The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, like most American assassinations, has produced a number of controversies. Among these have been charges that the Radical Republicans used the president's death to institute their own harsh brand of reconstruction and may even have engineered Lincoln's murder to advance their purposes. The movie and book, The Lincoln Conspiracy, are merely the latest in a long line of sensational works which have suggested that our sixteenth president died as the result of a wide-ranging conspiracy.[1]

One of the major issues connected with these conspiracy charges is the fact that those who were accused of being involved with Booth in Lincoln's death were tried by a military commis- Page  [End Page 29] sion. David Miller DeWitt in his pioneering study, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Its Expiation, charged that in the aftermath of the assassination Secretary of War Stanton unleashed a reign of terror which rivaled that of the French Revolution. Prisoners were physically and psychologically mistreated, denied all constitutional rights, and condemned by a military court that made a mockery of the American judicial system. While DeWitt merely accused Stanton of being unfit to govern in a crisis, more recent authors have argued that Stanton's actions were an attempt to silence the conspirators and to shield his own involvement and that of the Radical Republicans. [2]

The trial of the alleged conspirators by a military commission has caused historians to raise fundamental questions about the relationship between civil and military authority. It has been asserted that the military tribunal acted illegally in trying civilians and that the court was composed of a vindictive group of army officers who were eagerly looking for victims. Such a view has been reinforced because one of those executed, Mary Surratt, had a son, John, who was also suspected of being involved but who was not apprehended and brought to trial until 1867. His trial in a civil court ended with the jury deadlocked and he was never retried. It was thus easy to make the case that an enlightened civil jury had rendered a fair verdict while the military commission's verdict was a horrible miscarriage of justice that sent some innocent persons to their deaths. [3]

A closer examination of the facts reveals that such a view is simplistic and misleading. Coming at the end of the Civil War, the assassination unleashed deep emotions and there is no indication that, under the circumstances, a civil jury would have been any more lenient than the military tribunal. The members of the military commission seem to have been driven by the same emotional currents as the general public and the verdict of the commission was probably very similar to the decision that would have been rendered by a civil jury. In fact, the military tribunal took the Page  [End Page 30] option of recommending clemency for Mrs. Surratt, an action which indicates that their portrayal as being cruel and insensitive is not accurate.

It is also unrealistic to equate conditions in April, 1865 with those of 1867. By 1867, the immediate tensions of the assassination and the end of the Civil War had dissipated and people viewed the evidence in a much calmer manner. Given this calmer atmosphere, some of the trial testimony that appeared to be accurate in 1865, because it coincided with the public's preconceived notions, by 1867 appeared to be confusing and contradictory. There is little wonder that the John Surratt jury could not reach an agreement.

A recent historian has made a very convincing case that passions had begun to cool as quickly as several weeks after the assassination and that that is why the prisoners hoods were removed and they were better treated after June 10, 1865. By that time, even though many officials still suspected that the South was behind the murder, it had become apparent that the plot had failed and the government had events firmly under control.[4]

In that same context, the actions of Secretary Stanton after the assassination do not appear to be so unusual. Many government officials were absolutely paralyzed by the events that had occurred. Senator Charles Sumner could do little more than sit by the bedside of the dying president, sobbing out his grief, while Chief Justice Salmon Chase was so afraid that he overcame his first impulse to go to the Petersen House and remained at his home with the heavy tramp of guards outside the window. He called it "a night of horrors." It was Stanton alone who took charge, alerting various military commanders, ascertaining the extent of the plot, and attempting to see that if it was the last gasp of the dying Confederacy that it did not succeed. Most of his contemporaries did not believe Stanton was trying to become a dictator but that he had done an excellent job under trying circumstances.[5] Page  [End Page 31]

Historians have distorted the events of April, 1865 because they have failed to examine the tensions which accompanied the end of the Civil War. They have acted as if the assassination and accompanying trials occurred in a historical vacuum rather than at the end of a bloody four-year struggle which was one of the most divisive and traumatic events in our history.

Prior to Lincoln's death there had been great celebration and rejoicing at the war's end. On the very day that the president was assaulted, the Washington Evening Star described the celebration in the nation's capital. "The very heavens seemed to have come down, and the stars twinkled in a sort of faded way, as if the solar system was out of order, and earth had become the great illuminary. Everybody illuminated. Every flag was flung out, windows were gay with many devices, and gorgeous lanterns danced on their ropes along the walls in a fantastic way, as if the fairies were holding holiday inside." Even Secretary Stanton, not usually noted for levity, became caught up in the happiness of victory and hung over his portico an arrangement of gas jets that spelled "peace." [6]

