“The news of Lincoln’s death coming over us just as we were celebrating our glorious victories caused the very senses of all loyal men to pause. Intense gloom pervaded all those citizens countenances.”
~ journal entry of William Dusenberry, of Barboursville
It’s a story all Americans are familiar with – the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Because of the event which occurred on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the names James Wilkes Booth, Ford’s Theatre and Petersen House are permanent fixtures in our memories.
While the details of the assassination are familiar, that is only part of a larger story spanning five years and including many individuals.
Marshall University professor and History Alive! presenter Michael Woods shared a few lesser known facts in his talk “West Virginia and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” at the Huntersville Historical Traditions sponsored event Friday evening at the Huntersville School.
In Woods speech, he discusses three West Virginians who played integral roles during and after the assassination of Lincoln.
The story actually begins in 1860, after Lincoln was elected president.
“Abraham Lincoln’s life was in danger from the moment he was elected president in November 1860,” Woods said. “Most famously, his victory triggered secession of an eventual total of eleven states, but there were already people plotting and even before he was sworn in to office, there were already people planning to kill him right away.”
Lincoln received numerous letters threatening his life. Instead of taking the threats seriously, he simply collected the letters in a file folder which he labeled “Assassination.”
“He often liked to deflect these kinds of serious topics with a joke or a story,” Woods said. “Other times, he tended to be very fatalistic about it. He tended to say, ‘if someone is really willing to trade his life for mine to assassinate me, then there’s really nothing I can do to stop it from happening.’”
While Lincoln did not take the threats to heart, his staff and friends did. He was escorted by members of the Pennsylvania calvary when he traveled in Washington, D.C., but Lincoln would often race ahead of the calvary to get away from them and, sometimes, he would sneak away altogether.
It was during one of these excursions to the Soldiers Home – a federally owned property three miles north of the White House – that a sniper shot at him, nearly hitting him.
Confederate sympathizers learned of his travels to the Soldiers Home and hatched several kidnapping plans.
“Confederate Secret Service Agents and officers dabbled with the idea of kidnapping Lincoln and bringing him back to confederate territory,” Woods said. “We don’t know exactly how or when John Wilkes Booth became involved in this plot to capture Lincoln, but we know that by August of 1864, he, too, was thinking about the same plan.”
Woods said Booth was ideal for a kidnapping mission. He was a die hard confederate, had a lot of friendships in several states and he was able to freely travel across union territory.
No one is certain when Booth changed his plans from kidnapping to assassination, Woods said.
“As late as March 27, 1865, Booth still seems to be planning to abduct Lincoln, but by mid-April, we know that he’s switched plans and his mind turned to murdering the president.”
A couple “game changing” events took place in early April which may have led to Booth’s change in plan. Robert E. Lee’s army surrendered April 9 and, on April 11, Lincoln gave a speech at the White House where he implied freed slaves should be given rights.
“On that day, he becomes the first president to endorse black suffrages and this is one more step in the wrong direction as far as Booth is concerned,” Woods said.
On April 14, Booth gave his orders – Powell was to kill Secretary of State William Seward, George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and David Herold was to help Powell escape.
Powell managed to wound Seward, but he did not die. Atzerodt lost his nerve and didn’t even attempt to assassinate Johnson. Booth was the only one to carry out the plan.
Booth was very familiar with Ford’s Theatre. As an actor, he performed on the stage. He initially entered the theatre under the stage, but left to find some liquid courage. When he returned, he walked through the front door using his credentials. He entered the Presidential box, barricaded the door, shot Lincoln and leapt to the stage where he broke his leg and proclaimed, ‘Sic, Semper, Tyrannis,” – Thus Always to Tyrants – Virginia’s state motto.
It is after Lincoln is fatally wounded that the first West Virginian in Woods story comes into view. Private William McPeck, of Morgantown, was one of the six men who carried Lincoln to the Petersen House across the street from the theatre.
“McPeck enlisted in the third West Virginia infantry early in the war,” Woods said. “He stayed on when it was reorganized as the sixth West Virginia calvary and he just happened to be stationed on guard duty in Washington, D.C. that night.”
McPeck died in 1921 and is buried at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Preston County. His grave marker mentions that he was one of the men who helped the mortally wounded Lincoln.
Lincoln died the next morning on April 15. His death was merely the beginning of a three-month drama which began with a manhunt and ended with four executions.
The second West Virginian – Everton Conger – led the detachment of soldiers from the 16th New York calvary which hunted, discovered and killed Booth.
“Conger enlisted in the 3rd West Virginia calvary in December 1861,” Woods said. “He rises through the ranks very quickly. He’s kind of a natural leader. He rises to the rank of captain before he is badly wounded in combat, but after he recovers from his wounds, he actually gets recruited into an Intelligence Agency that operates in Washington, D.C.”
Once the detachment located Booth in a tobacco barn owned by Richard Garrett, Conger sets the barn on fire to flush him out. Sergeant Boston Corbett shot Booth through the neck.
