Confederate Complicity in the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln – Part 1

By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

In this four-part series, past Roundtable President John Fazio reviews the current scholarship on the question of whether John Wilkes Booth and his band of conspirators, in their attempt to behead the Union government, acted independently or under the direction of the Confederate Secret Service and the top levels of the Confederate government, up to and including Jefferson Davis.

Part 1 of this series (below) reviews the nature of covert operations as generally practiced by nations and as specifically practiced by the Confederate Secret Service. Part 2 of this series suggests the motives the Confederate government had for pursuing political assassination as a war tactic and argues that the Lincoln plot was actually part of a larger, official terror campaign waged by the Confederacy against the Union. Part 3 of this series profiles Booth and traces his activities leading up to the assassination. Part 4 wraps up the analysis and addresses why all of it still matters 145 years later.

I. Rogue Operations – The Case of Jonathan Pollard

Jonathan Pollard’s Naval Intelligence ID photo

From May, 1984, until his arrest in November, 1985, Jonathan Pollard, a 31-year old head of the Middle Eastern desk at the U.S. Navy’s Suitland, Maryland, Intelligence Complex, spied for Israel. The classified documents that he gave Israel access to would fill a space 10 ft. by 6 ft. by 6 ft. (360 cu.ft.). It was said that he did it for money and jewelry, but we may be certain that he did it for political reasons as well. His treachery is said to have caused one of the worst security disasters in United States history. In 1987 he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. All efforts to have him paroled or pardoned have failed.

What is significant is that from the date of his arrest until 1998, Israel insisted that his activities were a rogue operation. In 1998, then Prime Minister Netanyahu admitted that it wasn’t so, that in fact Pollard was, at all relevant times, an Israeli intelligence agent and that Israeli intelligence had recruited him and handled him, i.e. supervised his activities, until he was caught.

Does anyone suppose that United States intelligence services, or any intelligence service in the world, for that matter, bought the “rogue operation” explanation? Of course not. Why not? Because all intelligence services know that the business of intelligence is incredibly complex and sophisticated, that it is imperative that agents follow orders at all times, especially when major policies of a government can be and likely will be affected by their actions, and that “rogue operations” are all but unknown in the intelligence world.

So let it be with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The notion that it was a rogue operation by a disgruntled actor and a little band of cut-throats, mental retards and cowards is ridiculous on its face, and the evidence that it was not this is very strong to overwhelming.

II. Insulation aka Buffering

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One of the first principles of covert operations is plausible denial, which is closely tied to the principle of insulation, also known as buffering. We have all seen, heard or read of handlers forewarning intelligence operatives that if they are caught, so and so or such and such will deny any knowledge of the operative or of his or her activity. The object is to put as many layers as practical between those who issue the orders and those who actually carry them out, known variously as grunts, hatchet-men, fall guys and numerous other appellations.

Applied to the Confederacy, we may place President Jefferson Davis at the very top with Attorney General, later Secretary of War, later Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin, just slightly below him, much like the relationship between a captain and a first mate. The two had known each other and worked well together for many years. Below these two were field officers who could be relied upon to support intelligence initiatives and covert operations, e.g. Robert E. Lee, Jubal Early, John S. Mosby and doubtless others, though it must be said that some commanders in the field were selective: they would sign on to some covert operations, but not others.

Why name Lee, Early and Mosby specifically? Because they were fighting in the Eastern Theater of the war, close to the seat of Federal authority and power, where they could therefore make a difference.

Below these was the Confederate Secret Service in its truest sense, i.e. thousands of trained agents placed in strategic locations in and out of the country, ready, willing and able to receive orders from Richmond and to implement them through the agency of subordinate operatives, who in turn had their own subordinate operatives, i.e. the grunts, who actually executed the orders by planting and detonating the explosives, plunging the daggers and pulling the triggers, etc. In this scenario, there are four layers of insulation separating the very bottom from the very top. It is doubtful that there were more; there may have been fewer; it may not have been so neatly stratified. We shall probably never know. It seems probable that many intelligence services in today’s world make use of more than that, but the Confederate Secret Service, after all, was not the CIA, the KGB or Mossad.

