The Lincoln Assassination: Conspiracy Or A Lone Man's Act?
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Five days earlier, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union troops. John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor, Confederate sympathizer, and spy, has gone down in history as the lone assailant of Lincoln. However, Booth was killed by federal soldiers before he could be brought to trial. Eyewitnesses at Ford's Theater identified Booth as the man who shot the president at point-blank range with a single bullet to the back of the head. But Booth's exact motive in the killing was never established. In the wake of the first assassination of a U.S. president, eight of Booth's associates were charged as conspirators. All eight were convicted. However, since then, some modern theories have downplayed the roles of Southern radicals in the conspiracy. Some historians have even pointed fingers at the Republicans, Lincoln's own party.
Shortly before his death, Lincoln announced his Reconstruction policy for restoring the United States. He advocated "malice toward none, charity for all." However, more than a handful of Confederates distrusted Yankee politics. Confederate plots to kill the president or KIDNAP him had certainly existed long before April 1865. Lincoln appeared unconcerned about the threats, however, and refused to heed the advice of his advisers to take fewer risks in his public appearances. "What does anybody want to assassinate me for?" Lincoln once asked. "If anyone wants to do so, he can do it any day or night, if he is ready to give his life for mine. It is nonsense."
Booth fled Ford's Theater immediately after killing Lincoln and headed for refuge in the South. The Union cavalry, after a massive manhunt (announced throughout the nation), cornered Booth at the Garrett farm, his hiding spot in Virginia. Soldiers shot him through the neck leaving him partially paralyzed. Booth somehow managed to exit the barn when it was set on fire. He died at the feet of federal officers on the morning of April 26.
In somewhat mysterious fashion, Booth's "diary" (actually an 1864 date-book), was recovered from the site of his death. Booth wrote a running commentary, in scattered detail, on his plans before he shot Lincoln, and the developments of his final days. He wrote: "For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause, being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done. But it's failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heat. I struck boldly and not as the papers say."
Booth even described himself as a savior, claiming, "Our country owed all her trouble to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment." Booth's diary would not be used directly as evidence in the trial of others with whom he had allegedly conspired. Instead, it is a primary piece of evidence to support the argument that Booth acted alone.
Booth's quick death with no trial left many in the nation questioning the circumstances surrounding the murder of the North's beloved leader. Federal investigators subsequently singled out eight Southern civilians who had, by varying accounts, associated with Booth at a boarding house in Maryland. The eight were held as prisoners, accused of assisting in the crime of the century. David Herold, Lewis Payne, George Atzerodt, Michael O'Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edward Spangler, and Mary E. Surratt were charged as traitors and conspirators in a plot to kill Lincoln, Vice President ANDREW JOHNSON, SECRETARY OF STATE William H. Seward and General ULYSSES S. GRANT.
Lincoln's secretary of war, EDWIN M. STANTON, had conducted most of the criminal investigation. Based on the charges he developed, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was directly implicated, but not tried, in the assassination plot. Stanton and Attorney General JAMES SPEED subsequently put together a nine man military commission of seven generals and two colonels from the Union Army to sit in judgment. All nine of the appointed officers were staunch Republicans.
In the trial of the suspects, the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of one individual in particular, Louis Weichmann. Weichmann had been closely acquainted with most of the conspirators and had first learned of their plot, according to his testimony, at a Maryland boarding house run by Mary Surratt. The accounts Weichmann gave primarily implicated Surratt and a country doctor, Samuel Mudd. The defense noted that Weichmann had not reported any of the alleged activity at the boarding house until after the assassination. However, the evidence to which Weichmann led investigators, particularly a boot of Booth's with the inscription "J. Wilkes," found at the home of Dr. Mudd, appeared to seal the fate of the eight defendants.
On June 29 the commission met behind closed doors to consider the evidence. They deliberated for two days and then sentenced four prisoners to death and four to imprisonment and hard labor. On July 7 Surratt was the first to be led to the gallows. Atzerodt, Herold, and Payne also received the death penalty.
Though four people were sent to their deaths, and four to prison, for the crime, historians continue to debate the conspiracy to kill Lincoln. One book that stirred much discussion on the subject was Otto Eisenschiml's Why Was Lincoln Murdered?, published in 1937. Eisenschiml postulated that Stanton and a group of Northern industrialists plotted the death of Lincoln to secure the interests of radical Republicans who were bent on the takeover of the newly restored Union. That theory, however, has been largely rebutted by other historians.
Coyle, Marcia. 2002. "History with a Sept. 11 Twist; Heirs Attack Action by Army Tribunal in Lincoln's Killing." The National Law Journal 24 (April 29): A1.
Guttridge, Leonard F., and Ray A. Neff. 2003. Dark Union: The Secret Web of the Profiteers, Politicians, and Booth Conspirators that Led to Lincoln's Death. New York: Wiley.
Johnson, James H. 2001. "The Trial of the 19th Century: Vengeance Trumped the Rule of Law in the Lincoln Conspiracy Case." Legal Times 24 (June 3): 28.