By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
This is the second installment in a four-part series by past Roundtable President John Fazio reviewing 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 reviewed the nature of covert operations as generally practiced by nations and as specifically practiced by the Confederate Secret Service. Part 2, below, 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.
Wars, especially civil wars, do not truly end with a battle, a surrender or a peace treaty. The issues that were fought over bleed into the future, sometimes for very long periods. In the case of the American Civil War, the bleeding hasn’t stopped yet; the regions are still not fully reconciled. The bleeding is bound to be most profuse in the immediate aftermath of the official end of the conflict. Combatants, particularly those in leadership roles, look for other ways to achieve what they were fighting for or to minimize the advantages gained by the victor.
Thus, for example, Davis continued to believe, after Appomattox, that he could make a new start west of the Mississippi. The fact that Lee had surrendered what was left of the Army of Northern Virginia was not conclusive to Davis, nor to many other Southerners; Johnston’s army, Mosby’s Rangers and Kirby Smith’s army in the Trans-Mississippi were still in the field. All told, about 175,000 Confederate soldiers had still not surrendered. Lee’s surrender, therefore, would not deter some on the losing side from continuing the conflict by any means possible if something could thereby be gained.
But what could Confederate leaders and the Confederate Secret Service – fire-eaters all – hope to gain by the elimination of Lincoln, Johnson, Seward and perhaps Grant and Stanton? I submit, several things:
- Creation of general political and military chaos in the North. The removal of Federal leadership (including Ulysses S. Grant, if his original plans to accompany the President and Mrs. Lincoln had not changed), and possibly including Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, would create chaos in the government and, by extension, in the military (especially as regards coordination between Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman), a condition that offered at least a possibility of salvaging Southern fortunes, certainly more than was otherwise offered if the leadership remained in place. With the President and Vice President dead, the 1792 statute governing presidential succession would apply. The statute provided that in such circumstances, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate would act as President until the Electoral College could elect a new one. Under this law it fell to the Secretary of State to put the process in motion. With the Secretary of State also dead, there would be terrible in-fighting among radical Republicans over the selection of a new Secretary of State and over control of the Electoral College. The resultant chaos might be so bad that the wheels of Northern government would grind to a halt, thus possibly providing an opening for the Confederacy to salvage independence with those of its armies that were still in the field, i.e. Lee’s (prior to April 9), Johnston’s, Mosby’s and Smith’s. The inclusion by Booth of at least the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State as targets, therefore, is further evidence of a link between Booth and the Confederate leadership, through intermediaries, which is to say that orders to decapitate Northern leadership that were made, even in part, because of the provisions of the 1792 statute, could only have come from persons who were conversant with that statute, i.e. Confederate leaders, not a 26-year old actor unschooled in the law. If the Secretary of War and the Lieutenant General of all Union armies could also be eliminated, so much the better as far as creating chaos in the operations of the government and the military was concerned, even though the elimination of these last two was not essential from the standpoint of the statute.
- Retribution for ringing the curtain of history down on the South’s peculiar institution and for crushing their dreams of independence. This was made even more galling by Lincoln’s tour as conquering hero (at least to the freed blacks) of their devastated capital on April 4, a tour during which Lincoln was alleged to have sat at the desk of Jefferson Davis and, most ungraciously (if true), even to have put his feet upon the desk. Asia Booth, John’s sister, later wrote that this tour particularly infuriated her brother.
- Retribution for the attempted raid on Richmond on February 6, 1864, by Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar. Wistar’s orders, contained in a note from Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, were to relieve Union prisoners at Libby and Belle Isle Prisons, destroy key facilities, including the Tredegar Ironworks, public buildings and commissary stocks, and capture some Confederate leaders. Because Wistar’s cavalry included part of the District of Columbia cavalry unit commanded by Lafayette C. Baker, the Union counterintelligence expert, the Confederates believed the raid had Lincoln’s personal approval and that it constituted Black Flag warfare. It almost certainly did have Lincoln’s approval, because he was profoundly disturbed by reports of prisoner abuse and resolved to do something about it, which is why it wasn’t the last such raid. In any case, Confederate intelligence learned of the raid, Confederate forces were thus prepared for it and so the raid failed.
- Retribution for the Dahlgren-Kilpatrick raid on Richmond (February 28 to March 2, 1864). Lincoln approved this raid on Richmond and hand-picked its leader, Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren. Dahlgren was killed in the action and was found to have on his person a document that, assuming it was not a Confederate forgery, appeared to authorize the murder of Davis and his Cabinet.
