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This is the archive for May 2009

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The second speaker at the Surratt Society’s conference, “The Lincoln Assassination, All Things Considered” was Kenneth J. Zanca, a Professor of Religious Studies at Marymount College in Palos Verdes, California. His topic “The Catholics and Mary Surratt.” Among the many conspiracy theories that have been floated about over the past one hundred and forty-four years, and one still very much alive today, suggests Catholics, manipulated by their Vatican puppet masters, plotted and carried out Lincoln’s murder.

After a brief self-introduction, Zanca stated, “the context of Mary Surratt’s life was more complex because of her religious beliefs.” Most mainstream religions during her lifetime supported slavery, capitalism, and the repression of women. In contrast the “conscience of abolitionism grew from women.”

Most literature begins with the fact that Mary Surratt lived anonymously until the last three months of her life, when John Wilkes Booth made his entrance into her world. Zanca still has questions about her guilt and has studied her as a Catholic woman in mid-nineteenth century history.

Maryland, originally founded as a haven for English Catholics, was home to some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in America, men who bore the name of Brent, Brookes, and Carroll. Charles Carroll was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, while two other Carrolls signed the Constitution. The city of Washington itself was largely carved out of land donated by two Maryland Catholics, while the Washington-Baltimore area gave birth to Georgetown, the first Catholic college, and the first order of African-American nuns.

Catholics made up five per cent of the population in 1830. With increased immigration over the next two decades, from 1840 to 1860, that population climbed to 14 per cent, with as many as 80,000 Catholics residing in Maryland alone. From 1830 to 1860 the number of churches nationwide rose from 230 to more than 3,400, ministered to by 2700 priests. Protestants and Catholics both brought a “legacy of hatred and prejudice to America.” An 1844 riot in Philadelphia, for example, was sparked by efforts to force the Protestant Bible to be read during Mass. Irish and German immigrants, viewed as “puppets of the Pope,” gravitated toward the Democratic Party, while Whig and Republican ranks drew in the native born and their “Nativist sentiments.”

During the Civil War more than 200,000 Irish Catholics populated Union and Confederate ranks, while nuns, particularly the Sisters of Mercy, nursed the wounded and dying. Catholic converts such as William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and George Meade were entrusted with significant command roles, while Roger B. Taney and Cardinal John Hughes ruled over the Supreme Court and New York City respectively. Jefferson Davis attended a Catholic School in Kentucky, James Longstreet and his wife both converted to Catholicism, P.T. Beauregard was raised in the faith, Dixie was composed by a Catholic, while James Ryder Randall penned the words to “Maryland, My Maryland.” In spite of this influence and their numbers, “no Catholic held political office above the local level until the 1900’s.”

“How was Mary Surratt typical of Catholics?” The Church taught, “slavery was the result of sin and supported by Holy Scripture.” “Jesus never chastised one slaveholder.” In 1839 Pope Gregory “condemned the international slave trade, but not the ownership of slaves.” Mary’s children received a Catholic education. She was active in parish life and valued the sacraments. In Zanca’s opinion “she was more than a common seasonal Catholic.” Lincoln, for his part, was “not popular with the Catholic community,” due to actions such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus, preventing the flying of Confederate flags and wearing of allied symbols, ordering the arrest of members of the Maryland legislature, and placing Maryland under marshal law.

“What sets Mary apart as a Catholic,” according to Zanca, was the fact she was not born into the faith, but converted when she was 12-years of age. She was not an immigrant, nor Irish or German, “was educated, owned lands, owned slaves, owned a business,” and identified herself as a Southerner.

There is “no record that one can find that she was a rabid secessionist.” She didn’t belong to Pro-Confederate groups or sewing circles. The one activity she can be linked to is running a bizarre for St. Aloysius Church in Washington, to which John Wilkes Booth donated five dollars.

