Lincoln Conspiracy: The Other Victims

Everyone knows that stage actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. Less well-known, however, is the rest of the plot: Booth’s co-conspirators also planned to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward at the same time. There is also debate among some historians about the extent of Confederate Government involvement in the assassination, and even whether the plot included Lincoln’s own Secretary of War.


Ford’s Theater

On April 11, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech from the balcony of the White House to a throng of cheering people outside. Just days before, Confederate General Robert E Lee had surrendered in Virginia and, although General Joseph Johnston’s army would still fight on for a couple days, the end of the Civil War was now in sight. Lincoln looked forward to healing the wounds that had torn the country in two.

Unknown to either Lincoln or the crowd, however, two of the men who had joined the gathering were not celebrating. John Wilkes Booth was one of the most famous actors in the US, and though he lived and worked in Washington DC, he had long been a supporter of the secessionist South. With him in the crowd was Lewis Thornton Powell, a former Confederate soldier and a relative of a Confederate General. The two were already planning an action that, they hoped, would still win independence for the South.

At first, the Confederates had won an impressive string of victories on the battlefield, and it appeared as if the South would be able to force the North to grant independence. But after the Battle of Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863, the Confederacy’s fortunes turned. By 1864, it was becoming apparent that there would be no military victory.

It was sometime in late 1864 that the conspiracy began which would eventually assassinate the President. John Wilkes Booth, as a well-known theater actor, had numerous political connections, and one of these led him to a Maryland doctor named Samuel Mudd, who was part of an underground Confederate network that carried out spy work and sabotage. Mudd in turn introduced Booth to John Surratt. The 21-year old Surratt was an agent for the Confederate intelligence service, and had acted as a courier to carry messages and information between Washington DC and Confederate territory in Virginia. Now, Booth and Surratt, meeting in the DC roominghouse owned by Surratt’s mother Mary, began an audacious plan: they would kidnap President Lincoln and exchange him for a release of Confederate prisoners of war. In 1864, security precautions were lax: not only was the White House unguarded and open, but Lincoln often walked or rode, sometimes alone, through the streets of the city.

Over the next few months, more Southern sympathizers were recuited for the plan. David Herold was a former schoolmate of John Surratt who worked as a pharmacist. George Atzerodt, who ran a coach-painting business, lived in northern Virginia and served the Confederacy as a spy and a courier for Surratt. Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen were both former schoolmates of Booth: Arnold was an ex-Confederate soldier, and O’Laughlen was part of a Confederate sabotage ring. The final plotter was Lewis Thornton Powell, using the alias “Lewis Payne”, a Confederate soldier who had been captured as a POW, escaped, and now was fighting as a guerrilla in Maryland.

On March 17, 1865, the group was ready to put their plan into action. President Lincoln was scheduled to visit a group of wounded Union soldiers in a hospital in DC, and Booth, Surratt and the others positioned themselves along the route, planning to ambush him, kill any escorts, and spirit him away to Richmond. At the last minute, though, Lincoln changed his schedule and did not make the trip. Less than a month later General Lee surrendered, and Booth and Powell found themselves on the White House lawn listening to Abraham Lincoln.

Now, the goals of the plot changed: instead of kidnapping President Lincoln, the group would kill him. Originally, the plan seems to have been to use explosives to blow up the White House. When there seemed to be no good way to accomplish that, the plan turned to shooting Lincoln instead. At the same time, the plotters would kill Vice President Johnson and Secretary Seward as well, decapitating the Union Government in one stroke and, they hoped, giving the South an opportunity to rise up again, continue the war, and win its independence from a crippled and confused US Government. Over the next three days, once again meeting in Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse, the plan took shape: Booth would kill Lincoln at the Ford Theater, just a few blocks from the White House. Atzerodt would kill Vice President Johnson at the Kirkwood House hotel, and Powell and Herold would kill Secretary Seward at his home on Pennsylvania Avenue. The others would then help the assassins escape into Confederate-held Virginia. It was decided that all three assassinations would take place at 10:15pm.

On the evening of April 14, all three assassins took their positions. Booth spent some time in a nearby tavern, then went into Ford’s Theater, entered the second floor balcony, and fired one fatal shot before leaping to the stage and limping away with a broken leg.