As with the Wistar raid, Confederate intelligence knew about Dahlgren’s mission well in advance (which is why it failed) and Secret Service operatives, therefore, had plenty of time to forge one or more incriminating documents in preparation for its or their planting on a dead Union officer. Another possibility is that one of the two documents found was forged in part, i.e. the part authorizing murder of the Confederate leaders. The incriminating sentence read: “The men must be kept together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and cabinet killed.” It can be easily seen that the sentence may well have ended with the word “destroyed” and that some Confederate hand, intending to fire up his compatriots to make more and greater sacrifices, added the last six words.
It is incredible that any Union officer would commit such an order to writing, but what is even more incredible is that such an order was ever made by or with the approval of Lincoln. It is totally out of character for him. But perception is reality, and the perception was that Lincoln had ordered the murder of the Confederate leadership. Federal denials of the authenticity of the documents fell on deaf ears. It is easy, too easy, when one seeks to justify particularly odious conduct (such as the assassination of an elected President) to presume the worst as truth, i.e. to impute to the person who is the object of one’s misconduct an act or acts equal or exceeding in malevolence one’s own act or acts, even if evidence is lacking and doubt is great.
- Retribution for the failure, laid at Lincoln’s feet, of peace initiatives in July, 1864 and February, 1865. On July 7, Confederate operatives in Canada attempted to arrange a peace conference at Niagara Falls, using Horace Greeley as an intermediary. The effort collapsed when Lincoln insisted on reunion and emancipation as preconditions. He sent one of his personal secretaries, John Hay, with Greeley, to meet with the Confederate agents. Hay carried with him a letter from Lincoln which, because Lincoln would do nothing to even imply recognition of the Confederacy, was addressed “To Whom it May Concern.” The Confederate leadership took this as a personal slap and said that Lincoln’s preconditions amounted to sabotage of the initiative and proved that he was obstructionist, stubborn and insensitive to bloodshed in general and to deprivation and suffering in the Confederacy in particular.
On July 17, 1864, two Union men (James R. Gilmore, a journalist, and Col. James Jaquess of the 73rd Illinois, a Methodist minister) traveled to Richmond and gave Davis the same conditions, adding amnesty as a third “condition,” the latter causing Davis to erupt (“Amnesty! Amnesty is for criminals!”). This effort too, of course, was fruitless.
On February 3, 1865, a Confederate Commission of three men, headed by Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, met with Lincoln and Seward on board the River Queen at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Commission made counter-offer after counter-offer to its adversaries, but Lincoln stood like a rock on union and emancipation, causing the Confederates to return to their full hatred for the Northern President and prompting Davis to tell his fellow Southerners that Lincoln’s terms were “degrading submission” and “humiliating surrender.” (More on the Hampton Roads Conference.)
- Retribution for the hanging of John Yates Beall, who may have been personally known to, and may even have been a cousin of, John Wilkes Booth. Beall, (pronounced “Bell,” despite the spelling), a Confederate agent from a prominent Virginia family, tried to rescue prisoners from Johnson’s Island, Ohio. He was caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. There is evidence that Booth was so intent on saving Beall’s life that he actually obtained a copy of Beall’s orders from the Confederate government (i.e. to prove that his attempt to free prisoners from Johnson’s Island was not an act of piracy or a rogue operation) and took them to Lincoln, who told Booth that he would spare Beall. For political reasons, Lincoln changed his mind and, despite a long list of prominent citizens who appealed to Lincoln for commutation, one of whom may have been Booth, and despite Davis’s acceptance of full responsibility for Beall’s actions, which acceptance was communicated to Lincoln, Beall was hanged on February 25, 1865. Lincoln was profoundly disturbed by this execution, but allowed it to happen because of intense pressure from Stanton and Seward, both of whom felt that Beall’s deeds (which included an attempt to derail a train) were outside the bounds of civilized warfare. To the Confederate leadership, this was more proof, if any were needed, of Lincoln’s inflexibility and a foretaste of what might be in store for them. To Booth, it must have appeared as a personal betrayal. (See Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXIII, Richmond, Va., Jan.-Dec. 1905, p. 71.)