Lincoln’s death sent the nation into a state of shock. Catholic Unionists in the North accepted the Military Commission’s findings, fearful of a Catholic backlash. The fear of a backlash was very real due to the fact that five of the nine named conspirators, including Mary and her son John, Samuel Mudd, David Herold, and Samuel Arnold were all Catholics. Bishop Spaulding put a mussel on priests, and in particular Father Walter, forbidding them from speaking out publicly about Mary’s possible innocence. Wide spread condemnation of the “judicial murder” eventually did emerge among “Pro-Surratt Southerners” and subsequent Catholic sentiment was awash with the belief “Seward, et al had murdered Mary Surratt.” Even the reigning Pope was kept informed of the trial proceedings and execution.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

This post is way overdue and one that I started writing shortly after attending the Surratt Society’s March 21st conference. However, to borrow from that age-old adage, better late than never.

Having read Kate Clifford Larson’s “The Assassin’s Accomplice,” a book on Mary Surratt and her role in the Lincoln assassination, I was looking forward to hearing her speak at the Surratt Society’s conference, “The Lincoln Assassination, All Things Considered.” But not for the reasons one might immediately suspect. For beginners, I had found three glaring errors while reading the book. Although I’ve read eight books on the assassination, with two more in the future reading stack, I’m not in the same league as serious students of the assassination. Suffice it to say, though, I know my stuff and the errors literally leapt off the page. In the scheme of things they weren’t major factual errors, but they were disconcerting nonetheless. Reading that Mary Surratt was buried in Baltimore, when she was in fact buried at Mt. Olivet cemetery in Washington, made me wince. I have to admit, walking into the Colony South hotel, where the conference was held, I didn’t envy Kate, because I had a feeling she was walking into the lion’s den and risked getting ripped to shreds by assassination groupies.

So, who should happen to be sitting at the row of tables directly in front of me when I took a seat? Why, none other than Kate Clifford Larson. I told her I had read her book and, before I could say anything more, she volunteered there were errors, saying they’d be corrected in the paperback edition. She had worked with two editors and a research assistant, who was supposed to check facts, but, still, no one caught the errors. I found myself sympathizing with her and laughingly advised her to blame the three aforementioned parties when she got up to speak. In the end, all was forgiven, a task made easier by virtue of the fact that she was, be still my beating heart, a very attractive lady and gracious in consenting to autograph my copy of her book.

After awards were given out, including to the youngest conference attendee and the person who traveled the furthest to attend (Hawaii), Kate was introduced. She began by thanking the Surratt Society for their assistance in allowing her access to their archives and then, again, openly admitted errors appeared in the book. Her audience seemed to appreciate that.

Larson, who earned a PhD in history from the University of New Hampshire and currently teaches at Simmons College in Boston, had never heard the name of Mary Surratt until she was close to completing research for a book on Harriett Tubman. She was fascinated by the story, initially believing Surratt had been victimized, but ultimately came to the conclusion she was guilty of complicity in Lincoln’s murder.

The story, as told in “The Assassin’s Accomplice,” is of “an incredibly fascinating character,” both “head strong” and “defiant,” a woman, who, in many ways, defied convention. Better educated than most women of her station, a convert to Catholicism, she became an astute businesswoman by default due to her husband’s own failings, caused in large part by alcoholism and gambling debts. It was also rumored that she was carrying on an illicit affair with a priest. Whether it was true, or she had simply found a sympathetic ear is open to conjecture, but the priest was transferred from his Oxon Hill, Maryland parish, in large part, based on those rumors.

Possessing a poor business sense and sniffing an opportunity to get out from under a pile of debt led John Surratt to purchase a wayside tavern at a crossroads in what is now known as Clinton, Maryland. Even before his death, this “smart” and “capable” woman, with a natural business acuity, took over the operation of the tavern and assumed the duties of postmaster from her husband, a move that, in Larson’s opinion, “ultimately sent her to the gallows.” There’s little doubt about the reputation of Surratt’s Tavern as a safe house for Confederate mail couriers and spies, nestled as it was in an area of Prince George’s County where residents made no bones about their sympathies toward Richmond.

