Wednesday, April 15, 2015

John Surratt - The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away by Michael Schein

John Surratt
Michael Schein has created a page-turner, political thriller detailing the espionage activities of Confederate spy and courier, John Surratt.  Mr. Schein's account of Surratt's activities and complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is documented through an extensive list of footnotes and associated bibliography. The author is candid in revealing where there is some uncertainty about his conclusions.

The story of John Surratt begins with his education at St. Thomas manor and then to St. Charles College. At St. Charles met Louis J. Weichmann, who would first become his friend and then his "lifelong nemesis." When the Civil War began, John enlisted in the Confederate army and was sent for training as a courier.

This led to his eventual introduction by Dr. Samuel Mudd to Mr. John Wilkes Booth in December 1864. Booth revealed his plans to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him for ransom to release Confederate prisoners of war. In a 1870 lecture, Surratt admitted that he was involved in the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln. The plan seemed to have the blessing of the Confederate government. If Davis consented to the plot to kidnap the president, Schein believes "that a plot to kidnap the President is tantamount to a plot to murder him." Surratt joined the plot that appears to have been in existence since August or September 1864. Booth referred to their plot against Lincoln by the code name, the "oil business."

Surratt recruited George Atzerodot to the group because of his knowledge of the Potomac River and the adjacent country in Maryland and Virginia.  The other members including those in the assassination plot: David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt. An attempt to capture the President in January failed. 

Surratt as a Papal Guard
Surratt denied any involvement with Lincoln's assassination and claimed he was in Elmira, NY. After the assassination, Surratt fled to Canada and reached Montreal on April 17, 1865. A Catholic priest in St. Liboire gave him sanctuary. Surratt remained in Canada while his mother was arrested, tried, and hanged for conspiracy. Former Confederate agents helped Surratt flee to Liverpool, England in September and he lived in the Church of the Holy Cross. From England, he traveled to Italy and enlisted, under an assumed name, in the Ninth Company of the Pontifical Zouave in the Papal States. An old friend recognized him and notified papal officials and the U.S. minister in Rome. On November 7, 1866, Surratt was arrested and sent to Velletri prison. He escaped and lived with the Garibaldians. Surratt traveled to Alexandria, Egypt where he was finally arrested by U.S. officials on November 23, 1866 and returned to the U.S. to stand trial.

Evidence suggests that “all three of the top Confederate leaders (Davis, Benjamin, and Seddon) provided active support to reconnoiter the kidnapping of Lincoln.” There is support that the Confederate leaders might have agreed to the assassination when the code name for Lincoln kidnapping was changed from “Complete Victory” to “Come Retribution” on February 1, 1865. When informed of Lincoln’s death on April 19, Davis responds with: “If it were to be done, it were better it were done well.” Davis told Breckinridge on April 21: “.. And if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton the job would then be complete.”

John Surratt on Trial

Surratt was tried in a civilian court in Maryland.  Supreme Court decision had declared the trial of civilians before military tribunals to be unconstitutional. Judge David Carter presided over Surratt's trial, and Edwards Pierrepont conducted the federal government's case against him. Surratt's lead attorney, Joseph Habersham Bradley, admitted Surratt's part in plotting to kidnap the President, but denied any involvement in the murder plot. After two months of testimony, Surratt was released after a mistrial; eight jurors had voted not guilty, four voted guilty. The statute of limitations on charges other than murder had run out, and Surratt was released on $25,000 bail. Schein carefully examines the trial including the many mistakes made by the prosecution.  To a modern day reader, the courtroom drama may be reminiscent of the O. J. Simpson where the defense attorneys

Michael Schein is an author, attorney, historian, lively speaker, and former professor of American Legal History. His historical nonfiction book, John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away, will be released in Spring 2015 by the History Publishing Company. His two historical novels are Bones Beneath Our Feet (2011), and Just Deceits: a Historical Courtroom Mystery (2008). Mr. Schein taught American Legal History at Seattle University Law School from 1988-2003, served on the speakers’ bureau of Humanities Washington, and is Director of LiTFUSE Poets’ Workshop. His poetry is supported by a grant from King County 4Culture, and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Born and raised in Vermont, Mr. Schein attended Reed College in Portland, University of Oregon Law School in Eugene, and now lives near Seattle.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

April 1865 - The Month That Saved America

April 1865 was a tumultuous month that saw the end of the American Civil War. The month witnessed the fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, President Lincoln’s assassination, and pursuit of John Wilkes Booth. This four-session class will examine Lee’s desperate escape from Petersburg, the near-successful plot to decapitate the Union government, and the eventual surrender of Rebel forces. The class is based on Jay Wink’s book April 1865 - The Month That Saved America.

