By Mike Scruggs-Did radical and ambitious members of President Lincoln’s own party deliberately allow his assassination?
Several years ago I wrote a series of articles entitled “The Hanging of Mary Surratt.” Those articles were published in the North Carolina Tribune Papers and South Carolina’s Times-Examiner and held considerable reader attention for months. They were later incorporated into my book, The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths, published by Universal Media in 2011.
Mary Surratt was an attractive, dark-haired widow and boarding house proprietor, who was one of four alleged conspirators in the Lincoln assassination hanged on July 7, 1865. At forty-two, she was the first woman ever to be executed by the United States government.
No nation can long endure without a strong sense of patriotism, and Americans, like most of the more prominent peoples of mankind, have a strong tendency to whitewash history in order to protect the purity of their national narrative. It is more pleasant to remember and teach an unblemished historical narrative of national virtue. The blemishes of such national narratives tend to be swept under the rug, and lifting up the edges of that rug to inspect the blemishes is not always welcome. The defenders of an unblemished national narrative often react harshly and go to great lengths of academic and political cover-up to defend strongly entrenched but fallacious interpretations of history. Such is the case with the trial and execution of Mary Surratt.
The hanging of Mary Surratt was not a triumph of justice. It was a disgraceful political and judicial atrocity that still stains the national conscience and mars the American ideal of justice. There are still many who feel compelled to defend her hanging lest we have to look directly into unwelcome truth. But genuine patriotism is undermined when truth becomes subservient to propaganda and political ambitions. Truth and genuine love of country are inseparable. Patriotism without truth is a monstrous imposter.
The Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial was marked by judicial despotism, suborned perjury, bribery, and the intimidation and torture of witnesses and defendants. The investigation, prosecution, trial, and sentences were all managed by the U.S. War Department under its politically ambitious and ruthless Secretary, Edwin Stanton, aided by his Chief of Detectives, Col. Lafayette Baker.
Stanton is often portrayed as one of Lincoln’s “team of rivals” who ultimately became his most supportive, loyal, and sympathetic cabinet member. Stanton often did seem to work well with Lincoln as part of a “good cop-bad cop” team in making stressful political and military decisions. Stanton often played the “bad cop” who allowed the President to maintain a more kindly public face in often-harsh dealings with Northern Democrat opposition and what became a total war policy against Southern civilians. The reality was that Lincoln was more kindly in disposition than Stanton, whose ruthlessness often manifested itself with other cabinet members and independent actions unknown to the President.
One of the Lincoln cabinet members I have come to admire was Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who finally felt compelled to privately convey to Lincoln the ugly truth of Stanton’s devious and “back-stabbing’ nature. Stanton had well-earned the “back-stabbing” reputation with other cabinet members and several Union General officers.
Stanton and the fifteen or so leading “Radical Republicans” in Congress were anxious to connect Confederate President Jefferson Davis with John Wilkes Booth’s shooting of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington on April 14, 1865. Stanton had orchestrated an attempted assassination of Davis in February 1864. Davis, however, publicly and privately decried assassination of political leaders as a strategy of war. No one who is thoroughly familiar with Davis’s highly ethical character places any credence on such an accusation. I also believe that Vice President Andrew Johnson was an unlikely assassination conspirator. He was very anti-secession but very pro-Constitution. He had a drinking problem, but had sterling qualities of character, which eventually showed though his faults. As the former Tennessee Democrat’s passion for the Constitution and renewing compassion for the Southern people began to show, Stanton and the Radicals began to hate him and would soon attempt to impeach him.
I also place no credibility in theories that someone other than John Wilkes Booth fatally wounded Abraham Lincoln on the evening of April 14, 1865. Booth’s first plan was to capture Lincoln and hold him ransom in pursuit of the release of Confederate prisoners of war and possibly a negotiated peace. Booth’s own diary indicated he did not decide to kill Lincoln until April 13. Stanton withheld that diary and information from the Military Court.
Lincoln’s plan for a relatively benign reconstruction of the Southern States after the War was a concern to Stanton and the Radical Republicans. They were determined to wreak vengeance and continued economic exploitation on the formerly seceded states. More importantly, Lincoln’s relatively mild reconstruction plan risked the return of a Democrat Congressional majority. The Radical Republicans were not about to hand power back to a Democrat majority.
Readers should bear in mind that the Republican and Democrat parties were quite different from their modern descendents. Democrat and “conservative” were virtual synonyms then. Democrats, North and South, were particularly strong on preserving limited Constitutional government and States Rights. The Republicans varied from conservative to radical, but were largely a big business-big government dominated party. The Radical Republicans were the most unapologetic and ruthless advocates of using big government to profit big business and big business funding for successful political campaigns. They favored harsh and exploitive reconstruction that disenfranchised Confederate veterans and maintained Republican power in the South through Northern “carpetbaggers” and newly franchised Republican former slaves.
Secretary Stanton’s Chief Detective, Lafayette Baker, on taking charge of the pursuit of Lincoln’s assassins gave official orders “to extort confessions and procure testimony to establish conspiracy…by promises, rewards, threats, deceit, force, or any other effectual means.”
Why did Stanton go so far in breaking all the rules of honest investigations and fair trials to hang Mary Surratt? Why did he persuade General Grant to reject the President’s invitation to attend the theater with him on April 14? There are more peculiar coincidences and unanswered questions.