It needs to be said that most Civil War historians do not accept the Booth-Lincoln connection as historical. Be that as it may, it nevertheless remains true that Beall’s execution left a very bitter taste in the mouths of all Confederates. Davis’s and Benjamin’s knowledge that this prominent Virginian went to his death in their service and following their orders could not have failed to bring their anger against Lincoln to a fever’s pitch. (More on the Johnson’s Island raid.)
- Denial of the spoils of victory to one deemed to be a social inferior. Most, indeed almost all, Confederate leaders were aristocrats, highly refined, cultured and educated men, well-bred and mannered. To these men, Lincoln was a backwoods buffoon who told bawdy and ribald jokes and who, it was said, ate with his fingers and blew his nose frontier style, i.e. between his thumb and forefinger. That these last two items were almost certainly not true didn’t matter; the aristocrats hated him with a passion that transcended reason. It positively galled them to think that they would be bested by a man who was not only a tyrant directly responsible for all their ills, but a crude and boorish one as well, an intellectual and social inferior.
- Keeping the South unassimilated, unreconciled and sectarian, thereby preserving hope for creation of a separate nation at a later date. Though Lincoln stood like granite on the issues of reunion and emancipation, and allowed the socially prominent John Yates Beall to be hanged, his reputation for kindness and compassion were well known. (Lee said later that he had surrendered to Lincoln’s kindness as much as to Grant’s cannons.) His policy of “malice toward none…charity for all” had already been announced publicly. But the last things that Southern fire-eaters wanted were Northern charity and a reconciliation of belligerents. They did not want a soft hand at the helm. A kindly, forgiving and magnanimous “Father Abraham” would be terribly inconsistent with the image of him that they had previously projected – a tyrant of the worst stripe who trashed the Constitution, closed newspapers, abrogated free speech, incarcerated or exiled his political enemies, including entire legislative bodies, and stood, mule-like, in the way of a negotiated peace while the South was destroyed and its armies and people made to starve.
As long as they were not tried for treason – and they knew they would not be – they wanted a mailed fist at the top, because only then would the South remain unassimilated, unreconciled and sectarian. Then they could at least hope for another opportunity to create a separate nation. They didn’t want a just and lasting peace “among ourselves”; they wanted to continue the struggle and at least have a hope of success at some future date. Short-sighted? Of course, but we are talking about men who were beaten and therefore desperate. Far from shrinking from it, beaten and desperate men who can no longer make war with standing armies almost always turn to terror.
V. The Assassination as Part of a Terror Campaign
As previously said, desperate people do desperate things. By 1864 it was reasonably clear that the South would fail in its bid for independence. Failure and weakness breed terror, which often precedes final defeat. And so the South turned to it as its last hope.
Much has been written about Confederate terror in the North and in the border states, most recently: The Confederate Dirty War: Arson, Bombings, Assassination and Plots for Chemical and Germ Attacks on the Union, by Jane Singer.
Here are a few of the more nefarious deeds and attempts:
- John Porterfield, before the war a banker from Nashville, concocted a scheme to wreak economic havoc in the North, thereby weakening the war effort, by shipping gold out of the country, at a modest cost to the Confederacy. He succeeded in shipping $2,000,000 worth, which did have a pronounced effect on the Northern market, but then retreated to his home in Canada, his work unfinished, when Federal authorities got too close for comfort.
- Blowing-up things, especially steamboats and other craft on the Mississippi and other waterways, was a favorite activity of the Secret Service’s Torpedo Bureau. During the war more than 60 Union steamboats were destroyed by a division of the Confederate Secret Service known as the Boat-Burners, which was led by one Joseph W. Tucker of South Carolina, a one-time minister. The Boat-Burners cost the Union thousands of lives and millions of dollars.
Blowing-up steamboats was relatively easy to do. The favored method was the use of coal and log bombs, the first a bomb fashioned to look like a lump of coal, which was placed in a tender or other supply of coal intended to service a ship. When the coal was shoveled into a boiler, the explosion resulted in either great damage to the craft or its sinking, with much loss of life. A log bomb was simply a log hollowed out and filled with gunpowder, which was used in the same way as the coal bomb and with the same effect.
Evidence has recently come to light that the great Sultana disaster of April 27, 1865, which was previously thought to have been caused by a faulty boiler and an overloaded ship, was in fact the result of a coal bomb. Nearly 2,000 people perished in the disaster, mostly Union soldiers on their way home from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps at the end of the war.
