LOOKING FOR HISTORY – CHECK YOUR GRAND PARENTS’ ATTICS

November 26, 2009: Barry Cauchon

LOOKING FOR CIVIL WAR DIARIES, LETTERS, PHOTOGRAPHS, ARTIFACTS AND KEEPSAKES for possible inclusion in our upcoming book and documentary about the Old Arsenal Penitentiary and the Lincoln Conspirators.

Example: Ed Isaacs family has been living in the northeastern United States for several hundred years. Last year Ed’s cousin Pam gave him the diary of his great-great grandfather George Dixon. George was a Civil War Union soldier who was stationed at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington DC during the incarceration, trial and eventual punishments of the Lincoln conspirators. Amongst other interesting notations found in the diary, George listed the cells used by the prisoners and the guards who watched over them on the last day or two leading up to the executions of four of the conspirators. Ed Isaacs contacted me awhile ago and shared George’s diary with me. We have become friends and are planning on including information about George Dixon and his diary in our upcoming book and documentary. Ed hopes that it will help celebrate his ancestor’s life and we are thrilled to do so. To read the story of George Dixon and his diary as presented by Ed Isaacs, please click on the following link  https://awesometalks.wordpress.com/an-awesometalk-with-ed-isaacs-owner-of-civil-war-diary-from-soldier-who-guarded-the-lincoln-conspirators/).

APPEAL FOR HIDDEN HISTORY: We are appealing to others out there who might have ancestors who were connected directly or indirectly to the Lincoln conspiracy, the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, Washington DC or other Civil War occurences that related to the events that took place between March and August of 1865 in Washington DC and other surrounding areas. Items such as personal diaries, letters, photographs, artifacts, keepsakes and other Civil War related items in your possession could contain valuable historical information of great significance presently unknown to the research community. We would love to include your finds, if historically relevent, in our book and documentary.

So check your attics, basements, the old shed out back, garages, farm houses, barns and even below the floor boards of your old home. Check with your family members about stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. Those conversations may give you a clue as to where your ancestors may have been during the time of the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination and conspiracy. Even if you do not know whether you have something that is important, you should inform us anyway. A name of a buddy or commander found in a diary could be very important. A location mentioned is a possibility. A comment about contemporary events from the time of the assassination may be the perfect thing we are looking for.  You never know what might be important to our projects and the historical community in general. And if you do find something that doesn’t necessarily fit within our research, we will do our best to help direct you where you can go to get more information about your find.

We are looking for genuine historical articles from the time of President Lincoln’s assassination, funeral, conspiracy trial and prisons located in Washington DC (Old Arsenal Penitentiary, District Penitentiary, Washington Penitentiary, Old Capitol Prison, Carrol Annex and Carrol Branch Prison). Items related to the Navy Yards and the ironclad monitors USS Saugus and USS Montauk could all be important clues to help tell the story better. And don’t forget the potential connection to the Confederate Secret Service primarily run out of Montreal, Canada or Lafayette Baker who was the head of the Secret Service for the Union. All great possibilities where hidden history may lie.

WHAT THIS IS NOT

Regretably we are not offering to purchase your family relics or assign a price to them. That is not our specialty and we cannot offer expert advice on an artifact’s value short of its historical significance to the story. As mentioned before, we will do our best to help direct you towards those who might be able to assist you. But no guarantees of course.

If you have an item that you think might be of interest to us, please do not use the comment area below. Instead, write me directly at outreach@awesometalks.com and I will get back to you as soon as I can. Please describe the item (and include a picture if possible). If relevent, please explain why you think this may relate to our research.

As you can see from previous postings on this blog over the past 18 months, we have had a few really cool finds that I’ve been able to share with you. The George Dixon diary, Mr. P’s original fake ‘Lincoln in Death’ photo used in many Lincoln books published over the years and some genuinely great stories from family members from their ancestor’s past.

Give it a try. Everyone has treasures in their family. Share them.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

THE WASHINGTON D.C. ARSENAL PENITENTIARY (Part 2 of 3)

August 4, 2009: Barry Cauchon.

John Elliott has completed his 2nd of 3 parts on the Washington D.C. Arsenal Penitentiary. This segment covers the period from 1865 to 1869 and discusses the trial, the executions, the aftermath and fate of the penitentiary.

Excellent job John.

Enjoy.

Barry

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THE WASHINGTON D.C. ARSENAL PENITENTIARY (Part 2 of 3)

A History of the Prison Where the Conspirators of the Lincoln Assassination Were Tried and Hanged

Part 2: The Trial and Execution Period (1865-1869)   

One of the hoods worn by the Lincoln Conspirators

One of the hoods worn by the Lincoln Conspirators

Secretary of War Stanton

Secretary of War Stanton

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the failed attempt to cripple the Union government, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton vowed to capture and punish those who carried out the heinous attacks.  It was widely believed that such a strike against the North was a calculated, military tactic by Jefferson Davis and the South to re-ignite the war against the Union.

