Posts from the ‘1865’ Category

Frederick Aiken The Attorney – Historians Weigh In

From the moment that the American Film Company released The Conspirator, questions have been raised about the films accuracy regarding the lead counsel, Frederick Aiken. Was he, as FoxNews host Bill O’Reilly would opine, a “pinhead” or a “patriot?” You be the judge.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Little has been written about Frederick Aiken. This Week in the Civil War posted some preliminary materials back in April, and they it still seems to be the only biographical material out there. You can read the biography post here.

The mystery goes even deeper than that. The owner of this blog made a records request for Aiken’s personnel files from the National Archives earlier this year. Instead of receiving a packet with all the mundane details of his assignments and pay records, the most Civil War personnel files contain, the Archives sent back one sheet of paper that said, “Record not located.”

The life of Frederick Aiken is still a mystery. Perhaps someday we’ll know more about his story but until then, we’ll dig up every rudimentary detail that we can find.

In the meantime, the Surratt House Museum website has an index of .pdf files on the trial that you can download here. It would be a great place to start your own research into the career of Frederick Aiken.

Two key books were written that details the Assassination of President Lincoln, with suitable references to the young attorney. I highly recommend you purchase a copy of each book in order to understand the context of the quotations. (For the record, I do not have any financial interest in either of these books.)

The first one is Assassin’s Accomplice by Dr. Kate Clifford Larsen, from which the film, The Conspirator, was based upon.

By the close of court on May 10, the rest of the defendants were still without counsel. Mudd’s lawyer, Brent, backed out, so the following day, Mudd petitioned the court for change of counsel to Frederick Stone, Herold’s lawyer. Mary arrived in court with new counsel as well: Frederick Aiken and John W. Clampitt, the new associates in Reverdy Johnson’s large practice in Washington. Aiken, born and raised in Massachusetts, had passed the bar in Vermont and was very active in Democratic Party politics. During the war he had worked as a correspondent for the New York Times, and had been practicing law only a short time when he was called upon to help defend Surratt. Clampitt was a Washingtonian, and had only recently begun practicing law with Aiken in Johnson’s law office. He, too, was an active Democratic Party loyalist. Johnson, in the meantime, would remain Mary’s lead counsel, in spite of his own heavy case load. [pg. 145]

On Friday, May 12, the court reconvened at ten o’clock in the morning. Sam Arnold had successfully retained counsel: General Thomas Ewing Jr., a Union officer and successful Washington lawyer. He would represent not only Arnold, but Ed Spangler and Samuel Mudd, too, as co-counsel with Frederick Stone. Michael O’Laughlen hired Walter S. Cox, a local attorney and professor at Columbia College, who would also assist Stone with Arnold’s defense. George Atzerodt’s family retained William E. Doster for him. Doster had been a former provost marshall in Washington, and would prove to be a contentious defense counsel. The court would prevail upon him to take Payne on as a client, too, after Payne’s first lawyer backed out and no other was willing to represent him. [pg. 145]

Whether Johnson ultimately decided that Mary as guilty or not remains unknown. However, within a few days, Johnson rarely appeared in court, leaving Mary’s defense to his inexperienced associates Clampitt and Aiken. [pp. 146-147]

After Weichmann and Lloyd’s extensive testimonies, Reverdy Johnson virtually gave up on Mary’s defense. His absence was duly noticed. Rumors began spreading that Johnson knew Mary was guilty and had therefore deserted her. As early as May 16, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Johnson “had abandoned cross-questioning the witnesses, and is preparing an argument to prove that the court cannot try these cases, for lack of power.” Johnson’s decision to not appear regularly in court as part of Mary’s defense team, and to leave her in the hands of his inexperienced associates, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt, would have tragic consequences. [pg. 154]

Almost every day, further negative testimony implicated Mary and her son John ever more deeply in Booth’s plans. Reverdy Johnson’s new associates, Aiken and Clampitt, now without their experienced lead counsel, seemed helpless to stem the flow of damaging evidence. [pg. 155]