It is worth mentioning, too, that on August 9, 1864, Confederate agent John Maxwell, using what he called a “horological torpedo” (a time bomb), succeeded in blowing up General Grant’s massive ammunition depot and supply docks at City Point, Virginia. The explosion almost took the lives of Generals Grant and Meade and their staffs and did result in the deaths of 58 and the wounding of 126 (some accounts put the combined total at 300) and at least $2,000,000 and perhaps as much as $4,000,000 in damage, an astronomical sum in those days.
Lastly, in connection with bombings, there is the case of General Benjamin F. Butler’s luxurious headquarters steamer, Greyhound, which was blown up on the James River, an explosion that almost took the lives of Butler, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter and Major General Robert C. Schenk.
- Dr. Luke P. Blackburn of Kentucky thought it a good idea to spread yellow fever, small pox and other infectious diseases in the North by means of infected clothing. Testimony was introduced at the trial of the conspirators in May, 1865, to the effect that at Blackburn’s direction Confederate agents had tried to spread pestilence throughout the North, including the White House, by distributing infected clothing that Blackburn had gathered from victims of the disease in Bermuda and sent to various garment distributors in the United States. Allegedly, he even sent infected shirts to Lincoln.
Blackburn, despite being a doctor, did not know that yellow fever could not be contracted by contact with infected clothing. Few, if any, did know it, until Dr. Walter Reed discovered, in 1900, that the disease was spread by the bite of mosquitoes. That Jefferson Davis knew about this plot was proved by a letter written to him by Kensey Johns Stewart, an Episcopal minister turned Confederate agent, who implored Davis to call it off on the grounds that it could not possibly find favor with God. The letter, sent in December, 1864, was found among the few Confederate records that hadn’t been burned. This letter, in my judgment, comes very close to a smoking gun inasmuch as it demonstrates Davis’s willingness to kill innocent people, and even the President of the United States (with the infected shirts), if it would further the cause of Southern independence.
- On the night of November 25, 1864, Robert Cobb Kennedy, a prisoner of war who had escaped from Johnson’s Island, Ohio, together with seven other conspirators, set fire to dozens of hotels, theaters and museums along Broadway and to shipping facilities along the Hudson River in New York City. Kennedy and his fellow arsonists were under the command of Lt. Colonel Robert M. Martin, Tenth Kentucky Cavalry, who had been sent to Canada by Davis and Benjamin for the purpose of planning military raids and terrorist attacks that could be directed against the North from politically neutral Canada. According to Charles A. Dunham, alias Sandford Conover, allegedly a Confederate agent, but possibly a double or even a triple agent, even the destruction of New York’s water supply by blowing up the Croton Reservoir was considered, as was the disruption of United States fishing off the Canadian coast. It must be said, however, that either or both of these plots may be fiction, because Dunham, who may have had as many as a dozen aliases and who is surely one of the strangest characters in history, was a chronic liar. We will meet him again later in this essay. Kennedy was caught and hanged on March 25, 1865. Martin was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1866 without being tried.
- Montreal and Toronto were centers of Confederate espionage, plotting and terror from a very early date, but in early 1864 the Confederacy sent James P. Holcombe to carry out, inter alia, “duties already entrusted,” but not specified in writing. In April, Davis sent Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, Secretary of the Interior in President James Buchanan’s cabinet, and Clement C. Clay, a Confederate States Senator and once a United States Senator from Alabama, to carry out in Canada “such instructions as you have received from me verbally, in such manner as shall seem most likely to conduce the furtherance of the interests of the Confederate States of America.” They brought with them drafts for $1,000,000 in gold to carry out their work. Already in Canada were Beverly Tucker of Virginia, George N. Sanders of Kentucky and William C. Cleary of Kentucky. What followed were Blackburn’s and Martin’s plots, already described, as well as Confederate raids on Calais, Maine; Johnson’s Island, Ohio; and St. Albans, Vermont. The purpose of the cross-border terror was nothing less than an attempt to draw the United States into war with Canada (then called British America or British North America) and Great Britain.
