By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
This is the final 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 suggested the motives the Confederate government had for pursuing political assassination as a war tactic and argued that the Lincoln plot was actually part of a larger, official terror campaign waged by the Confederacy against the Union. Part 3 profiled Booth and traced his activities leading up to the assassination. Part 4 of this series wraps up the analysis of Confederate complicity in the death of Abraham Lincoln and addresses why all of it still matters 145 years later.
So what? Many will no doubt ask that question. All this happened 145 years ago. All of the players are dead. Indeed, even their children and grandchildren are dead. So why bother dredging it all up, fixing guilt where it had not previously resided and perhaps provoking the ire of those who are still not fully reconciled to the events of 1860 through 1865, inflaming heretofore only smoldering embers?
First of all, and quite simply, because it is interesting, which, after all is said and done, is probably the first reason that so many of us read and study history, all history, not just a particular slice of it. It is interesting, entertaining and stimulating to learn what others have done with this brief passage through eternity, this peek through a window that we get. But there are other, more substantial reasons, such as instruction and an application of lessons learned so as to avoid the condemnation of reliving some of it. So often, this is a fitful enterprise, which is to say that we sometimes learn from the mistakes of others, and act accordingly, and sometimes do not, and thus repeat their mistakes. And then there is that elusive commodity, that will o’ the wisp known as truth. As Lincoln himself said: “History is not history unless it is the truth.”
Pilate asked Jesus what may be the most famous question in history: ‘What is truth?’ She is an alluring beauty. Like beauty itself, we cannot define her. Like Odysseus’s sirens, we cannot resist her. Like trying to cross a room by halves, we can never reach her. But we are committed to her because an historian is not an historian if he or she does not pursue truth; he or she is just a storyteller. As Prof. Thomas J. Dimsdale writes in his book The Vigilantes of Montana, “…as the anatomist must not shrink from the corpse, which taints the air as he investigates the symptoms and examines the results of disease, so the historian must either tell the truth for the instruction of mankind, or sink to the level of a mercenary pander, who writes, not to inform the people, but to enrich himself.”
Further, there is truly no such thing as dead history; it is a seamless web. Whatever happens today happens because of what happened yesterday and before then, and so on back to the beginning of the human experience. We are, all of us, influenced hundreds of times in hundreds of ways every day by events that occurred and decisions that were made thousands of years ago and more recently. The use of Roman numerals in this essay is the tiniest example of that.
As for the Civil War, it is surely the most defining event in our history as a nation. It made us one nation, rather than a loose association of semi-sovereign states. It was a crossroads, and as Shelby Foote famously said: “It was a helluva crossroads.” Because it played such a major role in our history, and because its effects are still being felt, we should make every effort to get it straight, knowing all the while that it is impossible to get all of it completely straight (we humans aren’t built that way), but pursuing the elusive commodity anyway because of our love for it and because we hope that the truth, as Jesus said, will set us free.
Are the effects of the war still being felt? Without question. The regions are still not fully reconciled. Southerners still call northerners “Yankees,” always in a pejorative sense, and “snowbirds,” which is somewhat less pejorative. Northerners still call southerners “rednecks” and “crackers,” which are also pejoratives. Literature and the Internet are filled with sentimental paeans to dead heroes and lost causes, as well as hateful screeds, from those who still identify more with their states and their region than with their country, who still have not fully accepted the results of the war and who would still opt for secession and independence if given the chance. Worse, battlefield monuments intended to memorialize mighty men and mighty deeds are still desecrated from time to time, here and there. Will the truth, or at least the continued pursuit of it, facilitate reconciliation? I think so. It is often said that the first step toward the solution of a problem is recognition that one has one.
By nearly unanimous consent, Abraham Lincoln is regarded by American historians as our greatest President. I know there are those who quarrel with that, but they have an ax to grind. By any objective standard, they are wrong. That he was felled, ultimately, by order of one of his countryman, who happened, at the time, to be the Chief Executive of another political entity, whether that political entity is deemed legitimate or not, is something that needs to be established with some degree of certainty and, once so established, needs to be accepted by those who love truth and mean well.