In these circumstances, a smoking gun, i.e. a writing, in code or otherwise, indicating that A (Davis) ordered E (Booth) to kill Lincoln, or B (Benjamin) ordered F (Powell) to kill Seward, etc., will never be found because it almost certainly never existed. Such an order, the execution of which would rightly be called the crime of the century and which could have the most profound military and political consequences, would never be given directly to the lowest level operative, but would be given to an intermediary, who would in turn pass it to another intermediary, who would give it to the lowest level operative, thus assuring the necessary insulation. Further, such an order would never be committed to writing, but would be given orally and sent by courier.

Furthermore, it is known that Judah Benjamin burned all records relating to the Confederate Secret Service when Richmond was evacuated on April 3, 1865, and that Jefferson Davis, on May 2, 1865, shortly before his capture and after receiving word of Lincoln’s assassination, called his cabinet together for the last time and ordered the destruction of many official papers, so even what was written is now almost all gone. Verbal testimony was nearly as unlikely to be found because there were several layers of insulation to overcome to get to it, and everyone was sworn to secrecy.

Most often, Booth’s minions had no idea who Booth talked to and took orders from in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Montreal or Toronto. And most often, Booth had little or no idea who these agents talked to and took orders from in Richmond or elsewhere. And so on all the way to the top. We must, therefore, content ourselves with circumstantial evidence. But as every prosecutor knows, circumstantial evidence isn’t bad and is often preferable to eyewitness testimony.

III. The Confederate Secret Service

No one will ever know exactly who or what comprised the Confederate Secret Service. What is known is that the Confederacy justified measures that fell outside the ambit of so-called Christian or civilized warfare on the grounds that such measures were necessary to compensate for the North’s superiority in manpower and resources. What is also known is that Confederate clandestine activities and covert operations fell under one or more divisions of the Service, namely:

  • Foreign agents;
  • The Signal Corps (1,200 men);
  • The Torpedo Bureau (mines and disguised bombs);
  • The Submarine Battery Service;
  • Espionage;
  • The Special and Secret Service Bureau;
  • Secret Service Operations in Canada.
  • Booth’s Accomplices

In the case of covert plans to abduct or murder Lincoln, we may safely say that the projects were under the overall control of Davis and Benjamin and that the action team for one such plan comprised, at least, John Wilkes Booth, Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Paine or Lewis Payne, “Reverend Wood” and “Mosby”), George Atzerodt, David Herold, Mary Surratt, John Surratt, Michael O’Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, Edmund Spangler and Dr. Samuel Mudd. It may seem odd to lump Mudd, a physician, with the motley band of misfits, but the fact is that Mudd was part of Confederate intelligence throughout the war, met with Booth on at least three occasions before the assassination and greatly assisted him in his escape. It is arguable that Booth’s stop at Mudd’s home after the assassination was occasioned only by the fact that he had broken his leg when he jumped to the stage and therefore needed medical care, but it is just as likely, perhaps more so, that he would have stopped irrespective of his condition, inasmuch as Mudd was one of a line of Confederate agents that stretched from Washington to Richmond through lower Maryland and Virginia, agents whom Booth would also meet with as he made his way south. Spangler was on the edge, and his sentence reflected that fact. Nevertheless, he played a role that was sufficient, in my opinion, to include him as part of the team.

The head of the group, of course, was Booth (Powell called him “Captain”), though it is known that John Surratt had direct contact with Benjamin and perhaps Davis, in Richmond. Booth appears to have been a middle-level operative as well as a triggerman.

