- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

THE LAST LINCOLN CONSPIRATOR: JOHN SURRATT‘S FLIGHT FROM THE GALLOWS
By Andrew C.A. Jampoler
Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 274 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY ROBERT F. DUNN

President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, just after Richmond fell to Union forces. He died the next day. Secretary of State William Seward was grievously wounded during an attempt on his life the same evening Lincoln was shot. Amid grief and turmoil and almost immediately, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge and launched a massive manhunt for the perpetrators. By April 26, Booth was dead and eight conspirators had been rounded up. One purported conspirator could not be found, John Surratt.

Because Washington was under military law, some Confederate forces still operating, the eight were tried by a military tribunal. (Interestingly, the decision to proceed with a military tribunal in 1865 was made despite arguments against that format similar to arguments heard in 2008). Justice was swift. The defendants were charged on May 10, on June 29 a guilty verdict was rendered, on July 5 they were sentenced and on July 7 four of the eight were executed by hanging. The other four went off to prison that same day. Meanwhile, John Surratt, son of Mary Surratt, one of those hung, was in flight. “The Last Lincoln Conspirator” describes John Surratt’s run from meeting a fate like his mother’s.

Surratt was indeed a Confederate agent involved in courier duty between Richmond and Confederates in Canada. In the course of his duties, he would frequently pass through Washington, meeting with his mother and Confederate sympathizers. Therefore, he was a prime suspect in the president’s murder. Actually, according to his testimony at his 1867 trial, he was in Elmira, N.Y., when he heard about the assassination. Others testified that he had been seen in Washington on that fatal night, but the 1867 jurors believed he had indeed been in Elmira and it was from that city that he began his incredible flight, a flight traced so well by Andrew Jampoler. It was a flight that would take him back to Canada, thence to Ireland, England, France, Italy and finally, Egypt, where he was captured.

Just why Surratt took flight is not exactly clear, but that he did so probably saved his life. His 1867 trial was before a civil court; had he joined the eight in 1865 it would have been before a military tribunal with a fate undoubtedly like that of the other defendants. As it was, in 1867 he was narrowly acquitted and went on to marry, have a family and live until 1915.

Surratt’s travels between April 1865 and December of 1866 are a first-rate adventure. He first lived openly in Canada and then went underground with Catholic priests in Liverpool (he was Roman Catholic as was his mother). With American authorities on his trail he made his way through France to Italy. There he joined the pope’s army as a Zouave fighting to defend Papal domains. Apparently tiring of service as a Zouave, he deserted the pope’s army, crossed on foot into the Kingdom of Naples and threw himself on the mercy of the British Embassy where officials deigning to turn him over to the Americans put him on a ship to Malta. (In 1866, the British were notoriously sympathetic to Confederates of every stripe). Hiding from a search for him prompted by the American representative in Malta, Suratt continued on to Egypt, still in his Zouave uniform. He was finally arrested soon after arrival in Alexandria. This, at last, put him in a place where he could legally be detained by American authorities and was. From Alexandria, the USS Swatara took him, confined below decks, across the Atlantic and arrived at the Washington Navy Yard on Feb. 18, 1867.

Of interest to many readers will be the part played by the then-new underwater telegraph connecting continents. Suratt’s movements were regularly tracked and reported via this system, something which might not have been possible only a few years prior. This is just one example of how the author takes special pains to ensure the reader appreciates the milieu of the times, an all-too-rare effort when writing history.

In this vein, Mr. Jampoler’s descriptions of Washington at the end of the Civil War, the turmoil during the aftermath, the impeachment of President Johnson and the genesis of the Reconstruction are all backdrops to the Suratt story. The author goes into detail on each of them, and more. In fact, at times the reader may feel that he’s being taken on a path far from the central story, but he’s soon brought back to Suratt and, because he now better understands the milieu, he appreciates the story and the situation even more.

Mr. Jampoler goes on to augment a terrific story with 16 pages of notes and eight pages of bibliography. Seldom does a reader find this much documentation of a heretofore obscure bit of history but the author has compiled it in such a way as to facilitate the detailed knowledge enjoyed by some readers yet not to take away from the basic story for those readers who are not particularly interested in such details.

Surratt’s story in itself is a worthy read as a little known sidebar to the tumultuous events surrounding Lincoln’s death and the aftermath; however, by his descriptive excursions into the technologies, the environment and the attitudes of the times Mr. Jampoler gives the reader much more. “The Last Lincoln Conspirator” should be added to everyone’s Civil War library.

Retired Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is president of the Naval Historical Foundation and lives in Alexandria.

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