According to Larson, Mary Surratt “had to have known the plot was afoot. I don’t believe she participated in Booth’s plot because she was in love with him. I just don’t believe that.” What Larson does believe is that Mary was motivated by “ideology.” “As you move closer and closer to the assassination the evidence is overwhelming…” “Although the government had lots of evidence against her…the evidence of her guilt was overwhelming,” Larson admitted though, she was “surprised they hung her.” She finds it equally “interesting that people continue to call the witnesses who testified against Mary liars and argue she’s totally innocent.”

In spite of her belief in Mary’s guilt, Larson has deep-seated sympathy for her. “Newspapers painted a very ugly picture of her.” The stories that ran in the daily papers were “very cruel,” but spoke to the anger of both the papers and northerners. Neither “vilified the conspirators the way they did Mary.” Larson speculates that “Mary didn’t help herself by wearing a heavy veil over her face during the trial.” During interrogations she presented as “defiant,” and sought to “protect her son,” and in a sense “overplayed her hand.” Her defiance, demeanor in the courtroom, and “the most incompetent legal representation in history,” all contributed to a finding of guilt. Larson admitted that she was “stunned” at the number of times witness were recalled by defense attorneys “to repeat damning against Mary.” Nine priests, most of who did not know her, were called to the stand. There was little in their testimony, like most witnesses called on her behalf, that served her case.

What Larson wanted her audience to take away most from her book on Mary Surratt was “this is a very strong woman in a man’s world. She never stood in the background.”

Saturday, May 09, 2009

I tried this about a year ago, getting as far as Lovettsville, Virginia, which is a little more than 55 miles from Gettysburg as the crow flies, before I ran out of daylight amid monsoon conditions. That drive followed the Fifth Corps’ route from Gettysburg in pursuit of Lee’s retreating army. I may be biting off more than I can chew, because definite plans call for me to complete yard work around the 18th Massachusetts’ monument at Gettysburg this morning, while tentative plans have me heading to Chambersburg, PA for a first time visit in the afternoon, a repeat visit to Charles Town, WV, tomorrow morning, and picking up the Fifth Corps’ trail again in the afternoon. Something may have to give.

Monday, May 04, 2009

I had briefly mentioned ongoing efforts to save the Shepherdstown, West Virginia Battlefield in a previous post, but wanted to revisit that topic. Today’s post includes reports prepared by Col. James Barnes, who commanded the First Brigade, First Division, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, which crossed the Potomac River on September 20, 1862, in what amounted to a reconnaissance to ascertain, if possible, the position of Lee’s retreating army following the battle of Antietam, and of Confederate Major General A.P. Hill, whose forces turned back to face Barnes’ men and pounced on their prey like a pack of wolves.

Tomorrow’s post will bring everyone up to date on efforts to save the battlefield from a developer’s plan to construct houses on the remaining undeveloped parcel of land where the engagement occurred. For four years it’s been a case of David versus Goliath, only now David’s sling is cradling a rock named Congress and hope abounds.

Report of Col. James Barnes, commanding the First Brigade, First Division, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, regarding events of September 20, 1862.

September 25, 1862.
Assistant Adjutant-General.

MAJOR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the action of Saturday last, the 20th September, on the opposite side of the Potomac, between this brigade and a very large force of the enemy:

On the morning of the 20th instant I received from division headquarters the following order:

HEADQUARTERS DIVISION, September 20, 1862.
Colonel BARNES,
Commanding First Brigade:

COLONEL: In pursuance of orders from headquarters of the corps, the commanding general directs that you push your brigade across the river to Shepherdstown and vicinity, and report what is to be found there.
By command of Major-General Morell:
Assistant Adjutant-General.