Mary’s co-council Frederick Aiken announced to the court that the defendants’ attorneys had met privately to discuss the order of presentation. They agreed that testimony relating to Mrs. Surratt would launch the first phase of the defense of the conspirators.  [pg. 156]

When cross-examined by Judge Holt, Eliza noted that Mrs. Surratt never appeared to have difficulty recognizing people by gaslight in the parlor. Aiken’s efforts to bolster Mary’s claim that poor eyesight and dim light had prevented her from recognizing Payne on the night of her arrest were ineffectual. The day had not gone well for Mary’s defense.          [pg. 158]

Mary’s defense had taken a beating. By the time court adjourned that Saturday afternoon, Aiken and Clampitt had only succeeded in making the prosecution’s case even stronger. Even at this early date, Mary’s prospects looked bleak. Clampitt and Aiken needed to regroup. They returned to court on Monday ready to take a different tack. [pg. 169]

It would be another two days before Aiken and Clampitt would provide their own closing summation, even though Johnson knew that they were inexperienced attorneys and it could prove disastrous to leave Mary’s final defense arguments in their hands. Just as he did through most of the trial, he left Mary’s life – and left Mary’s life in their hands.         [pg. 190]

The other book is American Brutus by Michael  W. Kauffman.

The defendants were still scrambling to find lawyers, and in a short time most of the accused had found someone. John Atzerodt hired William E. Doster, the former provost marshal of Washington, to represent his brother. Walter S. Cox, a law professor at Columbian College, agreed to defend O’Laughlen, and David Herold retained the services of Frederick Stone, from a distinguished Charles County famliy. Dr. Mudd and Sam Arnold would both be represented by General Thomas Ewing, Jr., former chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court and a brother-in-law of General William T. Sherman. All were fine attorneys, but there were not enough to go around. Spangler and Powell were still unrepresented and after several rejections, Mary Surratt could secure only the services of two neophytes, John W. Clampitt and Frederick A. Aiken. Neither had experience in a capital case, and Aiken was just completing his first year of practice. [pg. 340]

Many of the objections raised by Frederick Aiken, the attorney for Mary Surratt, would have been overruled in any court. Aiken was not an experienced lawyer. He did not understand the rules of evidence, and his frequent missteps played as heavily against his client as anything the commission decided. He rarely came prepared and often failed to anticipate what his own witnesses would say…Perhaps Aiken’s worst blunder was calling Augustus Howell to the stand. Howell was defiant, evasive, and inordinately proud of his opposition to the Yankees. His testimony was intended to cast suspicion on Weichmann, whom he had taught to use a Confederate cipher machine but it only called attention to the fact that Howell himself knew how to use the device. [pp. 357-358]

In an exchange with Lew Wallace, Aiken admitted that the process was not at fault. The general said “I understood the object of the counsel to be, to impeach not only the witness for the government, but also the fairness of the Court.” To this, Aiken replied, “No, sir; only the witness; not the fairness of the Court at all. I have no reason to complain of that. None of us have had.”[pg. 358]

The Assassination Conspirators Hang - from left: Mary E. Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold. Photo by Alexander Gardner.

You be the judge. Was Aiken a “pinhead” for representing Surratt in the first place, and setting himself up for the inevitable fall that would occur if/when she was found guilty? Or was he a “patriot” for undertaking a task that he knew might be ruinous to his future career? The one thing that we know for sure is that Frederick Aiken was a victim of his own inexperience as an attorney.


Steamboat SULTANA biographical information

The following information is from Way’s Packet Directory 1848-1994 compiled by Frederick Way Jr. The SULTANA is vessel number 5216 in the directory.


