stopped at Fort Mill near the South Carolina border. The next day, Davis and the cabinet met again and discussed which route they should take to get to Texas. Treasury Secretary George Trenholm tendered his resignation because he was too sick to continue traveling. Davis thanked Trenholm for his “lofty patriotism and personal sacrifice.” He then transferred Postmaster General John Reagan to the Treasury. Reagan later wrote of the party’s stop on the 28th:

“At Broad River, South Carolina, we stopped on its bank to enjoy a luncheon we had brought along with us, and to take a little rest. While we were there the subject of the condition in which the war left us came up. The property of Secretary (of State Judah P.) Benjamin, situated in Louisiana, and that of Secretary (of War John C.) Breckinridge in Kentucky, was in Federal hands. The fine residence of Secretary (of the Navy Stephen) Mallory at Pensacola, Florida, had been burned by the enemy. My residence in Texas had been wrecked and partly burned, and my property dissipated except a farm of a few hundred acres and some uncultivated land. After we had joked each other about our fallen fortunes the President took out his pocket-book and showed a few Confederate bills, stating that that constituted his wealth. He added that it was a gratification to him that no member of his Cabinet had made money out of his position. We were all financially wrecked except Secretary Trenholm, whose wealth, we thought, might save him. But it afterward turned out that he too was bankrupt.”

Meanwhile, Parker’s naval guard arrived at Abbeville, where Varina wrote to her husband:

“I have seen a great many men who have gone through–not one has talked fight. A stand cannot be made in this country! Do not be induced to try it. As to the trans-Mississippi, I doubt if at first things will be straight, but the spirit is there, and the daily accretions will be great when the deluded of this side are crushed out between the upper and nether millstones…

“I think I shall be able to procure funds enough to enable me to put the two eldest to school. I shall go to Florida if possible, and from thence go over to Bermuda, or Nassau, from thence to England, unless a good school offers elsewhere, and put them to the best school I can find and then with the two youngest join you in Texas–and that is the prospect which bears me up, to be once more with you–once more to suffer with you if need be–but God knows those who obey Him, and I know there is a future for you.”

Parker kept a locomotive at the Abbeville depot in case they needed to flee again. Davis and his group was heading that way, aided by South Carolinians eager to help their exiled leader. And Federal cavalry patrols were getting closer and closer to them all.

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References

Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 472; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 562-64; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21110-30, 21149-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 588; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 682-83; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth: Aftermath

April 27, 1865 – Federal officials brought the body of John Wilkes Booth back to Washington as the alleged accomplices to his scheme were rounded up and jailed.

Following Booth’s death near Bowling Green, Virginia, troopers of the 16th New York Cavalry sewed his body into a saddle blanket. It was to be taken to Washington for examination and then burial. The troopers rode to Belle Plain with Booth’s corpse and two prisoners: David E. Herold (Booth’s accomplice who had surrendered before Booth was killed) and Sergeant Boston Corbett, who had shot Booth in defiance of orders to take him alive.

At Belle Plain, the prisoners and body were loaded onto the steamer John S. Ide and taken to the Washington Navy Yard. Once there, they were transferred to the gunboat U.S.S. Montauk, where Herold was confined to the ship’s hold. Also aboard were all the others who had been arrested for suspected complicity in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln and members of his administration, except for Mrs. Mary Surratt.

As word spread that Booth’s body was on board, a crowd gathered on shore, and at least 10 people who had known Booth positively confirmed that the body was his. Identifying features included a tattoo on his left hand with his initials J.W.B., and a scar on the back of his neck.

Medical examiners performed an autopsy and concluded that Booth had died of “asphyxiation,” brought on by the bullet severing the spinal cord and causing “general paralysis.” Booth’s body was placed in a gun box and entombed in the brick flooring of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. It was later interred in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Examination of Booth’s body | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly; May 13, 1865; Vol. IX, No. 437

On the night of the 27th, Federal authorities took the imprisoned suspects off the Montauk. They were hooded and flanked by two rows of soldiers as they were brought to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. This would be their new home until they stood trial for conspiring to murder Lincoln and attempting to murder Secretary of State William H. Seward. Ultimately eight defendants went to trial:

  • Herold, Booth’s prime accomplice
  • Lewis Paine (or Powell), who had attempted to murder Seward and several others in Seward’s home
  • George Atzerodt, who had been assigned to assassinate then-Vice President Andrew Johnson but lost his nerve
  • Edward “Ned” Spangler, a stagehand at Ford’s Theatre who had opened the back door for Booth and allegedly arranged to have a horse waiting for him
  • Dr. Samuel Mudd, who had set Booth’s broken leg and had known Booth prior to the assassination
  • Michael O’Laughlen, who had been Booth’s friend since childhood and allegedly conspired to kidnap Lincoln
  • Samuel Arnold, who had allegedly written a suspicious letter to Booth regarding the kidnap plot
  • Mary Surratt, who had run the boardinghouse where the conspirators plotted the assassination scheme

The male prisoners were shackled to balls and chains, and an iron bar held their hands in place. They were fitted with canvas hoods over their heads and face, with just a small opening for air, food, and water. Mrs. Surratt was given her own cell without having to wear chains or a hood. They could do nothing but sit and await trial, but Federal officials first had to decide how the trial would be conducted.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton argued that the suspects should be tried by a military tribunal because they were accused of a treasonous act. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote that Stanton “said it was his intention that the criminals should be tried and executed before President Lincoln was buried.” But many, including Welles and Lincoln’s former attorney general Edward Bates, argued that trying civilians before a military commission was unconstitutional.

President Andrew Johnson asked current Attorney General James Speed to write a legal opinion on the matter. Speed wrote that assassinating the commander-in-chief during a rebellion against the national authority could be considered an act of war against the United States, especially if rumors of involvement by Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government were true. Thus, Speed wrote that the War Department should be allowed to proceed with placing the suspects before a military tribunal.

The trial would begin in early May. While there was much government secrecy and inefficiency due to the hysteria surrounding the Lincoln assassination, most historians generally agree that John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators committed the crimes without the knowledge of Jefferson Davis or any other Confederate officials.

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References

Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-40; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 563-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 588; Freilberger, Edward, “Grave of Lincoln’s Assassin Disclosed at Last,” The New York Times (February 26, 1911, retrieved February 10, 2009); Kauffman, Michael W., American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 393-94; Kunhardt, Dorothy and Philip, Jr., Twenty Days (North Hollywood, CA: Newcastle, 1965), p. 181-82; law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 682-83; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 239-41; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 440-41; Townsend, George Alfred, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth (New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1865, 1977 ed.), p. 38