In obedience to this order, I crossed the river at Blackford's Ford at about 9 o'clock a.m., the brigade, consisting of the Eighteenth Massachusetts, Twenty-fifth New York, Thirteenth New York, One hundred and eighteenth Pennsylvania, First Michigan, Twenty-second Massachusetts, and Second Maine Regiments, numbering in all 1,711 men, including officers, some of the regiments having been very much reduced. As soon as the Eighteenth Massachusetts had crossed the ford, it was drawn up in order on the road running below the bluffs toward Shepherdstown, under the command of Major [Joseph] Hayes.

At this moment, and before the other regiments had crossed, Brigadier-General [George] Sykes, who had previously crossed the river, and whose command consisted, as I was informed, of about 800 men, then in advance toward the west, came to me with the information that the enemy were in strong force about 2 miles in his front; that he had sent his aide forward to ascertain the facts in the case, and desired me to remain until his aide returned, in order to afford him support if the report should turn out to be true. I informed him that my orders required me to go to Shepherdstown, but that if he would give me an order to remain I would do so. He accordingly gave me the order for that purpose, and desired that Major Hayes, with the Eighteenth Massachusetts, then drawn up in the road, should take position near but below the top of the ridge, which ran in its general direction parallel to the road and on the left. Major Hayes immediately proceeded to occupy that position. The Twenty-fifth New York, Colonel [Charles A.] Johnson, and the Thirteenth New York, Colonel [Elisha G.] Marshall, having crossed and formed in the road, were directed to take a similar position on the right of Major Hayes, but to reach which it was necessary to pass beyond the ravine by which the Eighteenth Massachusetts had ascended to another ravine a few rods distant, the interval forming a rocky bluff nearly perpendicular, up which it was impracticable to advance.

By this time the One hundred and eighteenth Pennsylvania, Colonel [Charles M.] Prevost, had crossed the ford and formed in the road. They were directed to follow the Thirteenth and Twenty-fifth New York, and to take a similar position below the top of the ridge and to their left. They accordingly followed those regiments, and came into line below the top of the ridge, as directed. The remaining regiments of the brigade, namely, the First Michigan, Capt. E[mory] W. Belton commanding, the Twenty-second Massachusetts, under the command of Lieut. Col. W[illiam]. S. Tilton, and the Second Maine, Col. C[harles] W. Roberts, were directed to ascend the ravine by which the Eighteenth Massachusetts had ascended, and to form in a similar manner below the top of the ridge, the two former on the right and the latter on the left of Major Hayes, who was already posted there. These movements were all promptly executed, and in good order. The brigade being then in position, and suitably protected by the ground in front, skirmishers were advanced to the front, and immediately commenced firing upon those of the enemy, who by this time had advanced within musket range, and were deployed along their whole front in large numbers and at very short intervals.

The information respecting the advance of the enemy as at first received was to the effect that the enemy were advancing from the left of the position occupied by my brigade. It was, however, soon perceived that he was not only approaching with a greatly superior force from that direction, but that they were also in equal numbers advancing on our front and on our right. Springing as it were from the bushes and corn-fields which had concealed them to this time, and making their first appearance within short musket range, a rapid and vigorous fire commenced immediately, and, notwithstanding the vastly superior numbers of the enemy, every man stood his ground firmly, and the line exhibited an undaunted front.

The action now becoming general, it was apparent that the greatly superior force of the enemy would make it necessary for us to retire. The batteries on the opposite side of the river having been brought into position opened a heavy fire with good effect upon the enemy, though, from the close proximity of the contending forces, it was difficult for them to avoid some damage to our own troops. Some of their shot and shell struck in our rear, and some of the casualties of the day may be attributed to that source.