SW p wh b. Cincinnati, Oh., 660 tons. 260×42 (39 ft. floor) x 7. Engines, 25’s – 8 ft. Four tubular boilers, quite a fad at the time, each 46″ by 18 ft., having twenty-four 5″ flues. Paddlewheels 34 ft. dia. working 11 ft. buckets. Built at the John Litherbury yard, and machinery by Moore and Richardson. Launched Jan. 3, 1863, in a double ceremony, the LUMINARY, – almost a duplicate, also being launched. Built for Capt. Pres Lodwick, well known on the Upper Mississippi for his NORTHERN BELLE and NORTHERN LIGHT (both see) and was designated for the New Orleans trade. Due to the uncertainties of war, she was entered int the trade Cincinnati-Wheeling on February 12, which she continued until mid-March. In charge of the office was W.H. Cropper, with Charles Matthews, second clerk. J.W. Keniston was chief engineer. She then loaded for Nashville under U.S. auspices. Joe Curtis looked up the old U.S. Custom files at Memphis for 1864 and she first appears downbound for New Orleans on January 25, Capt. Lodwick. She was sold at St. Louis in early March 1864 to a number of firms and citizens of that place, also her new skipper Capt. J. Cass Mason, and first clerk W.J. Gamboel. They ran her St. Louis-New Orleans. Capt. Mason, about 34, was born in Lynchburg, Va., and was brought to Missouri as a child. He boated on the A.B. CHAMBERS and lately had been clerk and master of ROWENA i the Memphis trade. First clerk Gamboel lived in Glasgow, Mo., and had been a steamboat agent at Kansas City. The Memphis Custom’s entries show that due to the war she was forced to return to St. Louis from that port until along in August when she apparently went on through. On Feb. 9, 1865, Capt. J. Cass Mason, she departed Memphis for New Orleans. She was back at Memphis February 26, and returned to New Orleans from there. On Apr. 26, 1865, she cleared Memphis upbound, Capt. Mason. A notation on the Custom record: “Burned and 1600 persons perished.”

Ill-fated Sultana, Helena, Arkansas, on or about April 26, 1865

The Customs clerk used an approximation. The life-loss afterwards was set at 1,547 lives, at least 1,100 of whom were U.S. soldiers mustered out and returning to Northern homes. A popular and widespread belief was that Confederate spies had secreted dynamite in the coal bunkers, but three of her boilers had exploded without any help from spies. True, she had been having boiler trouble at Vicksburg where the troops came aboard. Nathan Wintringer, chief engineer, later testified that one boiler had been repaired there to his satisfaction. Capt. Speed, U.S.A. ordered 1,886 troops aboard this SULTANA which legally was allowed 376 persons, including the crew. It was common talk there at Vicksburg that two other large steamers, PAULINE CARROLL and LADY GAY, both bid for portions of these troops but were turned down. Landings were made at Helena, Ark. (where a photographer took a picture of her with the soldiers aboard), and another at Memphis. The night leaving Memphis was described as black with a thunderstorm gathering. A few miles above that city, in the crossing at Paddy’s Hen and Chickens, the explosion torched a ruddy glare among the cottonwoods of Tennessee and Arkansas and a dull rumble shook the countryside. The storm broke at the same time.

On the downbound trip to New Orleans, the last she made, the SULTANA carried the shocking news of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to towns and hamlets cut off from all communication save what arrived by river. Now as she returned the nation’s newspapers were loaded with columns of excitement: J. Wilkes Booth had been located and killed; Lee had surrendered; the President was dead. A country geared to appalling losses took the SULTANA disaster with seeming indifference. The explosion happened early morning Apr. 27, 1865.

See S&D Reflector, issue June 1965, pages 10-12; also September 1965, page 12.

[Source: Way, Frederick Jr., Way’s packet directory, 1848-1994: passenger steamboats of the Mississippi River system since the advent of photography in mid-continent America, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio., 1994, p. 436.]

The SULTANA was built at the John Litherbury Shipyard in Cincinnati, Ohio.

According to Bill Judd on, “The Litherbury yard was on Eastern Ave. (now Riverside Drive) just about where the big crane is located at Cincinnati Barge & Rail terminal, what we old timers refer to as Sheet Metal. The Verdin Bell Co. plant is also close by. That would be in the 3000 block of Riverside Drive. The 131 3rd. address was the Litherbury residence. The Weeks shipyard was just downstream from Litherbury’s and John Litherbury was married to a Weeks daughter. One reason researchers have a rough time in this area is because it was known as Fulton and not in the Cincinnati Corporation until about the 1860’s.”