Some began to consider this festive mood and celebration to be the preview for a renewed era of brotherhood. The New York Times reminded its readers that, "The hour of victory is the hour for clemency, always the hour for the easiest winning of the hearts of the vanquished." On Lee's surrender, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin added that Grant had given terms more generous than those usually given to a defeated enemy but the country was ready to acquiesce in anything the general directed.[7]

However, while there existed surface manifestations of good feeling, just below the surface there were examples of the smoldering hatreds that remained. A crowd gathered outside Stanton's window at the War Department on the fall of Richmond and heard the secretary beg Providence, "to teach us to be humble in the midst of triumph," but when someone said Richmond was in flames the crowd roared "let 'er burn." A vindictive speech by Vice-President Johnson, in which he called for the hanging of Page  [End Page 32] Jefferson Davis, brought a cry of "hang him" from his listeners. [8]

This renewed era of good feeling, however brief and transitory, brings into sharp relief the revulsion of feeling which occurred after Lincoln's death. There is much evidence that the violence which the country underwent was that much more severe because of the kindly sentiments which had preceded it. The nation seemed to experience a sense of betrayal for being too ready to forgive and forget.

The assassination produced deep feelings of despair. In Columbus, Ohio, Senator John Sherman captured the public mood very well. "The change from joy to mourning that day was marked and impressive. No event of my life created a more painful impression than this news following the rejoicing of the day before." For many, the very weather seemed to echo the mood of despair. Newspaperman Ben: Perley Poore reported that April 15 was cheerless, cold, and damp, the type of day which well agreed with people's feelings.[9]

Such feelings of despair rapidly gave way to bitterness and violence. This bitter and vindictive mood was well represented by the statements of the new president, Andrew Johnson. Captain Williams, who was sent to stand guard over him at the Kirkwood House, reported him as pacing the floor, constantly wringing his hands, and saying, "They shall suffer for this, they shall suffer for this." General Grant also recalled Johnson's mood. "He seemed to be anxious to get at the leaders to punish them. He would say that the leaders of the rebellion must be punished, and that treason must be made odious." Before a group of Washington ministers Johnson said, "In my opinion the time has come when you and I Page  [End Page 33] must understand and must teach, that treason is a crime, and not a mere difference of political opinions."[10]

While the president merely expressed a bitter frame of mind, many individuals actually took the law into their own hands and violence was quite widespread. Typical of this view was a letter from one William Daggett to his mother, which described a Union soldier shooting a man dead on the spot for saying he was glad Lincoln had been assassinated. Daggett added, "My seven shooter is in my pocket and I shall not fail to use it should I hear any such remark." Melville E. Stone, general manager of the Associated Press, described an equally gripping scene:

I made my way around the corner to the Matteson house ... very soon I heard the crack of a revolver, and a man fell in the centre of the room. His assailant stood perfectly composed with a smoking revolver in his hand, and justified his action by saying: 'He said it served Lincoln right.' There was no arrest, no one would have dared arrest the man. He walked out a hero. I never knew who he was. [11]

While historians have been puzzled by it, people in 1865 could only believe that the assassination was a wider plot against the government and one in which the South was involved. As Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana wrote, "The extent of the conspiracy was, of course, unknown, and the horrible beginning which had been made naturally led us to suggest the worst." Former Attorney General Edward Bates expressed this view in his diary when he wrote, "Sic semper tyrannis is the motto on the shield of Virginia—and this may give a clue to the unravelling of a great conspiracy, for this assassination is not the act of one man; Page  [End Page 34] but only one scene of a great drama." Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles blurted out, "Damn the rebels, this is their work."[12]

That the assassination was the first successful assault on a president in our history should also not be forgotten. Several newspapers recalled the attempt of Richard Lawrence to take the life of Andrew Jackson. Others asserted that Presidents Harrison and Taylor, who had died in office, had been secretly poisoned by villainous Southerners. Even Andrew Johnson's behavior on inauguration day was now explained as the result of a poison plot rather than alcohol. When a fresh rumor arose that General Grant had been assassinated, the New York Times commented that no one was inclined to disbelieve it. [13]

Those who went to church or attended the various memorial services—and tens of thousands did—certainly had this view of Southern conspiracy reinforced by their clergymen. At Philadelphia, Reverend Treadwell Walden included nearly all the charges made by ministers when he told his congregation:

The spirit that could take pride in holding four millions of human beings in bondage forever; the spirit that could strike down a helpless Senator in the national halls, and applaud the act; the spirit that could so wantonly rebel against rightful and constituted authority ... that could rejoice in firing upon its flag and in trampling the holy symbol underfoot, the spirit that could mutilate the dead, massacre garrisons, mine prisons and set fire to cities in the night; the spirit that could starve to death uncounted thousands of prisoners of war, is the self-same spirit that stole into the heaven of our peace, and struck the unsuspecting, confiding President from behind.... [14]

Those who did not go to church could have reached the same conclusion by reading the dime press. Many pamphlets appeared Page  [End Page 35] recounting in lurid details Booth's involvement with traitors and subversive organizations in both the North and South. A copy of an alleged Booth diary also was printed which supposedly showed that Booth killed Lincoln to avenge atrocities committed against his friends by Federal soldiers. [15]

The courtroom in Washington during the trial of
the conspirators.
The courtroom in Washington during the trial of the conspirators.

