Civil War Profiles: Unraveling a ‘dark and bloody plot’

Date Published: 
January 24, 2014

George Alfred Townsend’s “letter” to the public titled “A Solution of the Conspiracy,” published in the New York World newspaper on May 2, 1865, concerning President Lincoln’s assassination, announced that “Justice and fame are equally and simultaneously satisfied,” because “the conspirators against his life … are in their prison cells waiting for the halter.”

Townsend, a product of Georgetown, Del., used his position as Washington correspondent for the World to ferret out information about “the dark and bloody plot against a good ruler’s life.” The reporter believed, “Within a week, the national scaffold will have done its work, and be laid away forever.” He erroneously predicted, however, that “prompt and necessary justice will signal the last public assassination in America.”

Although one person — John Wilkes Booth — was “its head and heart,” the reporter wrote that he had numerous “accessories.” He credited the police investigation for proving this was not “a spasmodic and fitful crime, but long premeditated.”

Townsend admitted his “surprise and terror” at the resources and influence that the leader had at his command. He had at first considered Booth “a mere Thespian, full of sound, fury, and assertion.” Instead, the assassin “burned to make his name a part of history,” and “he was to be the dramatic Brutus” who rid the country of the tyrannical Lincoln.

In October 1864, Booth had traveled to Montreal, Canada, to meet with agents whom Confederate President Jefferson Davis assigned there to organize and conduct raids into the United States for sabotage and other disruptive purposes. The reason for this trip is uncertain; however, the future assassin was likely seeking inspiration and support for his scheme against the American president.

A source of encouragement for Booth stemmed from firebrand editorial writers in the South. As noted in Michael Kaufman’s “American Brutus,” the Richmond Enquirer cited the vulnerability of Lincoln to “tyrannicide” and wondered “whether anyone in the South had the courage to risk his own life [to kill Lincoln] in the interests of his country.”

Townsend stated he was “certain Booth’s project was unknown in Richmond.” Although more recent scholarship has yet to find a “smoking gun” regarding direct involvement of the Confederate government, a discussion of intrigues by Southern officials against the American president is contained in William A. Tidwell’s “Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln.”

Townsend described the four counties that make up the western shore of Maryland (Prince Georges, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s) as a “noxious and pestilential place for patriotism.” The reason being, he said, “Tobacco has ruined the land … and slavery has ruined the people.”

It was through these counties that “the great secret mail” sent into the North by Southern officials “from Matthias Creek, Va., to Port Tobacco, struck Surrattsville, and thence headed off to the east to Washington [before] going meanderingly north.” The point being that Surrattsville “has been throughout the war a sect of conspiracy … like a suburb of Richmond.” This was the home of Mary Surratt and her son John, both identified as Booth’s accomplices.

The original plan was to capture and spirit Lincoln through this area and across the Potomac into Virginia. When attempts proved to be logistically problematical, the strategy changed from abduction to assassination — and Southern Maryland would serve as the route of escape.

Booth’s principal conspirators were David Herold, “a dull-faced, shallow boy”; Lewis Powell (a.k.a. Payne), a “murderer” with military experience; George Atzerodt, “a house painter from Port Tobacco”; and Mary Surratt (although her involvement is controversial), “a large, masculine, self-possessed female” who owned a boarding house in Washington where the plot unfolded, and also owned Surratt’s Tavern, where “two splendid repeating carbines” were secreted for use by the escaping assassins.

After unsuccessfully attempting to eliminate Secretary of State William Seward, Payne returned to the Surratt boarding house, where he was arrested, along with Mrs. Surratt. Herold surrendered to Union cavalrymen at Garrett’s farm, near Port Royal, Va., where Booth was shot and killed. A search party tracked Atzerodt to Montgomery County, Md., and took him into custody.

The fate of these four collaborators had yet to be decided, and Townsend would be on hand to cover their forthcoming trial. In the meantime, he assessed the methods employed by those responsible for pursuit and capture of the culprits. The subject of his next letter to the public would be “The Detectives’ Stories.”

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.