The 1860 Cincinnati City Directory lists John Litherbury at 165 E. Third Street.

The same directory also lists the following:
Ship Chandlers
Barker, Hart & Cook 44 Pub. Landing
Isham & Fisher 47 Pub. Landing

Steamboat Agents
Athearn & Hibbard 5 E. Front
Bennet, A. 14 Landing
Brown, H.W. & Co. 25 E. Front
Cox & Fulton 7 E. Front
Cunningham & Heron 22 W. Front
Irwin & Co. 22 Broadway
Johnston, Geo. L & Co. 29 W. Front
M’Burnie Theoph., 3 E. Front
Paul & Murdock 13 Water
Ross & Co. 33 Sycamore
Schram, A.D., 23 Walnut
Sherlock, Thomas 20 Broadway

Steamboat Builders
Hambleton, S.T. & Co. 1215 E. Front
Horsley & Ehler 248 W. Front
Johnson, Morton & Co. 585 Front

Steamboat Inspectors
Custom House Building
Guthrie, James V. 422 W. 6th
Haldeman, Thos. J. 57 E. 4th

Boat Stores
Barker, Hart & Cook 44 Public Landing
Cullen, James 46 Public Landing
Isham & Fisher 47 Public Landing
Witte, Ferdinand 17 E. Front

The 1863 Cincinnati City Directory lists: Litherbury, John, saw mill, s.s. E. Front e. of Willow, b. 131 E. Third

Sultana Descendants to hold reunion this weekend

Courtesy of Sultana Remembered

Reunion 2011

Ill-fated Sultana, Helena, Arkansas, on or about April 26, 1865

This year’s annual Sultana Reunion is in Mansfield, Ohio April 29-30!

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to make your reservations at the Holiday Inn by calling (419)525-6000 for Friday, April 28th and Saturday, April 30th. Mention that you are with the Sultana Association to get the group discount of $83.00 per room/per night.

The banquet Saturday night (the 30th) will be a t 6:30 pm and will be an all-you-can-eat buffet. Price is $19.00 per person, including meal, drink, tax and gratuity.

Send check ASAP to:
Richard Troup
235 Poplar Drive
McConnelsville, Ohio 43756

Any questions for Richard, email him at:

A Soldier’s Story [Sultana Remembered]

A new website was launched last month called Sultana Remembered by the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends. This is one of their stories.

“A Soldier’s Story” – from the Sultana

In April of this year, seventy-five members of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends came to the Carter House, the centerpiece of the Battle of Franklin, TN of November 30, 1865.  The visit was an important part of their tour of the Franklin battlefield area because many of them had an ancestor who was part of the Union army which defended itself against General Hood’s Confederates on November 30, 1864.

Most of the soldiers who were captured at Franklin ended up on the ill-fated steamer, the Sultana.  This boat, which exploded and burned to the waterline on April 27, 1865, was carrying approximately 2,400 recently released prisoners of war on their way home from Confederate prisons.  This event stands today as this country’s worst marine disaster.

The group listened in fascination as Carter House Historian David Fraley recounted the events leading up to and including the action around the Carter House.  It was agreed by all that his presentation  helped everyone see and feel what the soldiers and sequestered members of the Carter family felt on that day.

Ill-fated Sultana, Helena, Arkansas, on or about April 26, 1865

For those whose ancestors stood on this very ground it was an especially moving experience.  My own great-great grandfather, Pvt. Adam Schneider, 183rd Ohio Infantry, had been mustered into this newly formed regiment just weeks before in Cincinnati,  where he and his family had emigrated from Germany in 1854.  He was a “standby,” or a “100% man,” who was called into service when one of the original draftees from the city’s 12th Ward couldn’t fulfill his obligation.

At 42, he was three years shy of the cutoff age for the draft at that time.  When his regiment headed for Franklin after only three weeks of training, he left a wife and three small daughters at home.