In fact, this feeling that the South was involved in the murder and that the conspiracy was widespread was one of the key reasons that it was decided to make the trial a military one. Since a military trial had wider rules of evidence than a civil trial, many Page  [End Page 36] looked upon it as almost a Warren Commission that could get to the bottom of the conspiracy. As the New York Times commented:

The trial now in progress is not a trial for simple murder. Its object is not merely to punish one or more individuals for a specific act of crime. The government seeks to unravel a conspiracy—to follow every clue that may be offered for the detection and arraignment of every person in any way connected, directly or indirectly, with the extended and formidable conspiracy, in which the assassination of the President was only one of the objects sought.[16]

This is not to imply that there was no contemporary opposition to the military tribunal. Several newspapers, including many that were staunchly behind the government, like the New York Times, complained that the trial was to be a military one. The New York Tribune reminded its readers that there was a curious old document in effect, the Constitution of the United States, which seemed to have gone out of fashion under the present administration. Nonetheless, the overwhelming desire to get to the bottom of the mystery easily overrode this negative criticism.[17]

It is also true that in the context of the Civil War, the trying of civilians in military courts was not an entirely unusual occurrence. At that very moment Lambdin P. Milligan was under sentence of execution, having been convicted of treason charges in Indiana, although his case was to be reversed in the famous Supreme Court decision, ex parte Milligan. [18]

Simultaneously with the assassination conspiracy trial, there were several other military trials of civilians in progress, one of them involving a woman, Mrs. Bessie Perrine. She was charged with breaking open trunks and giving goods to the rebels during their raid on the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad the previous July. Her lawyers attempted the standard defense in such cases, to challenge the jurisdiction of the military court over Page  [End Page 37] civilians, but they met with no success. She was convicted, although execution of her sentence was suspended during her good behavior.[19]

Those who favored a military trial seemed to raise two major points. One that sounds extremely modern concerns the problem of securing an unbiased jury in a case which had received so much publicity. The second point was that Lincoln, despite the fact that the war was over, was the Commander-in-Chief and was killed within the military lines of Washington. Therefore, the military trial was entirely legal and justified. [20]

The military commission which was finally convened has been stereotyped by historians as a vindictive group of army officers who were given a license to legally execute, and seized it willingly. This view has been reinforced by noting the actions, in particular, of two commission members, Generals David Hunter and Thomas Harris. These two men attacked Mrs. Surratt's lawyer, Reverdy Johnson, claiming that he had committed treason and lacked the moral integrity to appear before the commission.

General Harris also wrote two books on the assassination. In one he defended every action of the commission, even defending some testimony which had turned out to be perjured. In the second he hinted that the Catholic Church might have been behind the assassination. Such extreme views made it easy to picture the entire commission as a group of unthinking, unfeeling military men, who could not have been moved from their purpose by the most relevant evidence in existence. [21]

Again, the stereotype does not survive examination, for other commission members took a much more liberal view. One of these was August Kautz. Kautz complained in his diary that prisoners Page  [End Page 38] were hooded and chained in the courtroom, which raised memories of the Inquisition and made such a bad impression on the court that the procedure was changed.[22]

The attempt to prevent Reverdy Johnson from appearing as counsel for Mrs. Surratt also displeased Kautz. He said that Johnson's reply to General Harris showed how ill-advised the objections were, and must have made Harris regret he had ever made them. Kautz added, "He did the other members great injustice if he supposed they united with General Harris in his ill-advised objection."[23] Similarly, another member, Cyrus Comstock, had written, "On Military Commission for trial of conspirators.... They ought to be tried by Civil Courts—this commission is what is yet worse a secret one I believe." [24]

As the trial progressed before these military officers and the testimony was released to the public through the newspapers, many people became even more convinced that the military trial had been correct, particularly when evidence seemed to confirm Southern involvement in the conspiracy. Some of the most interesting testimony as far as the public was concerned dealt not merely with the individual prisoners in the dock, for as the Boston Evening Transcript said on June 23, 1865, "It is now abundantly proved that a court confined within strictly legal bounds, and never travelling out of the narrow limits of merely technical investigation; could not have developed the full extent of the hideous plot."[25]

