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The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft

Edward Steers Jr.

Publication Year: 2009

On May 1, 1865, two weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, recently inaugurated president Andrew Johnson appointed John Frederick Hartranft to command the military prison at the Washington Arsenal, where the U.S. government had just incarcerated the seven men and one woman accused of complicity in the shooting. From that day through the execution of four of the accomplices, the Pennsylvania-born general held responsibility for the most notorious prisoners in American history. A strict adherent to protocol, Hartranft kept a meticulously detailed account of his experiences in the form of a letterbook. In The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators, noted Lincoln scholars Edward Steers, Jr., and Harold Holzer, in partnership with the National Archives, present this fascinating historical record for the first time with contextual materials and expert annotations, providing a remarkable glimpse behind the scenes of the assassination’s aftermath. Hartranft oversaw every aspect of the prisoners’ daily lives, from making sure they were fed and kept clean to ensuring that no one communicated with them except on the written orders of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. In his Letterbook, Hartranft scrupulously recounts the arrival of each prisoner and describes the prison routine—which included three simple meals a day, a twice-daily cell inspection by Hartranft himself, and frequent physical examinations by an army physician. The prisoners wore wrist and leg shackles and, controversially, most of them wore special hoods designed to isolate them from their surroundings. When the conspirators’ trial began, the nation waited eagerly for news, and many sought retribution against those they held responsible for the nation’s grief. Hartranft resisted calls for both vengeance and mercy and continued to treat his notorious charges as humanely as possible, facilitating meetings with clergy and sending letters to and from family members. Yet, as his detached, detailed description of the execution of four of the conspirators shows, he did not allow emotion to impede the performance of his duty. The legal and moral issues surrounding the conspirators’ trial—the extraordinary use of military rather than civil justice, the treatment of the accused while incarcerated, the fine line between swift and precipitous justice—remain volatile, unsettled issues today. Hartranft’s keen observations, ably analyzed by historians Steers and Holzer, will add a riveting new chapter to the story of Lincoln’s assassination.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history,” said Abraham Lincoln in his 1862 annual message to Congress. Lincoln warned that history would remember every detail of the “fiery trial,” the American Civil War. Lincoln was right. Recollections of events, decisions, and actions of participants during that...

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pp. xi-xii

Amidst the history fever that engulfed the country at the time of the Civil War centennial in the 1960s, a major trove of priceless original wartime records came unexpectedly to light—but remained little known or appreciated, except by historians, amid the din of battle reenactments and other, noisier...

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pp. xiii-xiv

The Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft has found its way into the light, thanks to the persistence and dedication of National Archives staff members and partners. As indicated in the Preface, V. Chapman-Smith, Regional Administrator of the National Archives’ mid-Atlantic office, her archives...


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1. John Frederick Hartranft

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pp. 3-12

The general who guarded—and some say coddled—the Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators, but then coolly sent them to their death on the gallows, was born on December 16, 1830, in tiny New Hanover Township, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. John Frederick Hartranft grew up in the...

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2. The Conspirators Are Cornered

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pp. 13-20

On April 26, 1865, just twelve days after Lincoln’s murder, a troop of Union cavalrymen cornered his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and Booth’s cohort, Davy Herold, at the farm of a Virginia planter. Following a bravado resistance, Booth was killed and Herold taken into custody. While Booth’s death brought...

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3. Abandon All Hope

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pp. 21-32

On May 1, President Andrew Johnson issued an executive order directing that the persons charged with Lincoln’s murder stand trial before a specially convened military tribunal. In this same executive order, Johnson appointed John Frederick Hartranft as special provost marshal and military governor of the...

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4. Inter Arma Silent Leges

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pp. 33-47

With the eight suspects in Lincoln’s murder in custody, the government was ready to proceed to trial. President Johnson’s establishment of a military tribunal to try the accused was not without precedent. During the four years of the Civil War, more than 4,270 tribunals had been held involving just over...

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5. Let the Stain of Innocent Blood Be Removed from the Land

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pp. 48-55

Thus the final chapter of Hartranft’s exceptional military career was about to end with the hangman’s noose. It was the most unpleasant duty this brave soldier faced in his four years of service. But Hartranft was true to his calling and carried out his grim orders faithfully...

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Afterword: Hartranft's Postwar Life

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pp. 56-59

Now officially a Republican, he was nominated for commonwealth auditor general in August 1865 (reportedly miffed that he did not vault immediately into contention for governor). That fall, Hartranft had more difficulty winning office than he had reckoned, barely eking out a victory in a strong Republican...

II: THE LETTER BOOK: Transcribed and Annotated

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Editors' Note

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pp. 63-64

Invariably, each of these clerks had his own individual, often quirky, style of recording messages, orders, and reports. As a result, variations in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation occur within the surviving documents. Believing that readers would best benefit from access to unaltered transcripts...

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Rules of the Prison

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pp. 65-69

The guards will be selected from the best troops in the Department of Washington, and will be sent daily, at 9 a.m., with a Staff Officer to report to Bvt. Maj. Gen. Hartranft. They will be detailed for special service—and no one will be informed of the nature of their duties until Genl. Hartranft receives...

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The Letterbook

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pp. 71-160

I have the honor to report that I took charge of eight Prisoners in the cells of this prison, about [blank] o’clock on the 29th of April. I immediately swept out the cells and removed all nails from the walls and searched the persons of the prisoners, and took the articles mentioned and marked “A,” from their...

Image Plates

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APPENDIX: Reproductions from the Letterbook

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pp. 161-170


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pp. 171-179

E-ISBN-13: 9780807135044
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807133965

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2009