The Conspiracy to Assassinate President Lincoln
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was scarfed with a conspiracy. The accident took place on April 14, 1865, when the American civil war was ending. It happened just five days after the General Robert E. Lee, the overall commander of the Northern Virginia Confederate Army, surrendered to Lieutenant General U.S. Grant and the Union army of the Potomac. Abraham Lincoln became the first president of the United States of America to undergo assassination, although there had been unsuccessful attempts on Andrew Jackson 30 years before in 1835. John Wilkes Booth planned and carried out the assassination, which was part of an extensive conspiracy in an attempt to recover the Confederate dream (Brewer 69).
The other conspirators of Booth were Lewis Powell as well as David Herold. The two were to assassinate the Secretary of State, William H. Seward. In addition, George Atzerodt was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. The conspirators believed that they would cut off the continuity of the government of the United States by killing the three heads of the administration at the same time (Kauffman 185). The murder of President Lincoln occurred while he was watching a play in the company of his wife Mary T. Lincoln in Washington, D.C. The president died the next morning. However, the plot of the other conspirators failed as Powell only succeeded to wound Seward, and Atzerodt lost his nerve and fled instead of killing Johnson.
John W. Booth was a professional actor and had a brother called Edwin who was also a famous actor. Booth had been sympathizing with the Confederate cause and, as a result, had worked to remove the Union government. Their original plan was not to kill the president but to overthrow the Government by kidnapping him. Booth hypothesized that this would disturb the North’s war effort. In turn, it would give the defeated South an excellent chance to keep fighting and continue the demands for prisoner exchanges (Larson 21).
He attended Lincoln’s second inauguration ceremony (Larson 24). By this time, he had assembled at least eight conspirators. The conspirators had agreed to help him accomplish his plan of kidnapping the president. The original plan was to do this while the president attended a theatrical production at Campbell Military Hospital on March 17 the same year. However, Lincoln did not attend the production, which led to the failure of the plan. Instead, he attended another function at the national Hotel.
It is crucial to note that Booth was among the crowd when the president gave a speech on April 11. The speech entailed remarks on the likelihood of issuing voting rights for all freed slaves (Jampoler 15). Jampoler notes, that Booth became remarkably angry from such thoughts that he decided to change his plans (17). As a result, he decided to kill the president instead of just kidnapping him. The assassin came up with a new plan that, if successful, would offer the Confederacy enough time to accumulate its lost strength. This explains his decision to kill the President, Vice-President, as well as the Secretary of state in one night.
The Conspiracy to Kill President Lincoln
To accomplish the mission, Booth relied on the help of accomplices who, in the end, proved to be unreliable. The assassin assigned to Andrew Johnson, the Vice President, rented a room in the hotel that the Vice President was staying. He loitered around for some time but never attempted to carry out the assassination. He left the hotel after asking the bartender some questions concerning the President. In the same fashion, the trial on the Secretary of State also failed. The assassin stabbed him, as well as, some members of his family, in a violent and confusing attack, but did not kill him.
Booth appointed himself to the task of assassinating the president as his conspirators were to kill Seward and Johnson. The three conspirators were to carry out the attacks simultaneously as President Lincoln watched the play “Our American Cousin”. However, only Booth succeeded in the assassination plot. Booth was an actor at Ford’s Theatre, and, as a result, was able to enter and leave the premises without causing suspicion. When the president came in accompanied by his wife, Major Henry Rathbone, as well as Clara Harris, the assassin was already waiting for him.
The assassin slid behind Lincoln, who sat in a rocking chair and shot him directly at the back of his head. Major Rathbone attempted to stop the assassin from escaping, an act that led Booth to stab him and jump from the balcony. A flag caught Booth’s foot, and he fell into the audience. Nevertheless, Booth jumped up while exclaiming the words “Sic Semper Tyrannus” (Larson 21). This Latin phrase means “Thus always to tyrants”. Besides, it is the state motto of Virginia.