The public was horrified by sensational revelations. One Godfrey Hyams testified of a rebel plot to introduce yellow fever into the North, raising the specter of germ warfare. Similarly, many witnesses placed Booth in Canada in the company of rebel officials and also linked Jefferson Davis to the plot. Several mysterious coded messages were also introduced which had the same Page  [End Page 39] fascination for people in 1865 as tales of CIA plots and spy activities have for the public in our own time. Even when some of this testimony later proved to be perjured it did little to interfere with the public's faith in the justness of the trials or the verdicts. The idea of Southern involvement coincided so fully with public perceptions of the case that it was not easily shaken. The impact that such testimony had on members of the court is revealed in the comment by General Kautz. "An important witness was called and testimony was taken with closed doors. He very strongly implicates the rebels in Canada."[26]

When the guilty verdicts and sentences were announced, there was rather general satisfaction with the outcome and, as noted, a strong case can be made that the decision of the military commission differed very little from what a civil jury might have decided. Three of the four who were hanged could have expected little else under the circumstances. David Herold, who was discovered with Booth in Garrett's barn, was doomed. Efforts to picture him as a light-headed, trifling youth met with little success. Similarly, Lewis Paine, who was accused of assaulting Secretary Seward and several members of his household, was clearly identified by several witnesses and was also alleged to have confessed his guilt. Attempts to picture him as having acted because of his Southern background, a sort of environmental insanity, probably did more harm than good. Finally, George Atzerodt also could hardly hope to escape his fate. He admitted that Booth had approached him to kill the vice-president and it was discovered that he had a room in the Kirkwood House, above that of Andrew Johnson, where weapons were found. [27] Page  [End Page 40]

The four conspirators who were hanged.
The four conspirators who were hanged. Page  [End Page 41]

The only controversial case of those executed was Mrs. Mary Surratt. While some evidence against her might be considered circumstantial, to most contemporaries her case also seemed rather simple. She had kept a boarding house where the conspirators had met, her son was one of the alleged plotters, she had carried a package for Booth to her tavern in Southern Maryland on the day of the assassination, and just as she was being arrested Lewis Paine arrived at her door. While she denied knowing Paine, testimony showed that he had been a guest in her house. [28]

It has been argued that certain key witnesses who testified against her, such as her boarder, Louis Weichmann, or the proprietor of her Surrattsville tavern, John Lloyd, were themselves part of the conspiracy and turned state's evidence to save themselves. It is very possible that this view is correct and yet there is nothing necessarily sinister in this. Many states have immunity laws for witnesses who cooperate, even in murder cases. And, whatever historians have thought, the testimony of both Weichmann and Lloyd made a strong impression on people in 1865 and would probably have had as much impact on a civil jury as it did on the military court.[29]

In any case, while they found her guilty, five members of the military commission, partly because of her age and sex, signed a clemency plea to be attached to the court's findings. Judge-Advocate Holt then carried the proceedings to President Johnson for his approval. A dispute later developed as to whether Johnson had ever seen the clemency plea or whether Holt had suppressed it. It is still difficult to unravel the evidence and determine which man is telling the truth. But the fault for her execution rests with either Holt, Johnson, or both, and not the members of the military commission, a majority of whom wished to spare her life.[30] Page  [End Page 42]

If the wishes of the commission had been complied with, only three people would have been executed and most unbiased observers would concede their guilt. The handling of the four who were imprisoned clearly demonstrates that the commission was discriminating and weighed the evidence very carefully, for as regards Spangler, Arnold, O'Laughlin, and Mudd, the testimony was somewhat confusing as to the degree of their guilt and involvement. It became apparent that Booth had previously conceived a plot to kidnap Lincoln and that three of these individuals might have been involved in that plot but then withdrew before the murder. In Dr. Mudd's case, even though he had previously known Booth, he claimed to have merely treated Booth's broken leg while not recognizing him since the assassin was disguised with false whiskers. Since the evidence was so contradictory, they were sentenced to prison terms and three were eventually released.[31]

With the populace inflamed and newspapers calling for the blood of all involved, there is no hard evidence that the type of court would have made much difference in the outcome. The verdict of the military commission was probably as equitable as it could have been under the circumstances. In fact, if one looks at the actions of the defense lawyers, the point is further reinforced. It can be assumed that these civilian lawyers somewhat reflected the views of the civilian community and it is striking how many commentators seemed to feel that these lawyers were merely going through the motions. For example, William E. Doster commented on the chances of acquittal for his clients Atzerodt and Paine, that they were "none at all," while prosecutor H. L. Burnett added, "Some of the counsel for the accused seemed to be as much convinced as the court of the guilty participation of the rebel authorities at Richmond and their confederates in Canada." If their lawyers seemed to believe the government's case, how can it be argued that a civil jury would have reacted any differently?[32] Page  [End Page 43]

The four conspirators who were not hanged.
The four conspirators who were not hanged. Page  [End Page 44]