Stanton initiated the aggressive pursuit of those involved in the conspiracy and ordered the arrest of hundreds of suspects and witnesses.  The investigation quickly led to the apprehension of several people with direct involvement in the plot. Six of these suspects: Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Ned Spangler, Mike O’Laughlen and Sam Arnold were captured and subsequently confined to Union Navy ships while the majority of the general detainees were held in the Old Capitol Prison and Carroll Annex.  Dr. Mudd and Mary Ann Surratt were held in the Old Capitol Prison but were considered prime suspects.

 

The Old Capitol Prison

The Old Capitol Prison

Union Navy Ship U.S.S. Saugus

Union Navy Ship U.S.S. Saugus...one of the monitor class ships that imprisoned some of the conspirator suspects.

In order to group the criminal defendants in one place and separate them from the rest of the detainees, Major Thomas Eckert suggested to Secretary Stanton that the old Arsenal Penitentiary be re-activated.  Major Eckert was the Telegraph Superintendent of the War Department and a trusted friend of President Lincoln. He was one of the many people who had declined the President’s invitation to attend the play “Our American Cousin” that tragic evening.

Major Thomas T. Eckert

Major Thomas T. Eckert

The Penitentiary had not been in use as a prison for three years.   Surrounded by water on three sides, it was considered to be one of the most secure and heavily guarded places in Washington D.C. 

Distant view of the D.C. Arsenal

Distant view of the Washington D.C. Arsenal

It had plenty of cells to accommodate the prisoners and even had a large enough room (on the 3rd floor of the former Deputy Warden’s quarters) to host the trial.  Security was extremely important because it was thought that the Southern forces may try to break the prisoners free or that northern loyalists may try to exact revenge on the conspirators.

On April 28th, 1865 Secretary Stanton ordered the commanding officer of the Arsenal to prepare the prison building for its new inmates.  Prison cells in the female ward (these cells were twice as large as the men’s cells) were cleared and inspected.  Shuck mattresses were delivered to the cells and nails were taken out of the walls to ensure that the prisoners would not harm themselves or possibly others.

General John F. Hartranft

General John F. Hartranft

Andrew Johnson appointed 34 year old General John F. Hartranft to take command of the Arsenal Penitentiary.  He would serve as the provost marshal and military governor of the prison and would be responsible for the defense of the Arsenal as well as the supervision of every aspect of the prisoners’ daily lives.  He would make sure they were fed and cleaned and that no one would communicate with them unless authorized by written orders of Secretary of War Stanton.

Rules of the Prison

By May 4th, all eight of the suspects would be imprisoned at the Arsenal.  Gen. Hartranft was issued a list of rules to guide his governance. Four of the twenty-eight rules of governance were as follows:

1. The keys of the Military Prison will be kept by the Military Governor who will make a personal inspection of each prisoner at least twice every twenty four hours.

The first inspections began at 7 am and the second would usually occur at 8 pm.

2. A medical officer will be assigned to make a medical inspection daily with the Governor twice in twenty four hours.  The inspection will be made in the presence of the Governor and at the times he makes his inspections.

The two medical examinations may seem excessive until you examine the following rule –

3. No prisoner will be allowed to escape alive or to defeat the ends of justice by self destruction.

Dr. George L. Porter

Dr. George L. Porter

Dr. George L. Porter, the appointed army physician of the Arsenal, accompanied Gen. Hartranft and conducted physical examinations of each prisoner.  He was permitted only to ask or answer medical questions from the inmates.  No other communication was allowed.

Dr. Porter also holds the distinction as being one of the few people who saw John Wilkes Booth buried in the storage room of the Penitentiary on April 27th, 1865.

4. The prisoners are to be supplied with nothing but necessary food and water during their imprisonment unless by special order….and the Military Governor will be responsible for preventing any knives, spoons or other articles from going into the possession of any prisoner, wherewith he may attempt to escape or take his own life or injure his person.

The prisoners’ meals usually consisted of coffee or tea, bread and salted meat.  After finishing their meal, the bowl in which their beverage was served was removed.  No other items would be brought in to the cell.

 

The Courtroom Layout

Special modifications were made to the building in order to have the trial on the third floor.  The courtroom was located in the northeast corner of the prison.  According to various sources, the courtroom measured 40 feet by 27 feet in size. Michael Kauffman details the courtroom layout and modifications in “Fort McNair and the Lincoln Conspirators”:

A door  was cut through the wall between the courtroom and the women’s cells, where all of the prisoners were kept. This would allow the accused to reach the courtroom without having to pass through the public areas of the building’s lower floors. The courtroom itself was whitewashed and a raised platform with a wooden railing was constructed for the prisoners to sit on while the court was in session. Flat bars were placed over the windows and gas lighting was introduced into the room.

Courtroom Layout in the Arsenal Penitentiary

Courtroom Layout in the Arsenal Penitentiary

A staircase ran along the east wall and led to a doorway in the northeast corner of the room.  The courtroom had  two windows that faced north and two to the east.  The prisoners were kept in the same seating arrangements throughout the trial. Samuel Arnold was the closest defendant to a window and would often be seen staring out into the freedom of the Washington D.C. skies. Two doors on the south side of the wall led to adjacent rooms. The rooms were supplied with beds and chairs for witnesses, members of the legal teams and military commission.

