Civil War Profiles: Townsend pens tribute to Lincoln assassination sleuths

Date Published: 
January 31, 2014

In a “letter” published in the New York World, George Alfred Townsend identified the conspirators engaged in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. On May 2, 1865, in “The Detectives’ Stories,” the journalist from Delaware lauded the police detectives and military personnel who had tracked them down.

Townsend cited “a small army [of] … municipal and national detectives” who conducted a “long hunt through Charles and St. Mary’s counties” in Maryland, their job made more difficult because telegraph wires in Washington had mysteriously been cut.

A broader pursuit covered three areas: “one reaching up the north bank of the Potomac [River] toward Chain Bridge,” another coming northward from Richmond, Va. “between the Blue Ridge [Mountains] and the broad sea-running streams,” and a third down the Southern Maryland peninsula “towards Point Lookout.”

Appeals went out from the nation’s capital for assistance from police bureaus in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, and rewards were posted for locating the assailants. Soon, John S. Young, chief of detectives in New York, was on his way to Washington. He would collaborate with Provost Marshal Maj. James O’Bierne, “who commands the District of Columbia civil and military police.”

Best estimate was that “500 detective officers were in and around Washington city” to conduct the search and investigation. Townsend commented that “the secret police of Richmond … devoted themselves solely to this overshadowing offense.” This possibly was a reference to espionage networks as described in Elizabeth R. Varon’s account of Elizabeth Van Lew, “Southern Lady, Yankee Spy.”

Townsend indicated that military investigators were under the command of Col. Henry H. Welles (Wells) of the 26th Michigan Regiment and Col. David R. Clendenning (Clendenin) of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, the latter “probably the finest body of horse [soldiers] in the service.” When detachments combed the predominantly pro-Confederate Prince Georges and Charles Counties, Md., Unionists who were “long persecuted and intimidated now came forward and gave important testimony.”

Townsend added that a man named Franklin Roby (Robey) came forward with information about the whereabouts of John Lloyd, who had hidden weapons in Mary Surratt’s tavern in Surrattsville for the escaping assassins. When arrested, “Lloyd himself confessed — and his neck is quite nervous at this writing.”

The cavalrymen proceeded to Dr. Samuel Mudd’s residence in Bryantown, where they discovered a boot that John Wilkes Booth had left behind. Mudd had set Booth’s broken leg following the assassination of Lincoln. This was “the first positive trace the officers had that they were really close upon the assassins.”

The chase continued over poor roads toward Port Tobacco, a place “utterly given over to depravity” — a port for “blockade runners” and “a rebel post-office general.” Furthermore, “Its people were smugglers,” and they thought the assassination of a president was “quite heroic.” Indeed, Townsend sardonically compared life in Port Tobacco to “the great reptile period of the world, when iguanodons and pterodactyls and pleo[si]sauri ate each other.”

Conspirator George Atzeroth lived with a woman in Port Tobacco, and O’Bierne found Atzeroth’s trunk in her home. A search yielded information that led them to Montgomery County, Md., where “the desperate fellow was found and locked up.”

Pursuit led the cavalrymen into the tributary swamps of the Wicomico River, filled with “dense growths of dogwood, gum and beech, planted in sluices of water and bog.” The World reporter explained, “Serpents and slimy lizards are the only denizens … no human being inhabits the malarious extent … not even the hunted negro dares to fathom the treacherous clay.”

Nonetheless, these tenacious searchers “swept the swamps by detachments … but no trace of Booth or [his accomplice David] Herold was any where found.” They moved on toward Leonardtown, where it was learned that the assassins had crossed the Potomac.

O’Bierne pressed on south to King George Court House and then to Chappell’s Point. At this stage, a detachment of cavalry from Col. Lafayette Baker’s command took charge of further pursuit, which eventually led to Booth’s hideout at Garrett’s farm.

Motivation for the capture of Booth and his accomplices included the offer of rewards totaling at least “a hundred and sixty odd thousand” dollars. Townsend said he believed that it “will be distributed between very many men.”

Townsend said the stories about those who participated in the manhunt merited even more detailed coverage, because his were only in “skeleton merely, and far from exhaustive.” In his next letter, titled “The Martyr,” he planned to pay homage to the target of the assassination, Abraham Lincoln.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.