The final scene in the drama, and one which some historians have used to clinch their argument of a biased military commission, was the trial of John Surratt in 1867. As noted, Surratt had been accused of complicity in the crime in 1865 but had not been apprehended. It was later learned that he had escaped to Canada and then to Europe, where he enlisted in the Papal Zouaves. His presence became known to the American authorities and after some negotiations with the Papal government (which did not believe in capital punishment) it was agreed that he would be surrendered. As he was being arrested, Surratt made a daring leap down a 100-foot cliff and temporarily made good his escape, although he was recaptured and returned to the United States. When his trial before a civil court ended in a hung jury, the simple conclusion seemed to be that since this jury had heard basically the same case as was presented in 1865, that the 1865 trial was a miscarriage of justice. As the New York World concluded, "It is clear, therefore, that Mrs. Surratt and the others ... were murdered."[33]

A closer examination of the evidence fails once again to sustain this view. For example, it has been charged that the military court refused to allow the prisoners to testify in their own behalf, which would have been permitted before a civil jury. The truth is that in 1865 Maine was the only state which allowed a prisoner to testify in his own behalf in a trial for murder and John Surratt could not legally testify for himself in 1867 any more than the alleged conspirators could in 1865. Also, while it is true that a civil court did not have the wide rules of evidence that the military court did and Page  [End Page 45] thus some of the coded messages and anti-southern testimony was banned, a surprising amount of this type of evidence was still allowed to stand. [34]

The major difference was not the legal context of the two trials, but that, two years after the assassination and the end of the Civil War, people were much more willing to judge the evidence in a rational manner. The New York Times noted the difference in a very perceptive comment:

When, therefore, the Government availing itself of the existing state of war, cited the criminals before a Military Commission, which, while respecting their rights, refused all delays and brushed aside the fictions and technicalities usual and useful in common cases, letting in any ray of light from any quarter upon motives and persons, and scanning the widest range of circumstances, most candid persons agreed that a case transcending all experiences was rightly tried in modes as extraordinary.... John H. Surratt was called to his account in a calmer state of the public mind, after time had appeased its righteous anger and the passion for retribution had been allayed. [35]
Judged in this calmer atmosphere, the evidence against John Surratt proved to be anything but conclusive.

Two examples will illustrate how the confusing and contradictory testimony raised doubts in the mind of the public and must have created equal confusion on the part of the jurors. One of the most significant witnesses placing John Surratt in Washington, D.C., on the evening of April 14 was Sergeant Joseph Dye. Dye had testified before the military commission in 1865 that he had seen two men with Booth outside Ford's Theatre and that one of Page  [End Page 46] them had resembled Edward Spangler. In 1867, he now testified that John Surratt had been in front of the theater and that his thin, pale face had so impressed him that he afterwards saw it in his dreams. He also added that as he and his friend, Sergeant Cooper, were returning to camp, a woman, whom he now believed was Mrs. Surratt, had raised her window and inquired what was going on downtown. [36]

Dye's testimony at first had enormous impact. The Chicago Tribune said on June 18, "The identification of Surratt was complete. Dye's words and manner were both positive, and he has no doubt evidently on the point. He is an intelligent man, whose evidence cannot easily be overthrown." Several other newspapers reported that Dye had stood up well under cross-examination and there seemed very little possibility that Surratt could establish an alibi or be saved from the gallows. [37]

Nonetheless, the defense testimony changed this picture considerably. Positive evidence was introduced that the group of three in front of the theater was composed of stage carpenter James Gifford, actor C.B. Hess, who was to sing a patriotic song, and costumer Louis Garland. Hess, not wanting to be late, had called for the time and Garland told him what it was. Mrs. Frederika Lambert also testified, and was supported by one of her servants, that she had an encounter with two soldiers on the evening of April 14, very similar to the one described by Cooper and Dye.[38]

Such testimony began to cast doubt on Dye's and Cooper's statements. The Baltimore Sun said of Mrs. Lambert on July 12, "The latter is well known in the community and bears a very high character, so that no one doubts the truth of her statement." Even the New York Times was forced to admit that Dye might have been mistaken in this particular, although it did not necessarily invalidate the remainder of his testimony. [39]

Having failed to conclusively prove that Surratt was in Washington on the evening of April 14, and faced with defense witnesses who placed him in Elmira, New York, on April 13, the Page  [End Page 47] prosecution now tried to show that Surratt could have come by railroad to be in Washington on April 14. There was also some attempt to indicate that as part of the conspiracy it might have been important to have one of the conspirators in New York aiding and abetting the plans. The defense countered with the argument that with the schedule existing at the time and interruptions along the line that this scenario would have been virtually impossible. [40]