Arriving at Franklin after joining Schofield’s army at Spring Hill, most of the183rd was placed near the Carter House among veteran troops, with the thought that Hood would not attempt a frontal assault against the entrenched Union army.  Of course, that is exactly what he did and my grandfather was captured that day, taken to Cahaba Prison near Selma, Alabama, and ultimately ended up on the Sultana that following April. I am sure he boarded the boat happily anticipating being reunited with his family.

He never had that reunion.  He, and nearly 1,800 others died when a faulty boiler exploded just after midnight as the boat made its way up the three-mile wide river, seven miles north of Memphis.  The water was frigid and the prisoners were fragile;  the death toll was fearful.

For many reasons, I’m sorry that grandpa Schneider didn’t survive.  Life without him was hard and sad for my great-great-grandmother, who now had to raise her children alone.  She never remarried and lived on the $12/month veterans’ survivor pension until her death in 1912, when another marine disaster, the sinking of the Titanic, shocked the world.  Her children never had a father, but thankfully all, including my great grandmother (Elisabeth, born in 1862) grew up to be well-adjusted adults who were happily married and raised upstanding families.

Instead of thinking of his death, I like to picture Grandpa Schneider coming back to reunions at Franklin with his family – standing at the Carter House and pointing toward distant Winstead Hill saying, “Mein Gott! What a day that was!  I can’t believe I lived to tell about it!”

—Pam Newhouse

Original article featured in The Washington Times- June 25, 2008

Lincoln Assassination Books

Here are the four best books for details on the Lincoln Assassination.

American Brutus, by Michael W. Kauffman

It is a tale as familiar as our history primers: A deranged actor, John Wilkes Booth, killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, escaped on foot, and eluded capture for twelve days until he met his fiery end in a Virginia tobacco barn. In the national hysteria that followed, eight others were arrested and tried; four of those were executed, four imprisoned. Therein lie all the classic elements of a great thriller. But the untold tale is even more fascinating.

Now, in American Brutus, Michael W. Kauffman, one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities, takes familiar history to a deeper level, offering an unprecedented, authoritative account of the Lincoln murder conspiracy. Working from a staggering array of archival sources and new research, Kauffman sheds new light on the background and motives of John Wilkes Booth, the mechanics of his plot to topple the Union government, and the trials and fates of the conspirators.

Piece by piece, Kauffman explains and corrects common misperceptions and analyzes the political motivation behind Booth’s plan to unseat Lincoln, in whom the assassin saw a treacherous autocrat, “an American Caesar.” In preparing his study, Kauffman spared no effort getting at the truth: He even lived in Booth’s house, and re-created key parts of Booth’s escape. Thanks to Kauffman’s discoveries, readers will have a new understanding of this defining event in our nation’s history, and they will come to see how public sentiment about Booth at the time of the assassination and ever since has made an accurate account of his actions and motives next to impossible–until now.

In nearly 140 years there has been an overwhelming body of literature on the Lincoln assassination, much of it incomplete and oftentimes contradictory. In American Brutus, Kauffman finally makes sense of an incident whose causes and effects reverberate to this day. Provocative, absorbing, utterly cogent, at times controversial, this will become the definitive text on a watershed event in American history.

Assassin’s Accomplice by Kate Clifford Larson

Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, The Assassin-s Accomplice tells the gripping story of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln through experience of its only female participant.Confederate sympathizer Mary Surratt ran a boarding house in Washington, and the depth of her complicity in the murder of President Lincoln has been debated since she was arrested on April 17, 1865.Calling upon long-lost interviews, confessions, and court testimony, historian Kate Clifford Larson magnificently captures how Surratt-s actions defied nineteenth-century norms of piety and allegiance. A riveting account of espionage and murder, The Assassin-s Accomplice offers a revealing examination of America-s most remembered assassination.