The assassin made his way out of the theater by moving quickly across the stage using an unlocked door and slipping away using his waiting house. The killer broke his leg when his horse tripped when he was going to meet an accomplice. John received medical treatment from Dr. Mudd and went on the run with his accomplices (Jampoler 15). However, the Union soldiers caught up with the two at the bam. John’s refusal to emerge from the bam led the soldiers to attempt to burn him out. The commotion led to confusion and Booth did not hear an approaching soldier known as Boston Corbett. The soldier shot John in the head almost the same way the assassin had shot President Lincoln a few days earlier. The assassin’s last words were, “Tell my mum that I died for the sake of my country…” (Jampoler 15). This is a proof of the political overtones of Lincoln assassination.
When the soldiers reached Booth, the President had already died. However, the death of Booth did not end the case. The government of the United States of America tried all the eight conspirators and hanged four of them. The others either received presidential pardon or died in prison (Brewer 69). Jampoler adds to information about the assassination by researching about Booth further (15). In March 1864, the general of the Union Armies decided to stop the exchange of prisoners of war. This harsh decision derived from Grant’s realization that the exchange prolonged the war as the released soldiers rejoined the outnumbered and almost defeated South. Booth, who was a southerner and significantly outspoken Confederate sympathizer, came up with a plan to kidnap the President of the United States of America and take him to the Confederate Army, so that the South would take him hostage until the North accepted to continue exchanging prisoners of war. This led Booth to recruit the other assassins, including John Surratt. Jampoler reports that Booth was a frequent visitor of Surrattsville according to Surratt’s mother (25).
It is also crucial to note that, in the late 1860, President Lincoln’s assassin became a member of the pro-Confederate Knights in Baltimore (Kauffman 100). As already noted, the assassin attended President Lincoln second inauguration ceremony on March 1865, as an invited guest of his girlfriend Lucy Hale. Hale was a daughter of John Hale, who would later become the ambassador of the United States of America to Spain. The assassin would write in his diary that he had wished to kill the President on his inauguration day (Kauffman 185). Theorists have tried to create a link between Lucy Hale, her father and the assassination attempt, but in vain (Jampoler 20).
Jampoler notes that, on March 1865, Booth told his conspirators that President Lincoln would attend a play at Campbell Military Hospital (188). He summoned his associates in a restaurant at the town, with the intention that they joined him on a neighboring stretch of the road in order to get Lincoln on his way from the hospital. However, the president had not attended the play after all, but had gone to the National Hotel for a ceremony of presenting Governor O. Morton with the captured Confederate battle flag. Booth lived at the National Hotel at this time. He would have killed the president easily (Kauffman 185).
At this time, the Confederacy was on the verge of destruction. On April, the Union army took custody of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. In the same month, the Northern Virginian army that was the principal army of the Confederacy surrendered to the Potomac Army. Confederate President J. Davis and the other members of the government fled for their lives. Despite the loss of hope in many Southerners, Booth still believed in his cause. As already noted, Lincoln’s speech about enfranchising former slaves further infuriated Booth, and he settled on the assassination. According to Booth, this translated to Nigger citizenship (Kauffman 90). He vowed that it would be the last speech that the President would give.
In the disorder that resulted from the assassination, there was the arrest and the imprisonment of a significant number of suspected accomplices. These entailed putting into jail everyone that had the slightest contact with the assassin, such as those, who had shared a flight with Booth or Herold. Louis J. Weichmann, a man who had boarded Mrs. Surratt’s house, was among those imprisoned. In addition, Booth’s brother, Junius, theater owner John Ford, James Pumphrey, who was the stable owner from whom the assassin hired his horse, as well as John Lloyd, an innkeeper who had rented Mrs. Surratt’s tavern and issued Booth and Herold carbines, ropes and whiskey faced arrests. Besides, there was also the arrest of Samuel Cox and Thomas Jones, who had aided Booth and Herold to escape across the Potomac (Brewer 20). There was the rounding up, imprisonment and release of all the people above mentioned. In the end, the suspects narrowed down to only eight prisoners, among whom was one woman. These were Samuel Arnold, G. Atzerodt, D. Herold, S. Mudd, M. O’Laughlen, Lewis Powel, Edmund Spangler and Mary Surratt.