Again pervasive doubts were raised which were echoed in the comments of the New York Tribune. "Morally, his presence or absence is not of the least consequence. If in the conspiracy what difference where he was at the moment of the blow? But, legally, it is vital." One of the prosecutors, Edward C. Carrington, admitted in 1889 that there had been no really good evidence that Surratt was in Washington on April 14. [41]

The confusion produced by the testimony and the difficulty in determining witness credibility is clearly seen in the New York Times statement about defense witness, Stephen Cameron. "Today a dozen witnesses testified that Cameron, the pardoned rebel, was a man of truth and good character, while yesterday a dozen others testified exactly to the contrary, and one expressed the opinion that he was crazy." Anyone who has studied this confusing testimony can easily understand why the jury could not agree, for as the Times added, "There is quite enough in the conflict of evidence, in the doubtful character of witnesses and the consequential character of many of the more positive statements, to suggest doubts and explain the grounds of disagreement."[42]

It is also interesting to note that this supposedly unbiased civil jury was widely reported to have been deadlocked not only over the confusing testimony but also along sectional lines, with Union supporters for conviction and those with Southern sympathies for acquittal. Who can say that under these circumstances this jury was really any less biased than the military commission was alleged to have been in 1865? Page  [End Page 48]

The Military Commission.
The Military Commission.

In retrospect, the decision to try the conspirators by a military tribunal was unwise. Few Americans of any era have felt very comfortable with the trying of civilians by military courts, even though it was not an unusual procedure in the context of the Civil War and made sense to people at the time.

Andrew Johnson would have been wise to have heeded the warnings of ex-Congressman Henry Winter Davis and former Attorney General Bates that a military trial would cloud the issue of the guilt or innocence of the conspirators and make them martyrs. For as Bates wrote, "If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs with half the world." Davis added, "But I cannot refrain from expressing to you my conviction that the trial of the persons charged with the conspiracy against President Lincoln and Secretary Seward by Military Commission will prove disastrous to yourself your administration and your supporters who may attempt to apologize Page  [End Page 49] for it."[43] These words sound prophetic for it was not long before Johnson's enemies, who were trying to impeach him, were charging that Johnson might have been involved in Lincoln's death and that he used the military trial to enforce silence.[44]

Many historians have merely changed the villain from Johnson to the Radical Republicans while viewing the military trial in the same manner. These historians might have given a more accurate portrayal of assassination events had they heeded the words of Phillip and Dorothy Kunhardt in the book, Twenty Days. "And maybe, too, it is good for us now and then to put ourselves back in the places of the people who had to live through these terrible moments, so that we can understand that history does not usually make real sense until long afterward." Had they viewed the assassination and military trial from this perspective they might not have been so ready to distort the historical setting of the trials or to raise false issues. [45]

Unfortunately, the military trial has allowed those historians who believed that Lincoln was killed as part of a conspiracy to charge that the military trial was part of a cover-up of the treachery of members of the president's own administration. While such charges do not stand up to close scrutiny, they have tended to persist and to become accepted, at least by the general public. This particular historical distortion has perhaps been the most unfortunate long-range consequence of the military trial. Page  [End Page 50]

The Lincoln home, Springfield, Illinois, with funeral
The Lincoln home, Springfield, Illinois, with funeral decorations. Page  [End Page 51]