 The platform that was built for the prisoners stretched along the west wall and led to a doorway that opened to the cell block.  Thirteen chairs were placed on the platform to accommodate seven prisoners and the six guards that sat alternately between them.

Courtroom Sketch

Courtroom Sketch

Mary Surratt and her counsel had their own table that was situated near the platform.  This special arrangement may have been due to the fact that she was having health issues and fell ill during the trial.  It was thought that her condition might improve if she was given more room to breathe.

General Hartranft wrote in his journal that “Mrs. Surratt became so ill that it was necessary to remove her from the courtroom”.  At one point, she was permitted to sit in one of the adjoining rooms in order to avoid the sweltering heat and uncomfortable conditions of the crowded trial room.

In the north side of the courtroom stood a large table for the members of the commission, and on the south side was an equally large table for spectators and reporters.  Between them was the witness stand, where the witnesses faced the commission to give their testimony. Smaller tables were provided for counsel and evidence.

image_b_2_7271  3-727

image_a_2_7273  image_b_3_727

Strict security measures were put in to place during the trial.  A different guard would be used to escort the heavily shackled and hooded prisoners to the courtroom each day. In order to preclude the conspirators from talking with each other, they were forced to wear canvas hoods on their way to the courtroom and in their cells — all except for Dr. Mudd and Mary Surratt.  They were never forced to wear hoods.

General Hartranft also saw to it that the inmates were never allowed to occupy adjacent cells. In order to prevent messages from being tapped out to each other through the walls, every other cell was left empty. Additionally, the prison guard detail was changed out on a daily basis to make sure that no single guard would guard the same prisoner more than once.

General Hartranft respectfully and dutifully fulfilled his obligations as Military Governor of the Arsenal.  This was not an assignment that he took with much enthusiasm.  Even his wife tried to talk him out of becoming known as a “hangman”.  Difficult as it was, General Hartranft could take pride that he was selected due to his outstanding achievements and excellent record as an obedient soldier.  Only the best officer could be counted on to take this role.

During the trial period, Gen. Hartranft showed compassion towards the prisoners’ well-being on separate occasions.  In June, he requested of his commanding officer that five of the six inmates who wore the canvas hoods, be allowed to take them off.  The only exception was Lewis Powell.  The hood didn’t seem to bother him as much as the others.

From Gen. Hartranft’s journal:

“The prisoners are suffering very much from their padded hoods, and I would respectfully request that they be removed from all the prisoners except 195 (Powell). This prisoner does not suffer as much as the others and there may be some necessity for his wearing it, but I do not think there is for any others.”

During that same month of June, Gen. Hartranft requested and was approved to remove the ball and chain attached to the limbs of prisoners Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt.  Powell had been observed by a Sentinel on duty, trying to place a weighted ball against his head in attempt to do damage to himself.

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock

General Hartranft also saw to it that other requests were granted to the prisoners.  He made sure that they received chewing tobacco, writing paper and ink, clothing (including underclothing) and various food items.  All of these requests were granted at the permission of his commanding officer General Winfield Scott Hancock.

On July 7th, 1865, General Hartranft completed his duties by seeing to it that the Orders of Execution of four of the prisoners were carried out.  The four remaining prisoners (Mudd, Arnold, Spangler and O’Laughlen) would later be transferred to the Island of Dry Tortugas to serve their sentences. The bodies of the hanged conspirators were placed in pine boxes and buried in shallow graves next to the gallows.  In November of that same year, the body of Henry Wirz (tried by a military commission and executed at the Old Capitol Prison grounds) would join them. They would remain buried there for the next two years.

In September of 1867, John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators would be reunited. Secretary of War Stanton ordered that the Arsenal Penitentiary be demolished except for the eastern and western ends of the building.  The ends of the building were to be spared and converted to Officer’s quarters.  As a result of the new construction work, all of the conspirators’ bodies would be exhumed and moved to another building on the Arsenal grounds known as Warehouse 1.  A trench that measured eight by eighteen feet and six feet deep was dug for the bodies.  The bodies were examined and then placed in the trench in the following order (east to west): Booth, Surratt, Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Wirz.

In February of 1869, Andrew Johnson ordered that the bodies be released to their families.  This final act closed the chapter on the Arsenal Penitentiary’s role in President Lincoln’s Assassination.

End of Part 2 of 3

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Sources:

Surratt Society: Laurie Verge and Joan Chaconas

Michael Kauffman: FortLesley McNair and the Lincoln Conspirators

Michael Kauffman: American Brutus

David K. Sullivan: Behind Prison Walls: The Operation of the District Penitentiary, 1831-1862

Phyllis I. McClellan: Silent Sentinel on the Potomac

Edward Steers Jr., and Harold Holzer: The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators – The Confinement and Execution, As Recorded In The Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft

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Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com