- One other episode deserves mention, though we shall not dwell upon it because arguments can and have been made that it was not intentional, but the inevitable result of insufficient food and water for the captives as well as their captors – namely, the deaths of about 13,000 Union prisoners of war in one summer (1864) at Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville, Georgia. The Commander of the camp (Henry Wirz) was tried after the war, convicted of conspiring to impair the health and destroy the lives of his prisoners, and hanged for it, the only Confederate leader to be executed after the war. Perhaps the fact that the prisoners were compelled to drink from the little stream that bisected the camp, which stream was an open sewer filled with unspeakable filth, when Sweetwater Creek, flowing with limitless clean and fresh water, was only six-tenths of a mile from the camp, had something to do with the court’s decision. One might also ask if the paucity of good food and clean water resulted in the deaths of the captors in the same proportion as the captives, if, indeed, it resulted in any deaths at all among the captors.
Let us state the matter plainly: None of these activities was carried out without the knowledge and approval of, and control by, the highest levels of Confederate leadership, i.e. Davis, Benjamin and Secretary of War, James A. Seddon. This was war. In the Confederate perception, it was a war between nations for the survival of their nation.
Wars are carried out according to the principal of leadership and obedience to the orders handed down by that leadership. Those who fail to follow orders are punished in some way, depending on the consequences of the failure. It is simply inconceivable that with the survival of their country at stake, the Confederate high command would tolerate men and women running hither and yon and doing their own things, where, when and how they pleased, oblivious to the political and/or military repercussions of their acts or presuming to know how best to increase their country’s prospects of survival. If this is so, and it is, then why shouldn’t the ultimate act of terror – the decapitation of the leadership of their country’s enemy – be likewise with the knowledge and approval of, and control by, the Confederate high command?
One would come to this conclusion even without evidence. But there is evidence.
Abraham Lincoln’s life was in danger from the day he was elected President until the day he was shot. Genuine threats against his life after his election forced Allan Pinkerton and his detectives to slip the President-elect into Washington surreptitiously in 1861. Thereafter, Pinkerton and his untouchables dealt with threat after threat and uncovered plot after plot against the President and other Northern leaders and took counter-measure after counter-measure to foil them.
Not all of the threats and plots came from Confederates; some came from Peace Democrats and Copperheads, i.e. Northerner’s who opposed “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” Abduction of the President was also considered a remedy for Southern misfortune. There were numerous proposals to do this and reports of the same had appeared in newspapers for years. The earliest were made in 1862, and at least one assassination scholar contends that John Wilkes Booth was a party to at least one of them from this earliest period. Other such schemes were made, considered and approved at the highest levels of the Confederate government and attempted as late as March, 1865.
A series of articles appeared in Greeley’s New York Tribune, beginning in January, 1864, detailing a kidnapping plot that originated in the Confederate War Department. The author of these articles was none other than the bizarre and enigmatic Charles A. Dunham, whom we have already met and will meet again in these pages. Because he was a chronic liar and a spinner of the most fanciful fabrications, and because no one to this day knows where his true loyalties lay, assuming they lay somewhere, everything he wrote needs to be taken with spoonfuls of salt. In any case, he wrote that the key figure in the plot was Colonel George W. Margrave, a completely fictional person and one of Dunham’s aliases. “Margrave” submitted his plan to Seddon, who said he would discuss it with Benjamin and Davis. “Margrave” was assured that the plan had been approved. The correspondent, i.e. Dunham, wrote that he had lived among the rebels long enough to know that “there is no atrocity conceivable that they would not unhesitatingly commit, if it promised to aid, in the slightest degree, the infernal work of the Rebellion.” That statement has the ring of truth to it, even if made by a liar. The plan called for Mosby to do the kidnapping.
Another kidnapping plot, under the direction of Bradley T. Johnson, was partially implemented, but botched, in 1863-1864. Still another was organized by Thomas N. Conrad. This plan had the approval of Seddon who ordered Mosby to cooperate.
These kidnapping schemes usually contemplated capturing the President when he was making his way from the White House to the Soldiers’ Home that he was known to frequent, particularly in the summer and fall. After capture, the President was to be transported rapidly to Richmond by a prearranged route, with agents along the way to facilitate the delivery and protect the kidnappers and their prize. The President would then be kept in the Confederate capital for the purpose of bargaining the release of Confederate prisoners of war, at least, and perhaps bargaining concessions leading to Southern independence, at most.
Kidnapping schemes, however, did not rule out an assassination attempt if an opportunity presented itself. An opportunity did present itself one night in August, 1864. The President was making his way, alone, to the Soldiers’ Home when a rifleman put a shot through his stovepipe hat. Lincoln minimized the incident and ordered secrecy, but he never again rode alone. It is interesting to speculate as to the identity of the gunman. John Wilkes Booth was known to be a crack shot.