Manhunt: The 12-day chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

“The murder of Abraham Lincoln set off the greatest manhunt in American history – the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. From April 14 to April 26, 1865, the assassin led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia, while the nation, still reeling from the just-ended Civil War, watched in horror and sadness.” “At the very center of this story is John Wilkes Booth, America’s notorious villain. A Confederate sympathizer and a member of a celebrated acting family, Booth threw away his fame and wealth for a chance to avenge the South’s defeat. For almost two weeks, he confounded the manhunters, slipping away from their every move and denying them the justice they sought.” Based on rare archival materials, obscure trial transcripts, and Lincoln’s own blood relics, Manhunt is a fully documented work, but it is also a fascinating tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal. A gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you’ve never read it before.

My Thoughts be Bloody by Nora Titone

In some ways, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre was John Wilkes Booth’s most stunning theatrical performance. The assassin waited offstage until his cue (gunshot-muffling audience laughter); then burst into the president’s theatre; shot him and leaped onto the stage. According to historian Nora Titone, this play-stopping dramatic scene marked not just the end of Booth’s bombastic acting career; it was the climax of his bitter lifelong rivalry with his older brother Edwin. With persuasive force, Titone argues that John Wilkes’ jealousy of his sibling’s much more successful acting career fueled the hatred that culminated in a single violent act that changed history.

On this date in 1865: Tragedy on the Mississippi – Sultana explodes, thousands die


On 27 April 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank in the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee, causing the greatest marine disaster in U.S. history. Approximately 1,700 people, mostly discharged Union soldiers, lost their lives on a frigid spring night when boilers aboard the over-crowded steamer exploded. April 1865 brought turmoil in America with General Lee’s surrender, President Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s death. As a result, the Sultana tragedy was given few headlines in American’s influential newspapers.

Launched from Cincinnati, Ohio, in January 1863, the side-wheeled steamer was named Sultana meaning a sultan’s wife, sister, or mother. It was considered one of the best steamers of its time with its new lightweight tubular boilers. The boat measured 260 feet in length and had the capacity to carry 1,000 tons while trimming only 34 inches of water; thus making it ideal for travel on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers. It provided accommodations for 376 passengers including crew, which was the Sultana’s legal capacity.

Like many boats during the Civil War, the Sultana came under fire. Twice in 1863, Rebel forces fired at the boat, causing heavy damage to its upper works. The Union ironclad Eastport also fired upon the Sultana later that year on the Mississippi River. As the Union began to seize more of the Mississippi River Valley, the Sultana began to carry troops, supplies, and cargo for the Federals.

Ill-fated Sultana, Helena, Arkansas, on or about April 26, 1865

On 21 April 1865, the Sultana departed from New Orleans with 100 passengers and headed north on the Mississippi River. As the boat steadily moved upriver, a Sultana engineer noticed a leaking boiler and sought out a boilermaker in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to repair the problem on 23 April. The boilermaker, R.G. Taylor, told Captain J. Cass Mason that two sheets on the boiler had to be replaced. Concerned about time and money, Captain Mason told Taylor to patch the boiler and promised to finish he repairs once he reached St. Louis. Taylor disagreed with Mason, but made the patch for the Sultana anyway.

Owners of the Sultana, which included Captain Mason, anxiously awaited the layover in Vicksburg. In Vicksburg, they hoped to find former Union prisoners of war from Cahaba and Andersonville prisons because a government contract offered boats five dollars per enlisted soldier and ten dollars per officer to take them back north. Even though there were two steamboats docked at Vicksburg, Captain Mason and other Sultana officers lobbied prison officials to let their steamboat take all the soldiers. The tactic worked. The Sultana left the dock on the evening of 24 April 1865 with approximately 2,100 troops, 200 civilians, and cargo, more than six times its legal carrying capacity. The former prisoners, weakened from disease, dysentery, and malnutrition, were cramped together but in good spirits because the war had ended, and they were only a few days from reaching their homes.

On the evening of 26 April, the Sultana reached Memphis, Tennessee, to unload cargo, and then crossed the river to Arkansas to buy coal. Soon afterward, the boat slowly moved against the stream at 1:00 A.M. despite continued boiler problems and a strong current. Meanwhile, the Mississippi River rose to flood stage from spring rain and levees and dikes ruined by the war.