Were there others? Without question. Powell said to Assistant Secretary of War, Major Thomas T. Eckert, who questioned him, “All I can say about this is that you (United States prosecutors) have not got the one-half of them.” That fact alone, i.e. that the conspiracy involved a substantial number of people, is probative of complicity of the Confederate government. A rogue operation by an individual or a small number of individuals, though unlikely, at least has some plausibility, but the greater the number of participants, the less likely it is that they can be operating without the supervision of, and control by, the highest political authority in the Confederacy. Indeed, after the turn of the century, more than 35 years after the fact, Richard M. Smoot, a Confederate officer, admitted his involvement in the plot to kidnap or assassinate Lincoln and implied that two other previously unknown men were involved, namely Joseph Eli Huntt and Frederick Stone, the latter having died in 1899. Interestingly, Stone was Dr. Mudd’s and David Herold’s defense counsel in the trial of the conspirators.

Is it too much to believe that Davis and Benjamin would plot such a dastardly deed as the murder of the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War and the Lieutenant General of the Union armies? It shouldn’t be. Desperate men do desperate things. Davis, of course, later denied having anything to do with the assassination, saying that he would a thousand times have preferred dealing with Lincoln than with Johnson. In so saying, he did what almost anyone in his circumstances would have done: he lied. Further, this particular remark is disingenuous, because the plan called for the murder of Johnson too.

More telling is Davis’s response upon first receiving news of the assassination: “If it were to be done, it were better if it were well done,” he said. Later, in response to John Breckenridge’s remark that the assassination was unfortunate for the people of the South “at this time,” Davis said: “Well, General, I don’t know. If it were to be done at all it were better that it were well done, and if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton, the job would have been complete.” It is very significant, and indeed probative of his complicity, that Davis found fault not with the murder of his political counterpart, but with the fact that Vice President Johnson and Secretary of War Stanton had not also been murdered.

Such was the testimony of Lewis F. Bates, Superintendent of the Southern Express Company for the State of North Carolina, given at the trial of the conspirators. Bates was present when Davis received the news, by telegram, and later entertained both Davis and Breckenridge at his home.

Still further, it is known that at least two Confederate soldiers, one of whom was said to be a Northerner serving in a Georgia regiment, wrote to Davis volunteering to murder Lincoln and other Northern leaders. One of the letters, with its Presidential endorsement, was discovered among Confederate records after the war (the few that escaped the flames) and was considered proof of Davis’s sanctioning of political assassination.

It is very significant, too, that Benjamin, as previously said, burned everything relating to the Secret Service and then fled to England under a false name after the Confederacy collapsed. It was a tortuous journey, full of hazards and near-misses with death, but he did make it, soon carved out a successful life in his adopted country and died a natural death in 1884, in Paris, at the age of 72. Obviously, he did not want to be tried, which can only mean that he had serious doubts that he could avoid the hangman. It is not necessary to ask “Why?”; the answer is perfectly clear: he was up to his eyeballs in terror plots and plots to decapitate Northern leadership by abduction and/or murder and he supposed, probably correctly, that Federal prosecutors would nail him for it, but would not nail Davis because Davis had plausible deniability, because many Confederate agents were prepared to sacrifice or perjure themselves or to engage in legal gymnastics to preserve the illusion of Davis’s innocence and because Davis was, and would likely continue to be, a Southern icon whom the Federal Government would be loathe to prosecute, which turned out to be true.

Furthermore, the law provided that treason trials had to be conducted in the state in which the crime occurred, in Davis’s case, Virginia, where he was so popular that it would have been nearly impossible to find a jury that would convict him. Benjamin and Davis surely knew this.

It is also significant that Davis kept a coal bomb on his desk, the very same kind that was used by Confederate agents to sink more than 60 Union gunboats and other watercraft and which may well have been used to sink the Sultana with a loss of nearly 2,000 lives.

But what did the Confederate leadership hope to gain by the decapitation of the Federal leadership?

The second article in this series suggests the motives the Confederate government had for pursuing political assassination as a war tactic and argues that the Lincoln plot was actually part of a larger, official terror campaign waged by the Confederacy against the Union.

Continue with Part 2 >>

Sources: The sources that were used for this four-part article are listed in part 4.