- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003



A Special Edition of the Trial Transcript Compiled and Arranged in 1865 by Benn Pittman.

Edited by Edward Steers Jr.

The University of Kentucky Press. $55. 486 pages.

“The Trial” is a valuable contribution to the literature of the assassination of President Lincoln. It succeeds in gathering under one cover the essential and unvarnished details of that tragic and twisted affair, including the shadowy presence of the Confederate Secret Service.

Editor Edward Steers Jr. reprints the “Special Edition” of the reporter’s account of the trial of the eight conspirators before a military commission in 1865 and adds commentary by eight modern scholars, expert in the field. To this he also has added a copy of the “lost confession” of one of the defendants, George Atzerodt, which was discovered in 1977 among the papers of his deceased attorney, William Dostert, by Joan Chaconas.

John Wilkes Booth had shot Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, and himself had been shot in a barn near Port Royal, Va., 12 days later. On May 18, 1865, a military commission convened in Washington to try seven men and one woman charged as complicit in the murder of the president. The proceedings continued for 50 trial days, reported in a transcript of 4,300 pages. Three men and the woman defendant, Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, were found guilty and hanged. Three of those remaining were sentenced to life imprisonment, and a fourth to imprisonment for six years.

Five of the commission members recommended that Mrs. Surratt’s death sentence be reduced by the convening authority, President Andrew Johnson, to life imprisonment. The recommendation was not followed, and she and three men were hanged on July 7, 1865, at the spot where the tennis courts of Fort Leslie J. McNair are now located.

The trial recorder, Benn Pittman, was authorized to arrange and compile an authentic record of “the trial of the assassins” on June 30, 1865. In October, the “Special Edition,” reduced to 421 pages, was completed and published.

Pittman’s arrangements and indexing were a mammoth operation. Even when completed and polished, the record of this lengthy multi-defendant criminal trial is still difficult and tedious to read, which is not helped by the small type used to reprint it in the present volume.

The “Special Edition” has never received the credit due it as the indispensable account of the Lincoln murder. The reason is probably the popular distrust of military tribunals in general and this one in particular. The criticism most often voiced is that the commission unjustly condemned a pious widow to death and an innocent country doctor to life imprisonment on Florida’s Dry Tortugas.

A fair reading of the reprint of the “Special Edition” and the articles by the experts demonstrates that the trial was no drumhead court-martial. During the nearly two months of the trial, 366 witnesses were heard, about half called by the defense. Though severe, the sentences were not all the same, and the five-member recommendation of clemency for Mrs. Surratt showed a measure of individual consideration.

The most obvious restriction on the right to testify was that no defendant was permitted to take the stand. Strange as this may appear in the present day, however, it was the law at the time in every state except Maine that no defendant could testify in his own behalf in a criminal trial.

There is no showing of incompetence of counsel. Seven lawyers appeared for the defense. Walter Cox and Frederick Stone later served with distinction as judges of the U.S. District Court. Thomas Ewing Jr. had been chief judge of the Supreme Court of Kansas; William Dostert was a graduate of Harvard and Yale and had been provost marshal of the District of Columbia.

Reverdy Johnson was a noted lawyer and senator from Maryland. Seeking to represent Mrs. Surratt, he was challenged by a member of the commission on the ground that he had fought against imposition of the loyalty oath. The objection was withdrawn, but the senator only appeared at the trial on several occasions, leaving defense of Mrs. Surratt to two younger lawyers, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt. If not brilliant defense attorneys, they were conscientious and industrious.

The criticisms, in sum, appear to concern the conclusions of the commission and the severity of the sentences rather than the facts of its record.

The editor assists the reader in following the sometimes convoluted course of the “Special Edition” by incorporating 11 excellent articles by present-day authorities. Laurie Verge and Joan Chaconas, historians of the Surratt Society, contribute biographies of Mary Elizabeth Surratt and John Harrison Surratt Jr. Betty Ownsbey does the same for Lewis J. Powell and Edman Spangler, as does Percy E. Martin for Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlin. Mr. Steers covers the lives of Dr. Samuel Mudd and George Atzerodt.

Broader articles orienting the case are written by the editor himself (“General Conspiracy”), by Terry Alford (“Testimony Relating to John Wilkes Booth and Circumstances Attending the Assassination”), by Thomas Reed Turner (“The Military Trial”) and by Burris Carnahan (“General Order Number 100”).

Finally, the book contains Atzerodt’s “lost confession.” This very interesting discovery by Ms. Chaconas contains the following statement: “Booth himself told me that Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get out the guns (two Carbines) which had been taken to the place by Harold. This was Friday. The carriage was hired at Howards.

“I saw a man named Weightman [Louis J. Weichman] who boarded at Surratts at Post Office. He told me he had to go to the Country with Mrs. Surratt. This was on Friday. Also I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it as Booth sent (as he told me) liquors and provisions for the trip with the president to Richmond about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd.”

After perusing this “confession,” and despite the hearsay nature of the Booth statement to Atzerodt, the reader is far less certain about the portrayal of Mrs. Surratt as the innocent widow and of Dr. Mudd as the guiltless if naive country doctor.

In his preface, Mr. Steers states that the articles propose to avoid conclusions and stick to the facts, letting each reader reach his own conclusion. The promise has been kept and the public spared yet another “Who killed Lincoln?” theme.

John V. Doyle is a retired judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

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