Atzerodt checked into the Kirkwood House, taking room 126, one floor above Johnson’s room. At about 8pm, he decided to calm his nerves with a trip to the bar, where he asked the bartender whether the Vice President regularly left his room. Unfortunately for the plotters, Atzerodt was an alcoholic, and within a short time he was not only thoroughly drunk, but had gotten cold feet and decided not to go through with the plan. Instead, he spent hours drinking, then walked aimlessly around Washington DC.

Secretary of State William Seward had, just a few days before, been in a carriage accident and had broken his jaw, and now on the night of April 14 he was in bed recovering. At around 10pm, Powell and Herold arrived at the house. With Herold staying behind to act as a lookout, Powell, armed with a Whitney Navy revolver and a Bowie knife, entered the house by telling the doorkeeper that he was delivering medicine. Once inside, Powell started up the stairs, but was stopped by Seward’s son Frederick, who said Seward was sleeping and he would take the medicine to the Secretary himself. Powell pulled his revolver and tried to shoot the younger Seward, but the gun misfired, and Powell pistol-whipped him instead, fracturing his skull. Entering Secretary Seward’s room and drawing his knife, Powell was then confronted by the Secretary’s daughter Fanny, and threw her to the floor before making his way to the bed where Seward was stretched out. Jumping on Seward, Powell slashed at his face and neck, stabbing him five times. At this point Seward’s male Army nurse, George Robinson, entered the room and pulled Powell off the bed.

Powell slashed at him too, and, thinking Seward was dead (in fact the wounds were mostly superficial), ran down the stairs, where he engaged in a fight first with Seward’s other son Augustus and then with a messenger from the State Department named Emerick Hansell, who just happened to be there. After stabbing both of them too, Powell ran outside–only to find that Herold, upon hearing all the commotion inside the house, had panicked and run away with both of the horses. In desperation, Powell ran off into the night. For the next several days, he hid in a nearby cemetery, sleeping in a tree, until he was discovered and arrested.

Booth, meanwhile, had ridden his horse to the Surratt boardinghouse, where he met with Herold, but no Powell or Atzerodt. Booth and Herold fled to Dr Mudd’s house in Maryland, where the doctor set Booth’s broken leg, then both of them went on horseback to the banks of the Potomac River. For twelve days, the two hid out in the woods and waited for a chance to cross into Virginia while avoiding Union patrols. They finally managed to cross, only to be found by a Federal cavalry unit. Booth was killed in the shootout, and Herold was captured. The Union Army, meanwhile, had already identified most of the conspiractors and arrested them. Only John Surratt, who had left for Richmond after the kidnapping plot had fallen through, managed to escape to Canada, then to England and Italy.

In all, eight people were put on trial for conspiring to kill Lincoln, Johnson and Seward. (One of these was Edmund Spangler, a Ford Theater employee who hadn’t actually been part of the plot but had been tricked into helping Booth.) Because the war had not yet officially ended on April 14, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton tried them in a military court rather than on civilian criminal charges, on the grounds that they had attacked the military Commander in Chief. Four of the defendants–Lewis Thornton Powell, Mary Surratt, David Herold and George Atzerodt–were sentenced to death. They were hanged in July 1865. John Surratt, meanwhile, was finally arrested in Egypt in 1866, returned to the US, and went on trial (this time in a civilian court) in 1867. Surratt was set free by a hung jury, and eventually died in 1916.

Since then, two branches of conspiracy theory have surrounded the Lincoln assassination. The first, that Secretary of War Stanton was somehow a part of the conspiracy and hoped to take over control of the government himself in the assassination’s aftermath, has virtually no supporting evidence. The other theory, however, that Booth and his cohorts were actually recruited by the Confederate intelligence service for the plot with the full knowledge of the Richmond government, has never been demonstrated with actual documentary evidence, but is supported by some circumstantial evidence. Several of the people involved in the assassination did indeed have ties to the Confederate intelligence service, including a spy ring operating in Canada. But as of today, no solid proof has been found linking the Confederate Government to the Lincoln assassination plot.


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