“He is carried from the barn – mortally wounded – and placed on the front porch of the Garrett homestead where he died,” Woods said. “Conger is there on hand to hear Booth’s final words, ‘tell my mother I died for my country.’ Conger received $15,000 for his role in the capture of Booth.”
Conger moved westward and lived in Illinois and Montana, before finally settling in Hawaii where he died in 1918.
At the end of the manhunt, 10 co-conspirators were discovered. Booth was dead, John Surraut, Jr., was nowhere to be found and the final eight were apprehended and put on trial. Surraut was captured several years later, but he was never convicted of any crime.
The trial of the eight co-conspirators is when the third and final West Virginian in Woods’ tale arrives.
The trial itself was one for the ages and is still to this day seen as controversial.
“People still have very strong feelings about what happened in the trial of these people accused of collaborating with Booth,” Woods said. “Some people looked at some of the evidence that is uncovered at that trial and they see a conspiracy extending way deep in the confederate government, perhaps all the way up to [Confederate president] Jefferson Davis himself. Other people view the trial as a terrible miscarriage of justice, in part, because it was carried out before a military tribunal as opposed to a civilian court.”
All eight defendants were convicted – four received prison terms while four were sentenced to death.
“This was Louis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and perhaps most controversially of all, Mary Serraut, who was the first woman executed by the U.S. Government,” Woods said. “They were killed July 7.”
Ritchie County resident Thomas M. Harris was one of the nine men who stood in judgement of the conspirators.
“He began his wartime service as Colonel of the 10th West Virginia infantry,” Woods said. “He fought, rose in the ranks, rises to division command, and his soldiers are some of those at Appomattox who cut off Lee’s last escape before the surrender.
“It is Harris who is appointed to be on this military tribunal,” Woods continued. “He’d been a medical doctor. He didn’t have any formal legal training, but he’s there. He hears testimony from 266 witnesses and he and the other commissioners deliver their verdicts on June 30.”
Each case was voted on separately. A simply majority was needed to convict the individuals while a two-thirds super majority was needed for the death sentence.
In the end, five of the nine commissioners made a last plea for Mary Serraut’s life.
“Her execution seems to have weighed very heavily on their consciences because five of the nine signed a special recommendation asking President Andrew Johnson to grant Serraut executive clemency to reduce her sentence.”
Harris was not one of those men.
“Harris takes the harder line on this,” Woods said. “He believes that they convicted her of a capitol crime and that she ought to pay that price. In the end, it didn’t matter for Serraut. She’s executed. Johnson did not grant her clemency. He later claimed that he never received the request.”
After Harris returned to civilian life, he went back to practicing medicine, served as a legislator and later, wrote two books about the assassination of Lincoln.
“He offers a very passionate defense of the execution of Mary Serraut,” Woods said. “His first book is partisan but not irrational, published in 1892. His second book is where Harris really kind of goes off the deep end. He publishes a book called ‘Rome’s Responsibility for the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln’ and in it he places the entire responsibility for Lincoln’s murder on the Catholic church – the very high levels of the Catholic church.”
After the trial and execution of four conspirators, Americans were still in a state of unrest, especially in West Virginia.
Although the war was over, the battle continued in West Virginia, Woods said, because West Virginia was a state divided, with both union and confederate soldiers returning home.
“We see considerable violence as confederate and union veterans returned home,” Woods said. “Sometimes in the same community. We have evidence of attacks on confederate veterans in Martinsburg, in Marion County, Barboursville and elsewhere. Some of these confederate veterans themselves showed little desire to reconcile. Several of them were arrested for desecrating US flags. There’s a lot of tension and a lot of hostility.”
Unionists didn’t want the confederate soldiers to return and refused to be their neighbors. Requests for the government to require confederate soldiers to stay away from West Virginia were denied and tension grew in the state.
“Some [Unionists] did organize vigilance committees and one gets the sense they were willing to use force to carry out their plan,” Woods said. “For our purposes, the most striking thing about this is the way that they always connected the Lincoln assassination to this issue of what to do about returning confederate veterans. This put the U.S. government in a very difficult position. The biggest problem is how to handle the men who surrendered with Lee at Appomattox because according to the terms of that surrender they’re supposed to get to go home and they’re supposed to get free passage. This doesn’t apply to everybody.”
The government attempts to bring order to the state and Governor Boreman issues a statement urging the unionists to allow confederate veterans to return to their homes.
“He reminds them that if they defy Union authority, then they would essentially be rebelling against the United States and if you’re a unionist, you refused to do that during the war, so don’t do it now that the war is over,” Woods said. “So they come back and there’s years and years to work out that tension that results.”
It took years to resolve all the issues West Virginia faced, but eventually the state became whole again.
Woods said he believes the state would have struggled even if Lincoln lived to a ripe old age, but the assassination of President Lincoln only exacerbated the conflict.
“Given the unique challenges of rebuilding a unique state like West Virginia, Lincoln’s murder made the road to reconciliation even longer and even more dangerous for those who had to travel it,” Woods said.
Huntersville Historic Traditions will host a West Virginia Day celebration Saturday, June 27, at 3 p.m. at the Morris’ residence on Rt. 39 near Devil’s Backbone.