Seven miles north of Memphis at 2:00 A.M., the Sultana swung around a bend and began to labor through Paddy’s Hen and Chicken Islands. An explosion instantly tore through the decks above the boilers. Red-hot shrapnel and steam from the boilers killed or maimed scores of passengers instantly. The eruption hurled many people into the air and out into the frigid river. Passengers threw doors, shutters, mattresses, bales of hay, and anything else buoyant overboard. Few life preservers, only one lifeboat, the flood conditions, darkness, and weakened passengers made the chances of survival slim.

The explosion was audible in Memphis, but it took two hours for help to arrive. A steamboat heading down river and boats from Memphis went to help after hearing the screams and seeing the flames. But for most, it was too late. While rescuers attempted to save people still clinging to makeshift rafts or treetops, they saw the river full of dead bodies floating downstream. Boats searched for survivors all morning but stopped looking by midday. Of the estimated 2,300 passengers, only 600 survived. The rest died in the explosion, drowned in the dangerous currents, or died soon after their rescue.

On 30 April 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton created a board of inquiry to investigate the Sultana disaster. Rumors circulated that a Confederate had placed a torpedo in a lump of coal during the refueling in Arkansas, but nothing was proved. The board received testimony from surviving crew, passengers, and steamboat experts, but their reports only shifted blame from one person to another. Without conclusive evidence, the board decided that insufficient water in the boilers created the explosion, and that overcrowding did not cause the catastrophe. No individual was blamed for the tragedy, and no one knew definitively what caused the boiler malfunction.

With the nation’s mind focused on the closing scenes of the Civil War, little attention was given to the Sultana tragedy. The passengers who were lucky enough to survive formed the Sultana Survivor Association, which met every 27 April. More people died in the Sultana disaster than did on the Titanic 47 years later, yet the tragic story remains largely overlooked due to the dramatic events at the end of the war.

–          Nathan R. Meyer [Encyclopedia of the Civil War pages 1901-1902]

According to the National Park Service, “Sites at the bottom of rivers become land sites when the river channels change and get filled-in. In Tennessee, this happened with the paddlewheel steamboat Sultana. In 1865, just days after the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the Sultana exploded and sank in the Mississippi River near Memphis. Built to carry 376 people, the Sultana was overloaded with Union soldiers going home after release from Confederate prison camps. Accounts vary on the cause of the explosion and the extent of casualties but agree this is the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. In 1982, the remains of the Sultana were discovered in an old filled-in river channel near Memphis on the Arkansas side.

For further reading

Elliott, James W. Transport to Disaster (1962).

Potter, Jerry O. The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster (1992).

Salecker, Gene Eric. Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (1996).

Walker, John L. Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster (1910).

Mary Eugenia Surratt (1823-1865)

Convicted Lincoln assassination conspirator

Mary Surratt

Mary Eugenia Jenkins was born in Maryland in 1823. As an adolescent she attended a Catholic seminary for girls in Virginia, but at sixteen she married John Surratt, at least ten years her senior, and in 1840 settled with him in Prince George’s County, Maryland. In the early years of their marriage the Surratts prospered as a result of John’s success as a planter, which allowed him to expand his land holdings and open a general store and tavern, making up the core of the community that came to be known as Surrattsville (now Clinton). In 1854, a post office was even established in town, with John as its first postmaster. John’s earlier achievements were undermined, however, by his excessive drinking, which led to neglect of his farm and crops and a steady decline in his fortunes. In August 1862, John died. The Surratts’ eldest son Isaac (b. 1841), having taken a job as a pony-express rider in Mexico, left Mary Surratt alone to care for her two younger children, Anna (b. 1843) and John, Jr. (b. 1844).

Surratt struggled to manage what remained of the family’s holdings in Surrattsville, but she found it increasingly difficult, not least of all because John, Jr. showed so little interest in helping on the farm. By fall 1864, Mary Surratt had moved with John, Jr. and Anna to a house on H Street in Washington, D.C., which her husband had purchased in 1853 and which she converted into a boardinghouse. Happily for the Surratts, the boardinghouse did quite well, with a small number of steady boarders and the constant flow of more transient traffic through the federal capital during the war.

