- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

Many Southerners got roped in during the Federal dragnet for the Lincoln assassination conspirators. One of those arrested was a citizen of Cahaba, Ala.

Cahaba, once called “Cahawba,” was known for its culture, wealth, hospitality and secessionist passion, according to one resident: “Political meetings were a nightly occurrence.”

Cahaba is about 50 miles southwest of Montgomery, the original capital of the Confederacy and probably the state’s most famous contribution to the war effort. A lawyer named George Washington Gayle was its most infamous.

Gayle had formerly served as a Democratic state legislator and the United States attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.

Newspapers in the North and South carried some incredibly vicious advertisements and stories attacking President Lincoln and his administration during the war, but Gayle’s offer in the Dec. 2, 1864, edition of the Selma Dispatch had to be the most shocking:


If the citizens of the Southern Confederacy will furnish me with the cash, or good securities for the sum of $ 1,000,000, I will cause the lives of Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward and Andrew Johnson to be taken by the 1st of March next. This will give us peace, and satisfy the world that cruel tyrants cannot live in “a land of liberty.” If this is not accomplished, nothing will be claimed beyond the sum of $50,000 in advance, which is supposed to be necessary to reach and slaughter the three villains. I will give, myself, $1,000 towards this patriotic purpose. Everyone wishing to contribute will address Box X, Cahawba, Ala.”

Mrs. Anna Fry, a citizen of Cahaba, chalked up Gayle’s impulsive comments and actions to “outbursts of enthusiasm” that no one who knew him would take seriously, but Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton and Federal authorities weren’t quite so understanding when the advertisement came to their attention after Lincoln’s assassination. They ordered a Capt. Cocheran of the Union Army to arrest Gayle and take him north to Fort Lafayette Prison in New York Harbor.

The trial of the Lincoln conspirators ran from May 10 to June 29, 1865, and included testimony from 366 witnesses. Two of those witnesses worked for the Selma Dispatch. John Cantlin testified that in December 1864 he worked as a foreman for the newspaper, which had a circulation of about 800.

Cantlin said the advertisement ran four or five times and had come from Gayle, in Gayle’s handwriting. “Mr. Gayle,” he remarked, “is a lawyer of considerable reputation, and is distinguished, even in Alabama, for his extreme views on the subject of slavery and the rebellion, and as an ardent supporter of the Confederacy.”

Dispatch employee Watson D. Graves also testified the handwritten text delivered to the newspaper bore Gayle’s handwriting, which Graves recognized, “having seen it frequently in articles we had published before.”

Gayle, the ardent secessionist and scion of the South, was indicted on two charges: conspiracy to murder the president of the United States and giving aid to the rebellion.

On Dec. 21, 1866, the New York Times reported:

“Another interesting case is that of the United States vs. George W. Gayle, charged with complicity in the assassination of Mr. Lincoln. This case is set for Friday next, and some of the most eminent jurists of the State are retained for the defense.

“Mr. Gayle is a prominent lawyer of Middle Alabama, and resides in Cahawba, Dallas County. During the late war an advertisement appeared in the Selma Dispatch, a newspaper published in the same county, over the signature of Mr. Gayle, as is alleged, offering to be one of a certain number to contribute a certain amount for the assassination of the late President. Such is the charge on which the indictment is founded.

“The counsel of Mr. Gayle are sanguine of being able to secure a clear acquittal from all participation in the deed that was so generally condemned throughout the South, and is still regarded as a most unfortunate occurrence for the people of the States lately in rebellion.”

But the trial never took place. Instead authorities transferred Gayle to a prison at Fort Pulaski outside Savannah, Ga. Gayle had nothing to do with John Wilkes Booth or the conspiracy. Arresting Gayle (and other Southerners) after the assassination was a political move “to pander to fanatical malignity,” according to an author of Alabama history. Authorities finally released him, and on April 27, 1867, President Andrew Johnson pardoned him.

Pardoning Southerners was a major factor leading to Johnson’s impeachment in 1868. Perhaps Johnson had a personal reason for issuing this pardon. Mrs. Fry explained that Gayle and Johnson knew each other decades earlier when the future president had worked as a tailor.

c Paul N. Herbert ([email protected]) is president of the Historical Society of Fairfax County.

“If the citizens of the Southern Confederacy will furnish me with the cash, or good securities for the sum of $ 1,000,000, I will cause the lives of Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward and Andrew Johnson to be taken by the 1st of March next.”

- Ad in Selma Dispatch, 1864

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