A Sockdologizing National Trap

The world on April 15th, 1865 could hardly have looked rosier for Abraham Lincoln. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse five days earlier. The president, who for months had looked worn and tired, told his cabinet on that day how wonderful he felt. To celebrate the end of the war, he and Mary Todd Lincoln attended the comedy, My American Cousin at Ford’s Theater.

Reportedly, he was laughing at the line, “you sockdologizing old man-trap!” whenLincoln shot John Wilkes Booth shot him. What followed was the largest manhunt in United States history, personally directed by Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Soldiers located Booth in a barn in rural Virginia. He was shot and killed during the attempt to arrest him. Scores of others tangentially related to Booth were also arrested. The list of in-custody conspirators was eventually whittled down to eight people: Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt. Their trial before a military tribunal began in May 1865.

Secretary of War Stanton pushed to use a military tribunal as the court for the conspirators. In the opinion of Gideon Wells, the Secretary of the Navy, Stanton was determined to see the conspirators tried and executed before Lincoln’s burial. (He didn’t make his deadline. Lincoln was buried May 4th before the trial began).

lincoln-conspiracy-wanted-posterMany inside and outside of the government thought the conspirators should be tried in a civilian court. The Attorney General ultimately determined, however, that a tribunal was appropriate. The military’s commander in chief had been murdered within a jurisdiction governed by martial law prior to the cessation of hostilities. The War Department, he reasoned, represented the appropriate agency for the proceedings.

The odds were stacked against the conspirators. The nine-member military commission judging the case consisted of Union officers. A simple majority was required for a conviction (a two-thirds majority was required for a death sentence). The only appeal was to President Andrew Johnson, himself a target of the conspiracy. The defendants only received legal counsel three days prior to the start of the proceedings. Throughout the run up to the trial, most of the defendants were jailed aboard ship, shackled and required to wear canvas hoods which covered their heads and faces. The Commission forbade the defendants from testifying in their own behalf.

Confederate terrorism in the latter stages of the war, as well as the particular defendants, became the focus of the trial. Through 366 witnesses spread over seven weeks, the testimony detailed desperate Confederate plots to disrupt life in the North, including polluting the water supplies of cities and infecting clothing with yellow fever. The specific evidence against the defendants lay along a continuum, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt seemed clearly guilty. O’Laughlin participated in a plot to kidnap Lincoln, a plan which was never enacted. The case against Dr. Samuel Mudd, Mary Surratt and Edmund Spangler seems less clear. Spangler held the reins of Booth’s horse while one of America’s most famous actors entered Ford’s theater to shoot the president. The conspirators met in Surratt’s boarding house and Dr. Mudd set the leg of an injured patient, the escaping John Wilkes Booth. The criminal intent of all three has been debated in the ensuing years.

The evidence and summations concluded during the last week of June. On thelincoln-conspiracy-3 29th, the Commission met to review the evidence. On the 30th, they returned their verdicts. All the conspirators were convicted. Four (Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Surratt) were sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. Three (Arnold, Mudd and O’Laughlin) were sentenced to hard labor for life. Spangler received a six-year sentence. (John Surratt, Mary’s son, fled the United States. Upon his capture, John was tried in a civilian court. His case ended in a hung jury.)

Mary Surratt’s lawyer obtained an emergency writ of habeas corpus to forestall the execution. President Johnson, however, suspended the right to habeas corpus in “cases such as this.” Johnson reportedly viewed Surratt’s house as “the nest which hatched the egg.”

All four were hanged together on July 7th, 1865. Mary Surratt became the first woman to be executed by the United States government.

In the last decades, America has again experienced the tension between expedient justice in times of national crises and constitutional safeguards. The modern debate is not that different from that faced by Stanton and Wells. Can the deliberative processes of our Constitutional framework respond to terrorism and foreign threats? Some argue that the United States might be a better place if we could merely sweep away a few of the legal barriers to action and make our national government more facile? But if they were removed, then as Robert Bolt posed in A Man For All Seasons, where do we hide when the Devil turns on us?  The trial of the Lincoln conspirators raised many of the same questions citizens and lawmakers still grapple with today.

The Lincoln Conspirators trial concluded during the final week of June 1865. For the questions it raised both then and now, I’ve made it the Trial of the Month.

Mark Thielman

2 thoughts on “A Sockdologizing National Trap

  1. You pose a great question that will (and should) be continuously debated. The Patriot Act loosened some of the “safeguards,” which many say was necessary to combat the threat of domestic terrorism. I believe the world in which we live today, with the real threat of state-sponsored terrorism, requires a different approach and different tools that a judicial system designed for traditional crime is ill equipped to handle. Part of the question today, which was the same as faced with Lincoln’s assassination, is whether an act should be considered an act of war or a crime.


    1. Great point, Brian. The attorney general’s decision to authorize a military tribunal was, as noted, controversial. Since the assassination of Lincoln involved a larger plot to kill not only the president but also the vice president and the secretary of state, the finding that the goal was to advance the South’s war aims by disrupting the federal government was more than mere blood lust on the part of Stanton.


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