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Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

John Simkin

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On 14th April, Abraham Lincoln went to Ford's Theatre with his wife, Mary Lincoln, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone to see a play called Our American Cousin. Lincoln asked Thomas Eckert, chief of the War Department telegraph office, to be his bodyguard. However, Edwin M. Stanton refused permission for Eckert to go claiming he had an important task for him to perform that night. In fact, this was not true and Eckert spent the evening at home.

John Parker, a constable in the Washington Metropolitan Police Force, was detailed to sit on the chair outside the presidential box. During the third act Parker left to get a drink. Soon afterwards, John Wilkes Booth, entered Lincoln's box and shot the president in the back of the head. Booth then jumped to the stage eleven feet below. Despite fracturing his ankle, he was able to reach his horse and gallop out of the city.

William Seward (Secretary of State) was also attacked by one of Booth's fellow conspirators, Lewis Paine. Another friend of Booth's, George Atzerodt, had been ordered to kill Andrew Johnson, the vice president. Despite making the necessary preparations he surprisingly made no attempt to do this.

Lincoln was taken to the White House but died early the next morning. Over the next few days Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were all arrested charged with conspiring to murder Lincoln. Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, argued that they should be tried by a military court as Lincoln had been Commander in Chief of the army. Several members of the cabinet, including Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy), Edward Bates (Attorney General), Orville H. Browning (Secretary of the Interior), and Henry McCulloch (Secretary of the Treasury), disapproved, preferring a civil trial. However, James Speed, the Attorney General, agreed with Stanton and the new president Andrew Johnson, ordered the formation of a nine-man military commission to try the conspirators involved in the assassination of Lincoln.

The trial began on 10th May, 1865. The military commission included leading generals such as David Hunter, Lewis Wallace, Thomas Harris and Alvin Howe. Joseph Holt was chosen as the the government's chief prosecutor. During the trial Holt attempted to persuade the military commission that Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government had been involved in a conspiracy to kill Lincoln.

Joseph Holt attempted to obscure the fact that there were two plots: the first to kidnap and the second to assassinate. It was important for the prosecution not to reveal the existence of a diary taken from the body of John Wilkes Booth. The diary made it clear that the assassination plan dated from 14th April. The defence surprisingly did not call for Booth's diary to be produced in court.

On 29th June, 1865 Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were found guilty of being involved in the conspiracy to murder Lincoln. Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold were hanged at Washington Penitentiary on 7th July, 1865. Surratt, who was expected to be reprieved, was the first woman in American history to be executed.

The decision to hold a military court received further criticism when John Surratt, who faced a civil trial in 1867, was not convicted by the jury. Michael O'Laughlin died in prison but Samuel Mudd, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were all pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

There is evidence that Andrew Johnson was involved in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln. To understand this it is necessary to go back a couple of years.

Abraham Lincoln originally selected General Benjamin Butler as his 1864 vice-presidential candidate. Butler, a war hero, had been a member of the Democratic Party, but his experiences during the American Civil War had made him increasingly radical. Simon Cameron was sent to talk to Butler at Fort Monroe about joining the campaign. However, Butler rejected the offer, jokingly saying that he would only accept if Lincoln promised "that within three months after his inauguration he would die".

It was now decided that Andrew Johnson would make the best candidate for vice president. By choosing the governor of Tennessee, Lincoln would emphasis the fact that Southern states were still part of the Union. He would also gain the support of the large War Democrat faction. At a convention of the Republican Party on 8th July, 1864, Johnson received 200 votes to Hamlin's 150 and became Lincoln's running mate.

During the election Johnson made it clear that he supported what he called "white man's government". However, when faced with black audiences he spoke of the need of improved civil rights and on one occasion during a speech in Washington offered to "be your Moses and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage to a fairer future of liberty and peace."

The military victories of Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, George Meade, Philip Sheridan and George H. Thomas in the American Civil War in 1864 reinforced the idea that the Union Army was close to bringing the war to an end. This helped Lincoln's presidential campaign and with 2,216,067 votes, Lincoln comfortably beat General George McClellan (1,808,725) in the election.

If Johnson had been behind the assassination, what was his motive? Like Lyndon Johnson in 1963, Andrew Johnson completely changed the policy of the former president.

