Here Come De Judge(s)

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 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.


15 thoughts on “Here Come De Judge(s)

  1. Now here is a question I have always asked as a student of Col. John Singleton Mosby, the notorious guerrilla/partisan. Stanton blamed Mosby for being the “leader” in the assassination. Mosby had already been sentenced to death by hanging if captured DURING the war. Powell was one of Mosby’s men and before going to Booth, met with a friend of his, Ben Palmer, also a Mosby Ranger. Powell was permitted to send for Palmer which meant that Powell’s ultimate destination with Booth could not have been unknown to Mosby, neither did the Confederate Secret Service want Mosby kept ignorant of Powell’s assignment. Were that so, he never would have been allowed to speak with Palmer, a favorite of Mosby’s.

    Stanton revoked Mosby’s parole immediately after the war and he was an outlaw from Lee’s surrender until June of 1865. Yet, even after Powell was captured and his association with Mosby known (and it WAS known!) Powell was never asked to testify that Mosby was involved in the plot! We know that Wirz was offered his life if he said that the Confederate government was involved with the mistreatment of Union prisoners (he wouldn’t and so was hanged!) but apparently no such offer was made to Powell. Why? Mosby was SO hated in the North, his involvement in the assassination would have been welcomed. Yet, even as an outlaw, no mention was made of Lincoln’s death — not by Stanton, not by Grant, not by ANY member of the federal government or military. Again, WHY? Mosby was a perfect foil; no one would have questioned his involvement since it was believed that he routinely murdered prisoners.

    Even after he was paroled, Mosby was constantly harassed and arrested and the press made every attempt to have him “brought to justice,” but NEVER was the Lincoln assassination presented as a crime in which Mosby was even tangentially involved DESPITE his open acknowledgement of Powell. Many years later, John Mosby called Powell one of his best men though he was with the command for a relatively short time. I cannot think of a more astonishing turn of events than the much hated John Mosby being charged with leading the plot to assassinate Lincoln one day and literally being ignored afterward even though one of his men — Lewis Powell — was hanged as a conspirator. You figure it out.

  2. There are so many unanswered questions to this situation. All I can say at this point is that there was something going on that affected both Northern and Southern individuals that we are not aware of even today. Your questions about Powell are good ones, I wish I had better answers. I don’t doubt that Stanton and some of his cohorts in the North were part of this. By the same token, there were some in the South that had involvement in some way. I don’t think the Confederate government as such was involved but some in it may have known something. I have always kind of wondered about Judah Benjamin, Davis’ always smiling cabinet member. Something about him just doesn’t ring true to me. I don’t know that he had anything to do with this particular situation but I have always wondered where his first loyalty really lay. It has been said he was a Rothchild agent, and I don’t doubt that one bit.

    • Is there any truth to the rumor that Judah Benjamin left the South with Confederate gold,etc.? This is all fascinating, and surprisingly relevant.

      • I’m not all that sure Judah Benjamin got away with that much gold, though he did have enough to get himself to the West Indies and from there to England. And once he was in England, no one from this country bothered him, same as they never bothered John Surratt while he was in Europe. In both cases, it’s not like US authorities didn’t know where these people were if they had wanted to extradite them. They just didn’t bother. For some reason they were just not interested. That has to tell us something.

  3. What do you think of this new book on the man who bankrolled the assassination? “Forget what you thought you knew about why Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. No, it was not mere sectional hatred, Booth’s desire to become famous, Lincoln’s advocacy of black suffrage, or a plot masterminded by Jefferson Davis to win the war by crippling the Federal government. Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.’s The Million-Dollar Man Who Helped Kill a President: George Washington Gayle and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln exposes the fallacies regarding each of those theories and reveals both the mastermind behind the plot, and its true motivation.?

    • Basically the book claims to prove that an Alabama lawyer named George Washington Gayle raised a million dollars for anyone to murder Lincoln. Gayle even advertised for a hit man in local Alabama papers. Northern papers picked up on the local advertisement. After the war Gayle was arrested, imprisoned, but later pardoned by President Johnson. The author says all this is documented in newspaper accounts.