The class will be held at Collin College in Plano, Texas as part of their continuing education program. The first class will be on April 1 at from 1:00 to 2:20 pm.  For those of you outside Collin County, Texas, I have put pdfs of the classes on my web site Civil War Jouneys at April 1865.

Richmond in Ruins
Class 1 – Richmond Falls – April 1-7, 1865 - It is the last days of the Confederacy as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia tries desperately to link up with Johnston’s Army. Lee abandons Petersburg and Richmond falls. Grant’s Union forces are in hot pursuit as he tries to cut off the retreat.

Union Troops at Appomattox Court House
Class 2 – Lee Surrenders and Lincoln Assassinated – April 8-14, 1865 - Confederate generals debate guerrilla warfare. Lee surrenders at Appomattox. Washington celebrates Union victory. The Lincolns go to the theater.

John W. Booth
Class 3 – Hunt for Booth Begins, Davis Escapes, Johnston Surrenders – April 15-21, 1865 - Lincoln dies and body is taken to Springfield. Hunt for conspirators begins.

Sultana Disaster
Class 4 – Booth Killed, Johnston Surrenders and Sultana Disaster, Lincoln’s Funeral Train, and Aftermath – April 21-30, 1865 - Booth is captured and killed, Lincoln’s funeral train leaves Washington, Johnston surrenders at Bennett Place, Sultana disaster claims 1,800, Conspirators hang but John Surratt escapes, Aftermath.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fort Clinch - From the Seminole War to World War II

Barracks at Fort Clinch
Fort Clinch is a 19th-century masonry coastal fortification, built as part of the Third System of seacoast defense conceived by the United States. It is located on a peninsula near the northernmost point of Amelia Island in Nassau County, Florida. The fort lies to the northeast of Fernandina Beach at the entrance to the Cumberland Sound (Florida), in the northeast part of the state. Today it is included within the boundaries of Fort Clinch State Park.

1st Engineers Guide
On March 17, 2015, my wife and I visited the fort along with other members of a tour group.  We were guided through the fork by a docent dressed as a member of the 1st New York Engineers. The fort is maintained as it might have appeared in 1864 during the Union occupation.

This site was first fortified in 1736 by the Spanish, when they held colonies in Florida. From 1736, various nations to control the territory have garrisoned and fortified this site to protect the entrance to the St. Mary's River and Cumberland Sound (Florida).

Fort Clinch, FL
After the end of the Second Seminole War, the United States started construction of a fort, later named Fort Clinch, in 1847. It was part of its Third System of coastal defenses conceived earlier in the century, which guided fortifications throughout this period. The fortified compound is pentagonal in shape, with both inner and outer walls, and consists of almost five million bricks. There are corner bastions and embrasures in the outer walls and several structures in the interior courtyards, including a 2-story barracks.

The fort was named in honor of General Duncan Lamont Clinch after his death in 1849. General Clinch fought in the War of 1812 and was an important figure in the First and Second Seminole Wars.

Drawing of Fort Clinch from Harper's Weekly, March 29, 1862

Sallie Port
Confederate forces seized the fort in early 1861. It was used as a safe haven for Confederate blockade runners during the first year of the Civil War. However, changes in technology, specifically, the development of rifled cannon, had improved weaponry to the point that the fort's brick walls were vulnerable to attacks and thus obsolete.

Unfinished Officer's Quarters
In March 1862 General Robert E. Lee ordered abandonment of the fort in order to use scarce troops in other areas. Federal troops re-occupied the fort in early 1862, taking control of the adjacent Georgia and Florida coasts. They used the fort as the base of Union operations in the area throughout the Civil War.
Dahlgren Cannon

The fort was placed on caretaker status in 1869; it remained so until 1898, when the Army garrisoned it during the short Spanish-American War. In September of that year, the Army abandoned it again. The fort gradually deteriorated.

Soldier's clothing and gear
During the Great Depression, workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began restoration of the fort during the 1930s. It was restored to the Civil War era. In 1935, the State of Florida bought 256 acres that included the then-abandoned fort and the surrounding area. Fort Clinch State Park including the fort, opened to the public in 1938.

The fort was closed to the public during World War II and used as a communications and security post. It was re-opened to public visits after the war ended.

The fort was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. It is interpreted largely in terms of its use as a base of Union operations during the American Civil War. State Park personnel reenact military life at the fort, which is open from 8:00 am till sundown, year-round.

Please see for more pictures of historic Fort Clinch.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Major Events Mark the End of Sesquicentennial Celebration

The Civil War Sesquicentennial goes out in style with several commemorative events in March and April.  Please see the Events page on our website Civil War Journeys.

Gettysburg Re-enactment
The following battles/events highlight the concluding celebrations.

Gettysburg Re-enactment
I hope you will be able to take part in one of the many programs that will be offered over the next two months.  Please let me know if there are some that you especially liked.