  1. David Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier, Jr., The Lincoln Conspiracy (Los Angeles Schick Sunn Classic Books, 1977), and movie released by Schick Sunn Classic Pictures, 1977. See also David M. DeWitt, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Its Expiation (New York: MacMillan, 1909) and The Judicial Murder of Mary E. Surratt (Baltimore: John Murphy, 1895); Otto Eisenschiml, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (Boston: Little Brown, 1937) and In the Shadow of Lincoln's Death (New York: Wilfred Funk, 1940); Vaughan Shelton, Mask For Treason (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1965). return to text
  2. Ibid., DeWitt, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 55–91. return to text
  3. Helen Jones Campbell, The Case For Mrs. Surratt (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1943), p. 183 and Confederate Courier (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964), pp. 3, 113; Francis X. Busch, Enemies of the State (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954), p. 76. return to text
  4. Beverly Bone, "Edwin Stanton in the Wake of the Lincoln Assassination," Lincoln Herald, LXXXII (1980): 508–521. return to text
  5. David Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet, The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (New York: Longman's Green, 1954), p. 267; Charles A. Dana, Recollections of the Civil War With the Leaders at Washington and in the Field in the Sixties (New York: D. Appleton, 1898), p. 274; Charles A. Leale, Lincoln's Last Hours (New York: Order of the Loyal Legion of the State of New York, 1909), p. 10; New York Times, 21 April 1865, p. 1. return to text
  6. Washington Evening Star, 14 April 1865, p. 1; Lloyd Lewis, Myths After Lincoln (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929), p. 49. return to text
  7. New York Times, 5 April 1865, p. 4; Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 10 April 1865, p. 4. return to text
  8. Jim Bishop, The Day Lincoln Was Shot (New York: Harper and Row, 1955), pp. 44, 46. return to text
  9. John Sherman, Recollections, 2 vols. (Chicago: Warner, 1896), I: 354; Ben: Perley Poore, Perley's Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers, 1886), II: 174. return to text
  10. John E. Buckingham, Reminiscences and Souvenirs of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Washington: R.H. Darby, 1894), p. 63; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on the Judiciary, Impeachment Investigation Testimony Taken Before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in the Investigation of the Charges Against Andrew Johnson, 39th Cong., 2nd sess., 40th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1867), p. 827; Proceedings of a Called Meeting of Ministers of All Religious Denominations in the District of Columbia ... With the Remarks of Rev. Dr. Gurley, Addressed to the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, and the Reply of the President (Washington: McGill and Witherow, 1865), p. 13. return to text
  11. Osborn Oldroyd, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Flight, Pursuit, Capture and Punishment of the Conspirators (Washington: O.H. Oldroyd, 1901), pp. 96–97; Unidentified newspaper clipping, Truman H. Bartlett Collection, Boston University. return to text
  12. Dana, Recollections of the Civil War, p. 274; Howard K. Beale, ed., The Diary of Edward Bates, 1859–1866, Vol. IV of Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1930 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1933), p. 473; Mrs. M. J. Welles, Typescript, Gideon Welles Papers, Library of Congress. return to text
  13. New York Times, 27 April 1865, p. 2; Albany Atlas and Argus, 26 April 1865, p. 2; Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 25 April 1865, p. 1; New York Ledger quoted in New York Times, 7 May 1865, p. 1. return to text
  14. Treadwell Walden, The National Sacrifice (Philadelphia: Sherman and Co., 1865), p. 25. return to text
  15. The Great Conspiracy. A Book of Absorbing Interest! Startling Developments. Eminent Persons Implicated. Full Secret of the Assassination Plot. John H. Surratt and His Mother. With Biographical Sketches of J. B. Booth and John Wilkes, and the Life and Extraordinary Adventures of John H. Surratt, the Conspirator (Philadelphia: Barclay, 1866), pp. 36–37, 70, 111–113; Dion J. Haco, John Wilkes Booth, The Assassinator of President Lincoln (New York: T. R. Dawley, 1865), pp. 15–21, 30–31, 34–35; Confession de John Wilkes Booth, Assassin du President Abraham Lincoln (Paris: Chez Tous Les Libraires, 1865); Wilkes Booth's Private Confession of the Murder of Abraham Lincoln and His Terrible Oath of Vengeance Furnished by an Escaped Confederate (London: Newsagent's Publishing, 1865). return to text
  16. New York Times, 15 May 1865, p. 4. return to text
  17. New York Times, 11 May 1865, p. 4; New York Tribune, 11 May 1865, p. 4. return to text
  18. There has been an effort to apply ex parte Milligan to the assassination trials in order to demonstrate their illegality. return to text
  19. Chicago Tribune, 16 June 1865, p. 1; New York Tribune, 17 June 1865, p. 4; Edwin M. Stanton, Approval of Sentence, 18 June 1865 and Bessie Perrine to Andrew Johnson, 13 July 1865, both in Andrew Johnson Papers, Microfilm Edition, Reel 15, Library of Congress. return to text
  20. San Francisco Alta Californian, 7 July 1865, p. 2; New York Herald, 24 April 1865, p. 4; New York Times, 13 May 1865, p. 4, 15 May 1865, p. 2, 16 May 1865, p. 4. return to text
  21. Thomas M. Harris, Assassination of Lincoln, A History of the Great Conspiracy Trial of the Conspirators by a Military Commission and a Review of the Trial of John H. Surratt (Boston: American Citizen Company, 1892), Rome's Responsibility For the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Los Angeles: Heritage Manor Publications, 1960). return to text