The Radical Republicans became concerned when Johnson began surrounding himself with advisers such as Preston King, Henry W. Halleck and Winfield S. Hancock, who were well known for their reactionary views. Johnson also began to clash with those cabinet members such as Edwin M. Stanton, William Dennison and James Speed who favoured the granting of black suffrage. In this he was supported by conservatives in the government such as Gideon Welles and and Henry McCulloch.

Southern politicians began to realize that Johnson was going to use his position to prevent reform taking place. One Confederate senator, Benjamin Hill, wrote from his prison cell: "By this wise and noble statesmanship you have become the benefactor of the Southern people in the hour of their direst extremity and entitled yourself to the gratitude of those living and those yet to live."

Johnson now began to argue that African American men should only be given the vote when they were able to pass some type of literacy test. He advised William Sharkey, the governor of Mississippi, that he should only "extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read the Constitution of the United States in English and write their names, and to all persons of color who own real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars."

In early 1865 General William T. Sherman set aside a coastal strip in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida for the exclusive use of former slaves. A few months later, General Oliver Howard, the head of the new Freeman's Bureau, issued a circular regularizing the return of lands to previous owners but exempting those lands that were already being cultivated by freeman. Johnson was furious with Sherman and Howard for making these decisions and over-ruled them.

Johnson also upset radicals and moderates in the Republican Party when he issued an amnesty proclamation exempting fourteen classes from prosecution for their actions during the American Civil War. This included high military, civil, and judicial officers of the Confederacy, officers who had surrendered their commissions in the armed forces of the United States, war criminals and those with taxable property of more than $20,000. Vice President Alexander Stephens was one of those that Johnson pardoned.

Johnson became increasingly hostile to the work of General Oliver Howard and the Freeman's Bureau. Established by Congress on 3rd March, 1865, the bureau was designed to protect the interests of former slaves. This included helping them to find new employment and to improve educational and health facilities. In the year that followed the bureau spent $17,000,000 establishing 4,000 schools, 100 hospitals and providing homes and food for former slaves.

In early 1866 Lyman Trumbull introduced proposals to extend the powers of the Freeman's Bureau . When this measure was passed by Congress it was vetoed by Johnson. However, the Radical Republicans were able to gain the support of moderate members of the Republican Party and Johnson's objections were overridden by Congress.

In April 1866, Johnson also vetoed the Civil Rights Bill that was designed to protect freed slaves from Southern Black Codes (laws that placed severe restrictions on freed slaves such as prohibiting their right to vote, forbidding them to sit on juries, limiting their right to testify against white men, carrying weapons in public places and working in certain occupations). On 6th April, Johnson's veto was overridden in the Senate by 33 to 15.

Johnson told Thomas C. Fletcher, the governor of Missouri: "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men." His views on racial equality was clearly defined in a letter to Benjamin B. French, the commissioner of public buildings: "Everyone would, and must admit, that the white race was superior to the black, and that while we ought to do our best to bring them up to our present level, that, in doing so, we should, at the same time raise our own intellectual status so that the relative position of the two races would be the same."

Johnson's unwillingness to promote African American civil rights in the South upset the radical members of his Cabinet. In 1866 William Dennison (Postmaster General), James Speed (Attorney General) and James Harlan (Secretary of the Interior) all resigned. They were all replaced by the conservatives Alexander Randall (Postmaster General), Henry Stanbury (Attorney General) and Orville Browning (Secretary of the Interior).

In June, 1866, the Radical Republicans managed to persuade Congress to pass the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The amendment was designed to grant citizenship to and protect the civil liberties of recently freed slaves. It did this by prohibiting states from denying or abridging the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, depriving any person of his life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or denying to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The elections of 1866 increased the the Republican Party two-thirds majority in Congress. There were also a larger number of Radical Republicans and in March, 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act. This act forbade the President to remove any officeholder, including Cabinet members, who had been appointed with Senate consent. Once again Johnson attempted to veto the act.

In 1867 members of Radical Republicans such as Benjamin Loan, James Ashley and Benjamin Butler, began claiming in Congress that Johnson had been involved in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln. Butler asked the question: "Who it was that could profit by assassination (of Lincoln) who could not profit by capture and abduction? He followed this with: "Who it was expected by the conspirators would succeed to Lincoln, if the knife made a vacancy?" He also implied that Johnson had been involved in tampering with the diary of John Wilkes Booth. "Who spoliated that book? Who suppressed that evidence?"