It was soon perceived that the command of General Sykes on our left was retiring, and they had reached nearly to the foot of the hill when I received orders to retire in good order, and to recross the river. I immediately gave the necessary orders to fall back to the regiments posted, as above described, on the left of the brigade, where I then was, and at once dispatched the orderly to convey the same instructions to those upon the right of the line. I immediately followed him to prevent mistake. On my way thither I met Colonel Provost, of the One hundred and eighteenth Pennsylvania, retiring from the field, disabled by a severe wound in the shoulder. I passed rapidly on to the ground occupied by his regiment, and repeated the orders to retire in good order. This order had already been communicated to them by Lieutenant Davis, my aide.

The regiment [118th PA], then under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel [James] Gwyn, had commenced falling back, but, owing to their large numbers and the uneven character of the ground, not without some degree of confusion. Lieutenant-Colonel Gwyn, although deprived of the assistance of the colonel of the regiment, and laboring under the disadvantage of having under his command a regiment but little drilled, succeeded in withdrawing them from their perilous position, not without loss, indeed, but in a manner creditable to himself and to the character of his command, both of officers and men, for courage and coolness. They had advanced in the excitement of the contest from the cover of the ridge where they had first formed in line, and were exposed to a galling fire from the enemy, who were protected by a ravine in front of them. The brigade being thus withdrawn, the several regiments recrossed the river in good order, and with but little loss in crossing. A few, however, were fatally wounded on the passage.

After crossing, the brigade was reformed in rear of the Second Brigade upon this side of the river, but after remaining in this position for the greater part of the day, and no further attempts being made by the enemy with the view of crossing, the several regiments withdrew to their respective encampments.

It is difficult to do full justice to the gallantry displayed by both officers and men on this occasion without appearing to overstate it. Finding themselves suddenly and unexpectedly attacked by a force so vastly superior, there was no sign of intimidation on the part of any one, and when the order to retire was given it was received with evident disappointment.

I have already submitted in detail the loss in killed, wounded, and missing, to which I beg leave to refer. A summary of the list shows as follows: 92 killed, 131 wounded, and 103 missing.

With much respect, your obedient servant,


Colonel, Commanding Brigade

Report of Maj. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill, C. S. Army,
Commanding Light Division, Of Operations September 2 - November 3.

On the morning of the 20th [of September, 1862], at 6.30 o'clock, I was directed by General [Thomas] Jackson to take my division and drive across the river some brigades of the enemy who had crossed during the night, driven off General Pendleton's artillery, capturing four pieces, and were making preparations to hold their position. Arriving opposite Boteler's Ford, and about half a mile therefrom, I formed my line of battle in two lines, the first the brigades of [William D.] Pender, [Maxcy] Gregg, and {Edward] Thomas, under command of General Gregg, and the second, {James] Lane (Branch's brigade), [James] Archer, and [John] Brockenbrough, under the command of General Archer. The enemy had lined the opposite hills with some seventy pieces of artillery, and the infantry who had crossed lined the crest of the high banks on the Virginia shore. My lines advanced simultaneously, and soon encountered the enemy. This advance was made in the face of the most tremendous fire of artillery I ever saw, and too much praise cannot be awarded my regiments for their steady, unwavering step. It was as if each man felt that the fate of the army was centered in himself. The infantry opposition in front of Gregg's center and right was but trifling, and soon brushed away. The enemy, however, massed in front of Pender, and, extending, endeavored to turn his left. General Pender became hotly engaged, and informing Archer of his danger, he (Archer) moved by the left flank, and forming on Pender's left, a simultaneous, daring charge was made, and the enemy driven pell-mell into the river. Then commenced the most terrible slaughter that this war has yet witnessed. The broad surface of the Potomac was blue with the floating bodies of our foe. But few escaped to tell the tale. By their own account they lost 3,000 men, killed and drowned, from one brigade alone. Some 200 prisoners were taken. My own loss was 30 killed and 231 wounded; total, 261.

This was a wholesome lesson to the enemy, and taught them to know that it may be dangerous sometimes to press a retreating army. In this battle I did not use a piece of artillery.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Major-General, Commanding Light Division.