The suspects underwent trial by a military tribunal initiated by the President Andrew Johnson in April 1865. The fact that the suspects faced a military tribunal led to widespread criticism from people who believed that civil courts were best for such a case. Proponents of the use of the military courts, like Attorney General James Speed, justified the use of the military tribunal arguing that consisted of the military nature of the assassin’s conspiracy (Kauffman 206). They argued that the suspected conspirators had behaved like enemy combatants. The presence of martial law in Columbia, the district that carried out the hearings, also justified the application of martial law. It is crucial to note that, in 1866, the United States of America abolished the use of any military tribunals in regions that had civil courts (Kauffman 209).
The hearings were also prejudicial against the defendants as the rules of the time only demanded a small majority of the officer jury in order to pass a guilty verdict, as well as two-thirds majority for a suspect to get the death sentence. In addition, the defendants could not appeal to any other person apart from the President Johnson. The trial went on for approximately seven weeks, and 366 witnesses testified. Weichmann, just released from custody, became a key witness. All the defendants received the guilty verdict on June 30. Mary Surratt, L. Powell, D. Herold, and G. Atzerodt received the death sentence by hanging. S. Mudd, S. Arnold, as well as M. O’Laughlen, received life imprisonment.
Mudd escaped execution by one vote as the tribunal had voted 5-4 against the death sentence. Edmund Spangler received six-year imprisonment. Strangely, after the jury voted to sentence Mary Surratt to death, five jurors signed a letter pushing for clemency. However, President Johnson refused to grant them their wish of stopping the execution (Jampoler 23). The president later argued, that he had never received the letter. This led Mary Surratt to become the first woman to undergo execution by the United States government. On the other hand, Spangler received a presidential pardon in February 1869, and he insisted for the rest of his life that he had nothing to do with the assassination plot.
Mudd’s culpability has always been controversial. This doctor treated Booth after the assassination. Some proponents maintain that Mudd did not commit any wrongdoing. He was only treating a man with a fractured leg who had knocked at his house late at night. The most outspoken proponent of this view was Mudd’s grandson, Richard Mudd. A century after the killing, President Jimmy Carter as well as Ronald Reagan sent letters to the grandson agreeing that Mudd had not committed a crime.
On the contrary, authors like Edward Steers and James Swanson, posit that Mudd paid visits to Booth three times in the period leading to the failed kidnapping attempt (Brewers 30). The first time was when Booth came to see him after receiving directions from the Confederate Secret Service. The two also met with the aim of introducing Booth to a Confederate agent, John Surratt. Besides, Booth met Mudd and stayed for the night at Mudd’s farm at around the same time. Atzerodt gave a testimony that Mudd received supplies from Booth in anticipation for the kidnapping plan. A formidable hypothesis is that Mudd was an active proponent of the kidnapping plot, probably as the link the conspirators would go to in the case that Lincoln sustained injuries. This might mean that Booth remembered Mudd and went to him for treatment after he had fractured his leg from the fall.
The death of President Lincoln was a significant blow to a remarkable number of people. After years of a brutal war, a substantial number of people had come to believe that the bloodshed had eventually finished. The assassination killed any option for a positive stance to reconstruction. The successor, President Johnson was extremely weak and unpopular and, as a result, unable to manage the radical republicans chosen in the Congress. The radicals adopted a remarkable harsh Reconstruction that consisted of military occupation, as well as the abolishment of all former Confederates from the position of elected officials. The reconstruction led to increased political instability rather than providing cure to the sores of the country (Larson 50). The history of the South might have been significantly different had it not been for that single gun that shot the President Lincoln. The death of Lincoln was the end of the dream of a peaceful Reconstruction. It was possible for the radical Republicans to institute a harsh Reconstruction policy, since the President Lincoln who was no longer in the capacity to stand for leniency in relating with the after-war South. These harsh policies had a lasting effect on the South. Region still feels the impacts of those policies as well as the aftermath of the president assassination.