When it is so accepted, the corollary will also be accepted, i.e. that that Chief Executive (Davis) was human like the rest of us, capable of both good and evil, and that far from being a persecuted martyr, he actually got off pretty easily at the hands of a government that was more interested in moving on than in retribution. If some care to temper that conclusion by holding that Davis was acting in response to a belief, genuinely held, even if not accurate, that his victim had ordered the same fate for him, I have no problem with that. The evidence suggests that he did so believe. The recognition of the fact that Davis ordered Lincoln’s death, whether or not he did so believing that he was retaliating in kind, will take us a step closer to complete and final reconciliation of our regions and our people.
Rogue operations are almost unknown in national intelligence gathering and covert actions. That John Wilkes Booth and his band of misfits were an exception to the rule is the myth that Confederate operatives successfully promoted after the Civil War, a myth that has survived into our own time. Recently, however, scholars, building upon old and newly discovered evidence, have shattered that myth. In its place they have made a carefully documented and very persuasive case that in fact Booth was a middle-level agent of the Confederate Secret Service, that his band of misfits were lowest-level grunts and that all of them were separated from the highest levels of the Confederate government by layers of insulation designed to give those highest levels plausible deniability for acts committed pursuant to their orders. Intelligence services throughout the world have operated and continue to operate in the same way.
Confederate sympathizers, and later the Confederate Secret Service, had Lincoln in their sights from the moment he was elected (all the gifts of food sent to him in Springfield upon his election were found to be poisoned), but their activities grew more intense when it became clear that the South would almost certainly lose the war. Moreover, in the last two years of the war (1864 and 1865), other upper-echelon officers of the Federal government were also marked for assassination.
There were numerous motives for destroying Northern leadership, in addition to creating chaos in the Federal Government and in the Union army, including retribution for ending slavery; retribution for the Isaac Wistar and the Dahlgren-Kilpatrick raids against Richmond and, in the latter raid, an alleged written order from Lincoln to kill the Confederate President and his cabinet; retribution for Lincoln’s refusal to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict on anything but his terms, i.e. union and emancipation; retribution for the hanging of John Yates Beall; personal animosity against Lincoln because of his background and style; and the perceived need to preserve hope for Southern independence by elimination of a father figure bent on a magnanimous reconciliation of the regions.
The assassination was part of a terror campaign that preceded and followed the assassination. This included wrecking the Northern economy by shipping gold out of the country; blowing up boats and ships with coal and log bombs; blowing up ammunition dumps with time bombs; attempted spreading of disease in the North by distribution of infected clothing; setting fire to hotels and public buildings in Northern cities; attempting to draw the United Stated into war with Canada (British America) and Great Britain by making cross-border raids on American cities from Canada; and the systematic murder of prisoners of war by deprivation and disease.
Abduction and assassination plots were constantly being hatched by the Confederate Secret Service after the war began, but with greater intensity and purpose as it progressed, reaching their apogee in the last full year of the war and in the early months of 1865. The Confederate government set up cells of operatives in many Northern cities and in Montreal and Toronto. Acting on instructions given to them in Richmond or couriered to them from Richmond, these operatives did their best to undermine the Northern war effort in ways deemed effective not so much by them as by their superiors in Richmond. It is likely that assassination of at least Lincoln was ordered after the Dahlgren-Kilpatrick raid because of the alleged order previously referred to. This order, despite the fact that its authenticity is highly questionable, because Lincoln would never have issued such an order and because such an order would almost certainly not have been committed to writing regardless of who issued it, inflamed the Southern people and gave rise to calls for retribution in kind.