On March 23, 1865, Lincoln left Washington for City Point, Virginia, to confer with Grant about the final stages of the war. Richmond fell on April 3. Lincoln visited the City the next day and was given a hero’s welcome by the city’s black population. On April 9, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. There was no longer anything to be gained by kidnapping. Though Johnston, Mosby and Smith remained in the field, their fate was sealed. All that was left to the Confederacy was decapitation of the Union government.
The decision was made to accomplish the decapitation by blowing up the White House, or at least a part of it. The confession of George Atzerodt (one of the conspirators who was hanged), which was discovered in 1977, is especially relevant here. In it, he said, inter alia, that:
Booth said he had met a party in N.York who would get the Prest. certain. They were going to mine the end of the pres. House, near the War Dept. They knew an entrance to accomplish it through. Spoke about getting friends of the Presdt. to get up an entertainment & they would mix it in, have a serenade & thus get at the Presdt. & party. These were understood to be projects. Booth said if he did not get him quick the N.York crowd would. Booth knew the New York party apparently by a sign. He saw Booth give some kind of sign to two parties on the Avenue who he said were from New York.
Let us dwell upon the wording of this confession, because it is relevant to the issues before us. “Booth said he had met a party in N.York who would get the Prest. certain.” Does this sound like the idea of killing the President was something that Booth impulsively decided to do during the week preceding the assassination, on his own, without direction from or consultation with Confederate leaders or persons taking orders from such leaders? Or does it sound like the business of assassinating Lincoln was something that had already been much in the air with Confederate leaders and operatives for some time, a deed that could have been accomplished by any number of people who were under orders from those leaders? Clearly, the latter.
“Booth said if he did not get him quick the N.York crowd would.” Again, does this sound like a reference to a deed that spontaneously sprang into Booth’s brain, something he suddenly decided to accomplish by himself, independently of Richmond, or does it sound like at least one other action team (perhaps more than one) was also primed to accomplish the deed? Again, clearly the latter. Is it reasonable to assume that the other action team, i.e. “the N.York crowd,” was a rogue operation, or is it more reasonable to assume that they were under orders from Richmond? Again, clearly the latter. And if they were operating pursuant to orders from Richmond, is it reasonable to assume that Booth’s action team was not? Clearly, that is not a reasonable assumption.
Atzerodt’s confession is corroborated by the fact that on April 4, 1865, the day after Richmond was occupied by Federal troops, a Confederate soldier, whose name was William H. Snyder, and who was employed by the Torpedo Bureau, made contact with Colonel Edward H. Ripley of the Ninth Vermont Infantry, the Union officer commanding the occupying forces, and told him that a few days earlier a party of men had been sent north by the Bureau on a mission whose purpose was probably the murder of Lincoln. Ripley attempted to persuade Lincoln to talk to Snyder, when the President was on his boat in the James River on April 5, but the President would not agree to see him. Ripley published a memoir in 1907 in which he detailed Snyder’s role in apprising the Union high command of the great danger to Lincoln. Atzerodt’s confession is further corroborated by evidence of the disposition of Confederate troops under the command of John S. Mosby, in early April, 1865, in the northern neck of Virginia, which disposition makes no sense at all except as a means to facilitate the entry of men into Washington and their exit therefrom after their mission of blowing up the White House was accomplished.
The job of blowing up a wing of the White House was given to Thomas F. Harney, an explosives expert with the Confederate Torpedo Bureau, who was part of a force that left Richmond for Washington on or about April 1. At some point they were joined by a force of approximately 150 cavalrymen detached from Mosby’s Rangers, under Captain George B. Baylor, whose purpose was to facilitate the entry of Harney and a few of his men into Washington and their exit therefrom after the deed was done. As Harney and elements from this force neared Washington, on April 10, they were surprised by a unit of Illinois cavalry and Harney and a few of his men were captured. One of Mosby’s men described the loss of Harney as “irretrievable”. The best-laid plans of the Confederacy (the kidnapping schemes and Harney’s bombing mission) had thus come to nothing.
The notion that the “party in N.York who would get the Prest. certain,” and Thomas F. Harney, John S. Mosby and his Rangers, and, John Wilkes Booth and his action team, were all operating without the knowledge, approval and direction of the highest levels of the Confederate Government is ludicrous.
