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The trial of the Lincoln conspirators

The trial of the Lincoln conspirators

The National Defense University and Fort McNair last week dedicated Grant Hall, which contains a re-creation of the 1865 court room where the Lincoln conspirators were tried. Below are comments made at the dedication by Hans Binnendijk, former vice president of NDU, who led the team that remodeled Grant Hall and recreated the trial scene:

This evening we are gathered to dedicate Grant Hall and to witness the recreation of the 1865 court room where justice was dispensed to those conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and to decapitate the United States government. It is here that the last chapter of our calamitous Civil War ended.

It is fitting that this historic building be named in honor of Ulysses S. Grant, the General-in-Chief of the Union Army during our Civil War and subsequently our 18th President. He was in command while the trial of the Lincoln conspirators took place and this part of the original penitentiary was preserved during his presidential administration. Grant Hall’s proximity to Lincoln Hall reminds us of the friendship and trust these two men shared.

The trial began on May 9, 1865, less than a month after Lincoln’s assassination. A laundry room above the Deputy Warden’s quarters was converted to a court room.  That court room now looks much as it did in 1865. The eight defendants were held in the cells isolated, handcuffed and chained. The men were forced to wear cloth hoods over their heads. The nine person jury or commission was made up predominantly of Army officers.  The use of a military court to try civilians was controversial at that time, as it is now. A simple majority was needed to find guilt and a 2/3rds majority was required for the death penalty. Defense attorneys were given very little time to prepare. There was no appeal except to President Andrew Johnson.  And he was in no mood to grant appeals.

The trial lasted longer than Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would have liked. He wanted a very speedy trial to avoid any chance of rekindling the Confederacy. A total of 351 witnesses were called. On July 5 the commission sent its verdict to President Johnson who concurred with all of their findings except for clemency for Mary Surratt.

On July 6 the defendants were told about their fate and on July 7, 1865, four were hanged.  Alexander Gardner captured their execution in a series of photos that set a new standard at the time for photojournalism. The other four defendants were sent to prison in the Dry Tortugas – three returned alive. Three of the four who were hanged (Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold) were in my view clearly guilty of a capital offense.  Powell assailed and nearly killed Secretary of State Seward. Atzerodt got drunk and decided not to assassinate Andrew Johnson, but he had advance knowledge of the plot. Herold joined Booth in his escape.

The fate of Mary Surratt has led to continued controversy. Many books and now the movie The Conspirator argue her case. She was certainly a Confederate sympathizer and her son John Surratt was among the earliest of Booth’s conspirators. Her boarding house on H Street was considered to be "the nest in which the plot was hatched."  She visited her home in what is now Clinton, Maryland, on the day of the assassination to deliver a package for John Wilkes Booth; that was Booth’s first stop after assassinating Lincoln. The issue became "what did she know and when did she know it." There was clearly some witness-tampering and she was convicted based on circumstantial evidence.

With this ceremony, Grant Hall joins several other buildings that played a crucial role in the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination and that have been renovated. There is Ford’s Theater with its wonderful museum in the basement, the Peterson House where Lincoln died; the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland; and now Grant Hall. Mary Surratt’s boarding house on H Street has a historic plaque on it but remains a Chinese restaurant. That should be the renovators’ next target.