Much was made of the fact that John Wilkes Booth had visited Johnson's house on the day of the assassination and left his card with the message: "Don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home?" Some people claimed that Booth was trying to undermine Johnson in his future role as president by implying he was involved in the plot. However, as his critics pointed out, this was unnecessary as it was Booth's plan to have Johnson killed by George Atzerodt at the same time that Abraham Lincoln was being assassinated.

On 7th January, 1867, James Ashley charged Johnson with the "usurpation of power and violation of law by corruptly using the appointing, pardoning, and veto powers, by disposing corruptly of the property of the United States, and by interfering in elections." Congress responded by referring Ashley's resolution to the Judiciary Committee.

Congress passed the first Reconstruction Acts on 2nd March, 1867. The South was now divided into five military districts, each under a major general. New elections were to be held in each state with freed male slaves being allowed to vote. The act also included an amendment that offered readmission to the Southern states after they had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and guaranteed adult male suffrage. Johnson immediately vetoed the bill but Congress repassed the bill the same day.

Johnson consulted General Ulysses S. Grant before selecting the generals to administer the military districts. Eventually he appointed John Schofield (Virginia), Daniel Sickles (the Carolinas), John Pope (Georgia, Alabama and Florida), Edward Ord (Arkansas and Mississippi) and Philip Sheridan (Louisiana and Texas).

It soon became clear that the Southern states would prefer military rule to civil government based on universal male suffrage. Congress therefore passed a supplementary Reconstruction Act on 23rd March that authorized military commanders to supervise elections and generally to provide the machinery for constituting new governments. Once again Johnson vetoed the act on the grounds that it interfered with the right of the American citizen to "be left to the free exercise of his own judgment when he is engaged in the work of forming the fundamental law under which he is to live."

Radical Republicans were growing increasing angry with Johnson over his attempts to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts. This became worse when Johnson dismissed Edwin M. Stanton, his Secretary of War, and the only radical in his Cabinet and replaced him with Ulysses S. Grant. Stanton refused to go and was supported by the Senate. Grant now stood down and was replaced by Lorenzo Thomas.This was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act and some members of the Republican Party began talking about impeaching Johnson.

At the beginning of the 40th Congress Benjamin Wade became the new presiding officer of the Senate. As Johnson did not have a vice-president this meant that Wade was now the legal successor to the president. This was highly significant as attempts to impeach the president had already began.

Johnson continued to undermine the Reconstruction Acts. This included the removal of two of the most radical military governors. Daniel Sickles (the Carolinas) and Philip Sheridan (Louisiana and Texas) were replaced them with Edward Canby and Winfield Hancock.

In November, 1867, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 that Johnson be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. The majority report written by George H. Williams contained a series of charges including pardoning traitors, profiting from the illegal disposal of railroads in Tennessee, defying Congress, denying the right to reconstruct the South and attempts to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On 30th March, 1868, Johnson's impeachment trial began. Johnson was the first president of the United States to be impeached. The trial, held in the Senate in March, was presided over by Chief Justice Salmon Chase. Johnson was defended by his former Attotney General, Henry Stanbury, and William M. Evarts. One of Johnson's fiercest critics, Thaddeus Stevens was mortally ill, but he was determined to take part in the proceedings and was carried to the Senate in a chair.

Charles Sumner, another long-time opponent of Johnson led the attack. He argued that: "This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it. Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him it lives again. He is the lineal successor of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis; and he gathers about him the same supporters."

Although a large number of senators believed that Johnson was guilty of the charges, they disliked the idea of Benjamin Wade becoming the next president. Wade, who believed in women's suffrage and trade union rights, was considered by many members of the Republican Party as being an extreme radical. James Garfield warned that Wade was "a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party."

Others Republicans such as James Grimes argued that Johnson had less than a year left in office and that they were willing to vote against impeachment if Johnson was willing to provide some guarantees that he would not continue to interfere with Reconstruction.

When the vote was taken all members of the Democratic Party voted against impeachment. So also did those Republicans such as Lyman Trumbull, William Fessenden and James Grimes, who disliked the idea of Benjamin Wade becoming president. The result was 35 to 19, one vote short of the required two-thirds majority for conviction. The editor of The Detroit Post wrote that "Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor."