  22. August V. Kautz, "Daily Journal," 8 May 1865, 9 May 1865, 9 June 1865, "Reminiscences of the Civil War," Kautz Papers, Library of Congress. return to text
  23. August V. Kautz, "Reminiscences of the Civil War," Kautz Papers, Library of Congress. return to text
  24. Cyrus B. Comstock, "Diary," 8–10 May 1865, Comstock Papers, Library of Congress. Comstock was relieved of his commission position before the trial actually began because he was on General Grant's staff and Grant was alleged to have been one of the conspirators' intended victims. return to text
  25. Boston Evening Transcript, 23 June 1865, p. 2. return to text
  26. Alfred Russell, 11 May, 1865, Letters Received, File R 345 (JAO), H. H. Emmons, 28 April 1865, Letters Received, File E 184 (JAO), Cadial Crane to Edwin Stanton, 30 May 1865, Letters Received, File C 415 (JAO), Godfrey F. Hyams, 30 May 1865, Letters Received, File H 437 (JAO), W. W. Hunter, 26 April 1865, Record Book, File H R.B. (JAO), p. 46, James B. Fry, 3 June 1865, Record Book, File F R.B (JAO), p. 53, J. Deveney to E. Stanton, 22 April 1865, Statement and Letters Received, File D 61 (JAO), all in Record Group 153, National Archives; August V. Kautz, "Daily Journal," 20 May 1865, Kautz Papers, Library of Congress. return to text
  27. The President's Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1969) makes a plausible case that the treatment of American assassins depends to a large extent on whether they failed or succeeded. If the President was not injured, there has been a tendency to treat the assassin as insane and to deal with him lightly. Success, however, invariably leads to demands for execution. See James F. Kirkham, Sheldon Levy, and William Crotty, eds., Assassination and Political Violence, A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1969), pp. 70–72. return to text
  28. Those who attempt to defend Mrs. Surratt explain her non-recognition of Paine because of weak eyesight and nervousness. They also say she was innocently involved with the plotters through her son and was not really aware of what was going on. return to text
  29. Lew Wallace, Lew Wallace, An Autobiography, 2 vols. (New York: Harper Brothers, 1906), II:848; Harris, Assassination of Lincoln, pp. 66–67. return to text
  30. Joseph Holt, Vindication of Hon. Joseph Holt Judge Advoate General of the Army (Washington: Chronicle Publishing Co., 1873); Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, 12 November 1873, p. 5; Joseph Holt, Rejoinder of J. Holt, Judge Advocate General to Ex-President Johnson's Reply to his vindication of 26th August Last (Boston: Daily Advertiser, 1874). return to text
  31. Samuel Mudd, Edward Spangler, and Samuel Arnold were released in 1869; Michael O'Laughlin died in prison of yellow fever. return to text
  32. William E. Doster, Lincoln and Episodes of the Civil War (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1915), p. 257; Henry L. Burnett, "Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Assassins," in James H. Kennedy, ed., History of the Ohio Society of New York, 1885–1905 (New York: Grafton Press, 1906), p. 599. return to text
  33. There were charges that the government did not really wish to have Surratt returned because of the embarrassing secrets he might reveal. New York World, 10 August 1867 and in Eisenschiml, In the Shadow of Lincoln's Death, p. 345. return to text
  34. Cambell, Case For Mrs. Surratt, p. 183 and Confederate Courier, pp. 3, 113, portrays a touching scene where Mrs. Surratt informs her lawyer that she wishes to testify in her own behalf but is informed that this is impossible before a military court. Francix X. Busch claimed erroneously in Enemies of the State, p. 76, that John Surratt not only could but did testify at his trial in 1867. For the actual state of the law at the time see Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, A Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets on American Murders From Colonial Times to 1900 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), p. xxv; Guy Moore, The Case of Mrs. Surratt, Her Controversial Trial and Execution For Conspiracy in the Lincoln Assassination (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954), pp. 34–35. United States Government, Trial of John H. Surratt in the Criminal Court For the District of Columbia, Hon. George P. Fisher Presiding, 2 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1867), I:352–353, 509, 527, 365–366, II:1067–1068, 1072. return to text
  35. New York Times, 12 August 1867, p. 4. return to text
  36. United States Government, Trial of John H. Surratt, I:131–157, 183–189. return to text
  37. Chicago Tribune, 18 June 1867, p. 1; New York Times, 18 June 1867, p. 4; Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 18 June 1867, p. 4. return to text
  38. United States Government, Trial of John H. Surratt, I:551, 557–576, 661–669. return to text
  39. Baltimore Sun, 12 July 1867, p. 4; New York Times, 12 July 1867, p. 5. return to text
  40. United States Government, Trial of John H. Surratt, II:1064. See also pp. 771, 916, 927, 935, 1021. return to text
  41. New York Tribune, 15 July 1867, p. 2; Eisenschiml, In the Shadow of Lincoln's Death, p. 400. return to text
  42. New York Times, 25 July 1867, p. 5 and 11 August 1867, p. 4. return to text
  43. Beale, ed., Diary of Edward Bates, p. 483; Henry W. Davis to Andrew Johnson, 13 May 1865, Johnson Papers, Microfilm Edition, Reel 15, Library of Congress. return to text
  44. Congressional Globe, 40th Cong., 1st sess., 18, 19. See also Congressional Globe, 39th Cong., 1st sess., 444. return to text
  45. Dorothy M. Kunhardt and Phillip B. Kunhardt Jr., Twenty Days (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), Foreword. return to text