by Al Benson Jr.
Member, Board of Directors, Confederate Society of America
The trial of the Lincoln conspirators was labeled by Dave McGowan, whose material we have been quoting, as “one of the most sordid chapters of US history.
In an article I previously wrote several years back now and which is up on http://www.southernheritage411.com entitled The Hanging of Mary Surratt I noted that “Reverdy Johnson, Mrs. Surratt’s first attorney, had contended that the military court that tried the conspirators was without proper authority to do so as long as the civil courts were sitting. This was something that was argued for nearly a century and I’ll bet you could still get a heated debate going about it in some circles.” My opinion at the time I wrote that agreed with Reverdy Johnson’s. It still does.
Dave McGowan, in Why Everything You Think You Know About The Lincoln Assassination Is Wrong went into some detail about all this. He stated that: “US Navy Secretary Gideon Welles is on record as stating that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wanted the alleged conspirators to be ‘tried and executed before President Lincoln was buried.” Stanton was in a big hurry. He wanted it all over and done with before the furor died down and people had a chance to reflect on any of it.
McGowan noted that “Stanton favored a military trial, a course of action opposed by various other members of the Lincoln cabinet, including both Welles and former Attorney General Edward Bates, who noted that ‘if the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs with half the world.’ Many believed that a military trial would be unconstitutional given that all the defendants were civilians. Stanton nevertheless prevailed. It would in fact be later determined that the proceedings had been unconstitutional, both because the suspects were subjected to military ‘justice’ and because they were denied their right to individual trials. That ruling would not, however, resurrect the five alleged conspirators who paid with their lives.” So Stanton prevailed. He usually did.
McGowan referred to it as “what passed for a trial” and noted that “the prisoners were held in appalling conditions aboard two ironclad vessells, the Montauk and the Saugus…Very special attention appears to have been paid to Lewis Powell. Throughout his confinement, Powell was personally guarded by Thomas T. Eckert, which is undoubtedly the only time in the nation’s history that a sitting Assistant Secretary of War served as a lowly prison guard. Even more curiously, despite the fact that Powell was kept shackled, hooded, isolated, and otherwise deprived, he was nevertheless allowed to keep a knife while imprisoned. And false reports were circulated indicating that he was suicidal. It is perfectly clear, in retrospect, that the government had contingency plans to have Powell ‘suicided’ if necessary.”
And the members of the nine-man military tribunal were of interest, even if only due to the fact that all had been handpicked by Stanton. Most of them were almost totally unknown to the public and the two that were known hardly had stellar war records. It seems as though Stanton was majoring in nonentities. McGowan also observed that none of them really had a clue about the “rule of law or about evidentiary or procedural rules. That didn’t prove to be a problem though–they just made up the tribunal rules as they went along.”
All, according to McGowan, “appeared to be qualified largely by their prejudices, total ignorance of the law, and subservience to the will of the prosecutors. It was common talk in Washington that the military commission was assembled for the purpose of convicting the accused persons–not to weigh the merits of their cases.” It was the sort of proceeding that gives Kangaroo Courts a bad name.
McGowan noted something else I have never seen mentioned anywhere else. He said “Besides being completely unqualified to sit in judgment of the accused, the panel had something else in common, as various photographs reveal: many of them, maybe all of them, were Freemasons. As were the prosecutors. And at least some of the defense attorneys. And Edwin Stanton. And Lafayette Baker. And John Wilkes Booth. And seemingly just about everyone else who played a prominent role in the assassination conspiracy and cover-up. And many of the generals who directed the action on the battlefields of the Civil War. On both sides.” Interesting observation, especially in the case of the people involved with the “trial.”
Given the situation, it is doubtful that any defense attorney could have spared any of their clients from their preordained ends. All that was required for a conviction was a simple majority, with only one additional vote needed to impose the death penalty. And the court’s ruling was final–no appeals allowed. That this was openly unconstitutional barely needs to be mentioned. As has already been noted, this Kangaroo Court made up its rules as it went along. Easier to keep the defendants off balance if you do it that way because what may have been allowed yesterday may not be allowed today so you never really knew where you stood.
You have to realize what the game was here. Stanton was not just putting these eight defendants on trial–he was putting the entire Confederacy on trial in what McGowan described as “a shameless attempt to inflame public opinion and inspire bloodlust.” “Witnesses” spread wild stories of “Plots to burn Northern cities, start epidemics, instigate ‘riots’ and other nefarious deeds, including poisoning public water supplies, destroying historical buildings…Most of these alleged plots were never actually carried out. And even if they had been, none of that had any relevance at all as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants and would not have been allowed into evidence in any legitimate court proceedings.”
There were a few more slight problems with some of what went on. McGowan noted (and I have seen the same thing from other sources) that “Another problem with the introduction of such testimony is that most of the ‘witnesses’ who delivered it didn’t actually exist. One such witness who testified as ‘Sanford Conover,’ for example, was actually Charles Dunham, who also used the alias ‘James Watson Wallace.’ It was later revealed that Dunham had run what was dubbed a ‘school for perjured witnesses’ at the National Hotel, where he had coached others on how to properly deliver their perjured testimony. Dunham soon found himself in prison after being convicted for both perjury and suborning perjury. One of those receiving schooling was ‘Richard Montgomery,’ who was actually James Thompson, a burgler from New York with a long criminal record. Appearing as ‘Henry Van Steinaker’ was Hans Von Winklestein, a prison inmate who gained his release shortly after testifying. A Canadian presented to the court as ‘Dr. James Merritt’ was denounced by his own government as a fraud and a quack. And so on.” Bear in mind, these were all government witnesses testifying against the alleged conspirators. Does any of this sound familiar today? Notice any similarities in the supposed “Russian collusion” of Donald Trump which has now been overthrown despite efforts to paint him as “an agent of Putin?” How many of those trying to nail Trump’s hide to the wall have been caught lying to Congress? Pardon the digression here, but it just goes to show that little has changed in Sodom on the Potomac since the days of Edwin Stanton.
In fact, one of the defense attorneys, Doster, “whose vehement objection to the introduction of irrelevant, inflammatory testimony was overruled, would later claim that some of the other prosecution witnesses were actually NDP detectives paid by the government for their testimony. And it would later be revealed that NDP chief Lafayette Baker’s orders to his underlings instructed them to ‘extort confessions and procure testimony to establish the conspiracy…by promises, rewards, threats, deceit, force, or any other effectual means.'” Your government’s tax dollars at work!
Quite a few of these government ‘witnesses’ had their palms greased with lots of long green. The Canadian, Merritt, whose own government denounced him as a fraud, ended up with a check for $6,000 for his quackery. That’s pretty good money for 1865.
Guilty or not guilty, with this kind of testimony prevailing and with a set of judges that were going to convict no matter what, anyone even remotely entertaining the thought that the Lincoln conspirators received a fair trial is prone to the wildest of “I trust my government” delusion!
With this kind of “justice” prevalent in Washington, do you really blame the Southern states for wanting to secede and form their own government? These defendants were going to be found guilty even had they been able, in some way, to show they were innocent. I feel the hanging of Mary Surratt was a travesty of justice. How many of the others really knew Booth was going to kill Lincoln? Some, no doubt, but did they all? Did that poor guy who held Booth’s horse in the back alley know what Booth was going to do? He hung for it anyway.
Stanton wanted all these folks out of the way as quickly as possible–no possible witnesses left–alive anyway–and button the whole episode up, confining it to Booth and his misfits so it would go no further. But it has. Stanton’s efforts to confine it to Booth and company have not borne fruit, else so much would not have been written all about this in the last 150 years. And, in God’s Providence, there will be more to come.