The Confederate leadership, however, still had one card to play. It had already ordered the death of Lincoln and as many other Northern leaders as possible by blowing up the White House. If it could accomplish the same end by other means, why would it not do so?
It cannot be said often enough or with too much emphasis that the Confederate leadership had already approved plans to kidnap Lincoln, and if those plans failed, to murder him. Since it cannot be said often enough or with too much emphasis, let me say it again with emphasis: The Confederate leadership had already approved plans to kidnap Lincoln, and if those plans failed, to murder him. There is therefore no issue as to whether or not Davis, Benjamin, et al., ordered Lincoln’s death. That it was accomplished by Booth and his team rather than by Harney and his team or by the New York “party” or by some other party or team that is unknown, does not go to the issue of whether or not it was ordered, but only as to whether or not Booth already had his marching orders as a contingency plan in the event of Harney’s failure or received his go-ahead only after Harney was captured.
I favor the first alternative, largely because of John Surratt’s behavior in March and April of 1865, namely two trips to Richmond, returning to Washington from the second trip with a substantial sum of money and then fleeing the country shortly before the assassination, according to his testimony, or immediately after it, according to the testimony of thirteen witnesses who testified at his trial in 1867, all of whom placed him in Washington on the night of the assassination. This interpretation receives further support from the fact that Booth announced to Powell and some of his other co-conspirators (Arnold and Herold are sometimes mentioned) his intention to murder Lincoln (“Now, by God, I’ll put him through”) and soon, before the President would give another speech, after listening to the President address a crowd from the balcony of the Executive Mansion the evening of April 11, enough time for Booth to have received word of Harney’s capture, but probably not enough time for him to receive new orders from Richmond.
But, truly, how much does it matter? The bottom line is that the Confederate leadership had ordered Lincoln’s death and Booth knew it. That conclusion is beyond dispute. It is nearly as certain that he acquired his knowledge of the order not directly from Davis, Benjamin or Seddon, but indirectly from John Surratt, upon the latter’s return from Richmond in early April, or from intermediaries with whom he was in almost constant contact in numerous Northern cities and in Canada.
When the order was given is not known, and may never be, for reasons previously given. But it seems quite likely that it was given shortly after the Wistar and Dahlgren-Kilpatrick raids. Putting aside questions of the authenticity of Wistar’s and Dahlgren’s agendas for a moment, the fact is that the raids, particularly Dahlgren-Kilpatrick’s, had an incendiary effect on the South and immediately gave rise to demands for “retaliation,” “vengeance” and “retribution.”
The only agent in Washington capable of approximating the results that were to have been accomplished by Harney and his party, i.e. the decapitation of Northern leadership, was Booth, who had previously been assigned the lead role in one of the kidnapping plans. He and his action team were literally the last hope of the Confederate leadership. That leadership knew that the Confederacy was beaten and that defeat was imminent. The confusion that would necessarily follow from killing Lincoln, Johnson, Seward, Stanton and Grant offered them at least a glimmer of hope. It was a long shot, to be sure, but a long shot is better than no shot at all.
If Davis, Benjamin, Seddon, et al., had any misgivings at all, it was surely not about the object, which had already been decided upon and planned for, but about the ability of Booth and his band to pull it off. If so, they underestimated Booth’s determination, which was made white hot by the unfolding events:
- The hanging of John Yates Beall (February 25)
- Booth’s missed opportunity to kill Lincoln at his inauguration (March 4);
- Booth’s missed opportunity to capture Lincoln at the Campbell Hospital (March 17);
- The fall of Richmond (April 3);
- Lincoln’s tour of the city (April 4);
- Lee’s surrender (April 9);
- The failure of the Harney mission (April 10);
- Booth’s presence in the audience, with Lewis Powell and perhaps Arnold and Herold, when Lincoln spoke from the balcony of the Executive Mansion about his plans for reconstruction of the South (April 11), a speech in which the President spoke favorably about enfranchising blacks and which so infuriated Booth that he said to his co-conspirators: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Interestingly, Powell later told Thomas T. Eckert that Booth had tried to induce him to shoot the President then and there.
Who was Booth?
The third article in this series profiles Booth and traces his activities leading up to Lincoln’s assassination.
Sources: The sources that were used for this four-part article are listed in part 4.