A further vote on 26th May, also failed to get the necessary majority needed to impeach Johnson. The Radical Republicans were angry that not all the Republican Party voted for a conviction and Benjamin Butler claimed that Johnson had bribed two of the senators who switched their votes at the last moment.

On 25th July, 1868 Johnson vetoed the decision by Congress to extend the activities of the Freeman's Bureau for another year. Once again Johnson decision was speedily overturned. Johnson critics claimed that he had taken these decisions in an attempt to win the Democratic Party nomination. The party approved Johnson's actions but chose Horatio Seymour as its presidential candidate.

Johnson continued to issue pardons for people who had participated in the rebellion. By the end of his period in office he gave 13,350 pardons, including one for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

On 25th December, 1868, Johnson used his last annual message as president to attack the Reconstruction Acts. He claimed that: "The attempt to place the white population under the domination of persons of color in the South has impaired, if not destroyed, the friendly relations that had previously existed between them; and mutual distrust has engendered a feeling of animosity which, leading in some instances to collision and bloodshed, has prevented the cooperation between the two races so essential to the success of industrial enterprise in the Southern States."

Johnson retired from office in March 1869. He returned to his 350 acre farm near Greenville, Tennessee. Andrew Johnson failed in his attempt to win a seat in the Senate in 1869 and died on 31st July, 1875.

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On 14th April, Abraham Lincoln went to Ford's Theatre with his wife, Mary Lincoln, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone to see a play called Our American Cousin. Lincoln asked Thomas Eckert, chief of the War Department telegraph office, to be his bodyguard. However, Edwin M. Stanton refused permission for Eckert to go claiming he had an important task for him to perform that night. In fact, this was not true and Eckert spent the evening at home.

From The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies by William Hanchett (University of Illinois Press 1983) page 171:

The story about Stanton denying Lincoln the company of Eckert at Ford's theatre comes from the memoir of David H. Bates, one of the two War Department clerks whose memory of how Stanton had given an "implied order' to Grant to change his plans had so impressed Eisenschiml. Eisenschiml admitted that Bates' "charge," published 42 years after the event, could have been the product of an old man's imagination. But since Bates admired Stanton and been a lifelong friend of Eckert, he considered it unlikely.

The truth is that Bates made no "charge" against Stanton. He stated that upon hearing that the Lincolns were planning to attend the theatre in company with General and Mrs. Grant, Stanton "made a vigorous protest" against it on grounds of security. Because Lincoln, as usual, made light of the secretary's fears, Stanton privately asked Grant not to make the public appearance and try to persuade Lincoln to give it up as well. Grant, who said he was only looking for an excuse, agreed readily enough. Lincoln had not been eager to attend the play, but, since it had been announced in the papers that both he and Grant would be there, he felt obligated to do so as not to give the audience a double disappointment. When he asked for the company of Eckert, Stanton refused, according to Bates, because he was "still unwilling to encourage the theatre project," and Eckert, "knowing Stanton's views," declined for the same reason. The point of Bates' story was that Stanton had earnestly sought to discourage Lincoln from attending the theatre, not that he had lured him defenseless into a trap.

Hanchett goes on to point out that "Eckert was to have been a guest inside the box rather than a guard outside of it..." And that "The chances are that no one could have stopped Booth from pulling the trigger once he stood behind the president's chair."

As to the rest of the Lincoln conspiracy, I believe that Come Retribution by William A. Tidwell is one of the most scholarly and well researched books on the subject of Lincoln's murder. In my opinion, it is to the Lincoln plot what McKnight's Breach of Trust is to the Warren Commission.

With extensive documentation, the help of two co-authors, and painstaking research, I think Tidwell came close to getting it right. In A word to The Reader, he writes:

This book is a history of Confederate intelligence and covert operations and a case study of one ambitious, complex covert operation that had an unexpected outcome. We also trust it will provide new insight on a much studied topic.

In short, Tidwell believes the Confederate Secret Service, growing increasingly desperate when they realized the South could never prevail in a continuation of conventional war, put in place a daring plan to kidnap President Lincoln, only to see it go horribly awry. Tidwell's book is highly regarded in historical circles.

Edited by Michael Hogan
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