      • As far as obtaining accurate history from news accounts, I wrote a book on Colonel John Singleton Mosby based upon over 7,000 newspaper articles from 750 newspapers entitled A Thousand Points of Truth: The History and Humanity of Col. John Singleton Mosby in Newsprint. Now, I think that there was ONE post-war story that was entirely accurate consisting of the statement: “It is said that Col. Mosby is the best pistol shot in Virginia.” Other than that, ALL the other stories were in some way inaccurate. Of course, the true story of who and what Mosby was appeared in the papers, but there were an awful lot of stories over a period of over half a century (1862 through 1916, the year Mosby died) so sheer volume accounted for what accuracy there was. I don’t know if I would believe a very limited story told by ANY newspaper (or papers) because a lot depended upon the particular publications’ views on the Judge! If you read the papers who hated Mosby you would have thought him the most wicked man who ever lived.

  4. there have been those who claimed that Mosby, because of Lewis Powell, was somehow connected to Lincoln’s assassination. At this point I can’t really address that. I don’t have that much knowledge about Mosby, though he is a man I have always respected. I can remember that television series about him when I was still a kid.

    • Mosby was certainly involved in a plot to KIDNAP Lincoln for which Powell was a necessity. Lincoln was a large, powerful man; Booth was not. Booth and his other companions could not have overcome Lincoln but Powell could. However, if it had been an assassination (as it became) Powell would hardly have been necessary.

      Mosby would do NOTHING that was contrary to the rules of war but those rules had been thrown out the window by the North. The Dahlgren-Kilpatrick “Richmond raid” was designed to assassinate the Confederate government, so, of course, all bets were off. Nonetheless, I don’t think Mosby would have participated in an assassination ESPECIALLY so late in the war when it would not have solved anything — as indeed, it did not.

  5. I would tend to agree with your assessment here. I can’t picture Mosby taking part in a killing such as that. Kidnapping possibly, as it was considered by both sides that executive kidnapping was allowable but I can’t agree that Southern leadership would have killed Lincoln that way. Lots of folks don’t agree, but that’s okay. And as you note, it was so late in the war it would not have solved anything anyway.

    • There was an article that came into my possession about money being raised to “remove” Lincoln but it was a matter of kidnapping, not assassination. I hadn’t the room to put it in the first book (I have another on a CD containing ALL the articles I had obtained), but it was very interesting and, of course, Mosby’s name was mentioned.

      Cleveland Morning Leader – March 21st, 1864
      Schemes for Kidnapping the President
      Saturday night’s telegraph brings and account of the schemes laid by the wily rebels to carry off the President. We lay before our readers somewhat additional particulars. Speaking of the scheme, the Tribune correspondent says of the rebel Secretary:

      The Secretary of War thought this scheme might succeed; but he doubted whether such a proceeding would be of a military character and justifiable under the laws of war. He promised, however, to consult the President and Mr. Benjamin; but what conclusion was arrived at I am unable with certainty to say. About a week, however, after the plan was submitted, and the same day that Colonel Margrave left for the North, I asked Mr. Wellford, who is familiar with all the secrets of the Department, if the plan had been adopted, and he answered, “You will see Old Abe here in the Spring as sure as God.” A few days afterward I was sent to Atlanta, and never returned to Richmond to hear about the matter.

      But this is not the only scheme by any means that has been devised for kidnapping our President. Last Summer a club or society of wealthy citizens of Richmond was formed for the purpose of raising a fund for this object. Circulars were sent to trustworthy citizens in every other city and town in the Confederacy, inviting co-operatioin in the grand undertaking, and an immense sum of money was subscribed. The firm of Maury & Co, bankers, in Richmond, subscribed $10,000, and Sumner & Arents, auctioneers, subscribed $5,000; and I have heard on good authority that ther were several in the capital who subscribed even more liberally than the parties named, but who they were I did not learn. One man of Charleston, South Carolina, whose name I have forgotten subscribed $20,000. It was proposed when all was ready, to obtain a furlough for Mosby, and make him leader of the enterprise.

  6. I don’t think lawyer Gayle’s actions would change what really happened much. But I do think it may add to the story. The book does prove some aspects of what really happened. Gayle was considered a radical fire-eater and acted alone in his recruitment efforts, but a few other equally radical fire-eaters helped him collect the million dollars. I don’t believe they ever obtained the full million. The scheme to kill Lincoln and two others fell apart for the already stated reasons.

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