As early as 1863, John Surratt, Jr. – a loyal Southerner like his late father – began serving the Confederacy as a courier. In connection with this work, and with his college studies, John brought a number of people home to H Street, some of whom would later become entangled in the assassination conspiracy. In the spring of 1863, John introduced his mother to a school chum named Louis Weichmann, who took up residence in the Surratt boardinghouse in November 1864. By January 1865, John had met and become good friends with the ardent secessionist and actor John Wilkes Booth. Subsequently Booth was a regular visitor to H Street as well. German immigrant and assassination co-conspirator George Atzerodt also stayed at the boardinghouse for a few days in February 1865, until Mary Surratt evicted him for excessive drinking. Posting as a Baptist preacher, Lewis Powell – later found guilty of the 14 April attack on Secretary of State William H. Seward – lodged at the Surratt boardinghouse for three days in March.

Surratt Tavern in Clinton, Maryland (formerly Surrattsville)

It was not long after the shooting at Ford’s Theater that government investigators first descended on the boardinghouse. At approximately 2:30 on the morning of 15 April, several officials arrived and demanded to search the house in connection with the murder of the President. It appears that these men were looking for John, Jr., whom they believed at the time to have been the one to assault Seward. On the evening of the 17th, two detectives and two army officers returned, this time to arrest Mary Surratt and the rest of the people remaining in the house (Weichmann had slipped out on the 15th and was arrested that day; other boarders, disturbed by the crowds gathering around the house, had moved out on the 16th). Of the five who were arrested, all were women, with the exception of Lewis Powell, who arrived in disguise at the last, and for him most inopportune, moment. John Surratt, Jr., was nowhere to be found, and Booth had already escaped across the Potomac.

Mary Surratt and the others were questioned intensively at the headquarters of General Christopher Augur, commander of the Union troops in the capital, and the women were taken to the Old Capitol Prison, where they were incarcerated. Although the other women arrested with her (including Anna Surratt) were subsequently released, Mary Surratt was not. Instead, along with Atzerodt, Powell, and five others (Samuel Arnold, David Herold, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, Michael O’Laughlin, and Edward Spangler) Mary Surratt was charged in the conspiracy to assassinate the president and subjected to a trial by a military commission. The trial began on 11 May and ended on 28 June. All eight were found guilty in varying degrees, and on 5 July, when President Andrew Johnson issued his orders in connection with the commission’s verdict, four were sentenced to hang, Mary Surratt among them. Gallows for Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt, and Powell were swiftly constructed, and on 7 July 1865, despite all expectations that her sentence would be converted, Mary Surratt was executed.

The Assassination Conspirators Hang - from left: Mary E. Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold. Photo by Alexander Gardner.

The legitimacy of a military commission trying a case involving civilians, and the quality of both the investigation and the evidence supplied during the trial (particularly in her case) have continued to be matters of steady debate for well over a century. Doubts about Mary Surratt’s guilt were from the start exacerbated by her own unwavering claims – even to her priest – about her innocence. It does not help the cause of the prosecutors or the commission with its guilty verdict, or President Johnson with his determination to execute Surratt and the others as quickly as possible, that John Surratt, Jr., though finally captured and brought to trial in 1867, walked away free and lived until 1916.

– Elizabeth D. Leonard [Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, pages 1909-1910]

For further reading:

Bryan, George S. The Great American Myth: The True Story of Lincoln’s Murder (1990).

Busch, Francis X. Enemies of the State (1954).

DeWitt, David M. The Judicial Murder of Mary E. Surratt (1895; reprint, 1970).

Eisenschiml, Otto. Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (1937).

Moore, Guy W. The Case of Mrs. Surratt: Her Controversial Trial and Execution (1954).

Trindal, Mary E., and Elizabeth S. Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy (1996).

Turner, Thomas Reed. Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1982).

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