As the war neared its end, Thomas F. Harney, an explosives expert from the Confederate Torpedo Bureau, was sent to Washington for the purpose of decapitating Northern leadership by blowing up a wing of the White House after as many of such leaders as possible were lured into that wing. En route, he was joined by a force of about 150 men detached from Mosby’s Rangers. He and some of the men under his command were captured and the mission was aborted on April 10, 1865. It appears likely that the acts carried out by Booth and the men and woman under his command and control four days later were a contingency plan for accomplishing the decapitation in the event of the failure of the Harney mission.
Booth was a very famous and accomplished actor. He was a strong supporter of the Southern cause and was an agent of the Confederate Secret Service. He was actively engaged in clandestine activities for the South for years, including spying, blockade-running and smuggling. He traveled extensively to many Northern cities, especially New York, and to Canada, to meet with Confederate operatives. He also traveled to southern Maryland and Virginia to meet with other members of the Secret Service and to arrange for their help with his escape from Washington to Richmond.
Events moved rapidly in March and April, 1865:
- On March 4 Booth attended Lincoln’s Second Inauguration and, he later said, missed an opportunity to kill the President then. It appears that he attempted to do so, but was thwarted by the President’s guards.
- On March 17 his plan to abduct the President at Campbell Hospital failed. From March 21 through 24 Booth was in New York conferring with Confederate Secret Service agents.
- On April 3, Richmond fell.
- On April 4, Lincoln toured the city as a conquering hero, at least to the freed blacks, which infuriated Booth.
- On April 9, Lee surrendered.
- On April 10, Harney was captured, thereby activating Booth’s mission.
- On April 11, Booth listened to Lincoln speak from the balcony of the Executive Mansion and announced to Powell and perhaps Arnold and/or Herold, who may also have been with him, that he was going to assassinate the President and soon.
- On the evening of April 14, armed only with a single-shot Derringer and a dagger, the preponderance of the evidence is that he calmly walked up to Charles Forbes, Lincoln’s footman and messenger, who was guarding the President’s box in Ford’s Theater and who was probably unarmed, handed him a card, was allowed to pass into the President’s box and then used the Derringer to murder the President and the dagger to facilitate his escape.
Booth escaped on a horse that was being held for him in the alley behind the theater. He made his way to a crossing of the Potomac River where a sentry allowed him to cross without a pass upon his giving his real name. Shortly after, the sentry also allowed David Herold to cross without a pass upon his giving a false name. The President’s police guard, John F. Parker, had left his post and was either elsewhere in the theater watching the play or in a bar adjacent to the theater. Forbes and Parker, especially Parker, and the sentry who allowed Booth and Herold to cross the Potomac after the assassination, must be suspected of treachery. It must be regarded as nearly certain, too, that Booth had help – co-conspirators who gave him information relative to the schedules of Federal office-holders and/or who arranged elements of the plots to capture or assassinate such officers.
At the trial of the conspirators before a military commission in May and June, 1865, very persuasive and conclusive evidence of the guilt of the conspirators was presented, but those witnesses who linked Davis to the conspiracy were discredited by allegations and evidence of perjury. One (Dunham) was later tried and convicted of perjury and was imprisoned. This created a great deal of confusion and uncertainty with respect to Davis, which induced Federal prosecutors not to pursue a case against him, though there were other reasons as well, political reasons, for not trying him. He was released on bail in May, 1867, and pardoned by President Johnson in December,1868. Strangely, many others whose complicity in the crimes of April 14 was all but certain were never tried, either because proof was lacking, as Federal prosecutors claimed, or because of undue influence in high places or simply because of plausible deniability guaranteed by human buffering.
The whole truth of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is not and probably never will be known. That fact, however, should not deter us from pursuing the truth. The Civil War, the effects of which are with us every day, is the most defining event in American history. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is the most defining moment of that event. Accordingly, we should continue to make every effort to get it straight, and we will, and damn the torpedoes.
On Inconvenient Truth and Convenient Fiction
On Trees and Forests: Correcting History’s View of J. Wilkes Booth
Booth in the Confederate Secret Service
Lincoln’s Assassination: Three Riddles
Sources: (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
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