Swift Justice
The Sentencing of the Lincoln Conspirators

John Wilkes
     The public outcry of vengeance in the wrongful death of the 16th President of the United States did not go unheeded as the government intended to prosecute swift justice on those charged with the conspiracy so conceived by the late actor John Wilkes Booth; having been cornered and executed at the Garrett Farm in Port Royal, Virginia only twelve days after he wrought pandemonium throughout Washington City for his violent act on Friday Night April 14th, 1865.
     The conspirators that partook in this dark operation had all been rounded up and charged a few short days afterwards. Pursuant to War Department Special Orders, No. 211 of May 6th, and Special Orders No. 216, of May 9, 1865, a military commission listened to the charges and specifications brought against; David E. Herold, George A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, Mary E. Surratt, Michael O'Laughlin, Edward Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Doctor Samuel A. Mudd.
     The plot to murder, both President and Vice President, Secretary of State as well as the Lieutenant General commanding the Armies of the United States would have by law caused electors once again to determine who would lead the country in the event of their death; a heinous scheme and desperate measure that a lost Confederacy would have the slightest opportunity to survive.
     The specifications to the charge associated both Edward Spangler and David E. Herald with the personal assistance to John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre that night. Spangler guilty perhaps of simply holding the actor's horse out back, not having accompanied the assassin into the theatre itself, was charged with barricading the door to the outside of the Presidential Box to assist in blocking any outsiders from coming to the aide of the President.
     This same hour while Lincoln was being assaulted at the theatre, Lewis Payne entered the house of Secretary of State William Seward, with knife and pistol attempt to murder him while he lay in bed, succeeding only in grievously wounding his son, Frederick W. Seward as well as Augustus H. Seward, Emrick W. Hansell, and George F. Robinson all frantically attempting to spare the life of the ill Secretary.
     George Atzerodt fled the scene at the National Hotel just before Vice President Andrew Johnson answered an unexpected knock at the door; he too was implicated in the conspiracy to murder and charged accordingly. Although Lieutenant General Grant had left Washington City previously, Michael O'Laughlin had been assigned to add him to the list of political casualties, however, he waited in vain.
     While the details of this great tragic act were being engineered and mapped out, Mrs. Mary Surratt, sheltered and fed the conspirators perhaps knowing more than she ought. Her involvement with the plot to kill the President at first went unnoticed. During the trial, the testimony of two, established that on the morning of the 14th of April, J. Wilkes personally presented Mrs. Surratt with a package to be delivered to the tavern, in it was a field glass to be ready for pick up later on that night with the carbines already there. Both John Lloyd as well as George Atzerodt recalled this incident. The field glass became the one item that directly linked Mrs. Surratt to the master plan.
Samuel Arnold
     The trial proceeded until early July when, the military commission published their findings. David E. Herald, George Atzerodt, Lewis Payne and Mary E. Surratt were all found guilty and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Michael O'Laughlin, guilty of conspiracy was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. Edward Spangler was found guilty only in aiding the escape of J. Wilkes Booth from the theatre, causing his departure to be far easier than it could have been. He was thus sentenced to six years in prison. Samuel Arnold was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. Likewise, Doctor Samuel Mudd, had been found guilty of conspiring with the assassins and sentenced to life imprisonment.
     From the Executive Mansion that same day, July 5, 1865, President Andrew Johnson endorsed the sentence awarded the Lincoln Conspirators approving of the execution and ordered it to be carried out between the hours of 10 o'clock am and 2 o'clock pm the 7th day of July 1865. Furthermore, Samuel Arnold, Samuel A. Mudd, Edward Spangler, and Michael O'Laughlin were to be confined at hard labor at the penitentiary in Albany, New York. A second Executive Order was published on the 15th day of July 1865 modifying the place of incarceration to those committed to serve life sentences confining them instead within the military prison at Dry Tortugas, Florida.
     Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, U.S. Volunteers, then commanding the Middle Military Division, caused the execution of the four, watching as they fell from the gallows, then seeing those who remained off to Dry Tortugas, Florida days later.
     Justice had been served to a mourning nation still grieving over the loss of their President. Swift and powerful had the government acted in bringing finality to a most sorrowful war. Dead or imprisoned were those who felt the death of President Abraham Lincoln would change the world. They were right. It had.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2004

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwars.net