General August V. Kautz
Major-General August V. Kautz was one of the nine members of the Military Commission that conducted the Lincoln assassination trial. Kautz included his recollection of the Lincoln assassination trial In his Reminiscences of the Civil War.
Source: August V. Kautz Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
I left on the 4th of May and reached Washington on the morning of the 6th and, having reported to Genl. Grant, was directed to report my name and address in the city to the Adj. Genl. and await orders. I learned indirectly that I was destined as a member of the Military Commission to try the assassins of the President. It did not transpire fully until the 9th when the first meeting of the Commission took place in a room fitted up adjoining the prison near the Arsenal grounds.
We met, but we did not transact any business. The prisoners to the number of eight were brought in behind a railing. They were masked and chained, and clad in black dominos so that we could not identify the prisoners. The Commission decided that they must be brought in, so that we could recognize the different prisoners, and be able to identify them. The mystery and apparent severity with which they were brought into the court room partook so much of what my imagination pictured the Inquisition to have been, that I was quite impressed with its impropriety in this age. The prisoners were never again brought into court in this costume.
On the 10th the Commission got so far as to swear the members, and have the charges read, and the pleadings of the prisoners entered. Gen. Hunter was the presiding officer. I was the third member in rank and sat on the left of the President. Gen. Lew Wallace sat on his right and Gen. Foster of Indiana sat on my left. There were three Judge Advocates: Genl. Holt, Genl. Burnett and Maj. Bingham. There were some changes; Genl. Comstock met on the first day with the Commission and did not appear again. We had Mr. Pittman and the Murphy brothers as shorthand reporters, and I was surprised at the facility, rapidity and correctness with which the work was done. They were able to read the record as rapidly as any other writing and we were able to make rapid progress. The 11th we met but the prisoners had not yet provided counsel, and we did not do much, but on the 12th we got fairly started and worked all day accomplishing so much that it took two hours of the morning of the 13th to read the proceedings of the previous day.
The leading incident of the 13th was the objection of Genl. Harris, one of the members, to the introduction of the Hon. Reverdy Johnson as Counsel for Mrs. Surratt. The objections were that he had sympathized with the action of the Rebel element in Maryland. Mr. Johnson, when the opportunity was given him to say a few words, his indignation was very manifest by his flushed face, but his remarks were quiet and dignified, and full of irony, and showed the ill-advised nature of the objection in such a light that Genl. Harris must have regretted that he made the objection. If he had any sense of the absurdity of a Court or Commission such as ours, raising an objection to a member of the U.S. Senate, appearing before it as a counsel on the ground of disloyalty. Mr. Johnson did not do us the honor to appear before us again after this insult to his dignity. He did the other members great injustice if he supposed they united with Genl. Harris in his ill advised objection.
The court met as a rule at ten in the morning, and sat until after six p.m. usually, taking a recess about noon for lunch which the Secretary of War had served for us in adjoining room to save time and the necessity of our having to go back to the city. Ambulances were supplied by the Q. M. Dept. to take us to and from the court room to our rooms. This was the daily programme. The weather soon became very warm and the confinement was very trying on account of the number of visitors that were permitted by pass to visit the court room, preventing the free circulation of the air.
On the 16th the court met informally, at the theater where Mr. Lincoln was shot, before going to the court room, in order to acquaint ourselves with the scene of the assassination. This was the only change from the daily routine. We worked very faithfully and there was little leisure, often sitting until seven o’clock in the evening, and rarely adjourning before six, except when no work could be done for want of witnesses which happened occasionally.
The prosecution was continued until the 26th of May when the defense began. The evidence was very clear as to the conspiracy and that all the parties arraigned were connected with it in various ways. The original and avowed object was a conspiracy to kidnap the President, and it was so understood by nearly all concerned. The testimony showed J. Wilkes Booth and John Surratt to be the heads of the conspiracy. The order to kill did not go forth until about eight o’clock p.m. on the 14th of April. There was evidence produced that tended to show that the heads of the Confederate government knew of the conspiracy and also that the agents of the same in Canada were cognizant of it. It was shown that a proposition to kill Mr. Lincoln was made to Jefferson Davis and, over his signature, the paper was forwarded for the consideration of other officials without any adverse comment.
The defense lasted through until about the 19th of June when we began to hear the arguments in behalf of the prisoners. An attempt was made at the close to prove insanity on the part of Payne, who finally defeated the attempt of his counsel by maintaining his sanity, that he knew what he was doing when he tried to kill Mr. Seward. The interest of the case centered mostly about Mrs. Surratt and Payne. Dr. Mudd attracted much interest and his guilt as an active conspirator was not clearly made out. His main guilt was the fact that he failed to deliver them, that is, Booth and Herold, to their pursuers.
Mrs. Surratt was shown to have been active in the conspiracy to kidnap, prior to the capture of Richmond. That she was a willing participant in his death was not clearly made out. My own impression was that she was involved in the final result against her will by her previous connection with the conspiracy. Booth was a fanatic in the matter and craved a notoriety that would appear heroic if he survived the act, and prove martyrdom if he perished. He, no doubt, held most of his confederates in the conspiracy under the impression that it was organized for the purpose of kidnapping, who would have been deterred if they had known that they might be required to kill.
During the many weeks that the court was in session I never saw the face of Mrs. Surratt. She sat behind the railing furthest away, and her face was constantly screened by a large palm leaf fan. I could not even recognize her picture for she was entirely unknown to me. I presume this is the case with every member of the court. All the other members of the court were indelibly impressed on my mind. Harold was a simpering foolish young man, so short of stature that he appeared like a boy and never seemed impressed with the gravity of his position. He must of been simply a plastic tool in Booth’s hands.
Payne was a sullen character whose expression rarely changed. He seemed to be fully aware that he had taken a desperate chance and lost, and had the nerve to abide the result manfully. He was manly and strong in every respect, but how much moral character there was in his make up was not apparent on the surface.
Atzoroth looked the hired assassin and the testimony went to show that he failed to perform his part of the compact, which was to kill Genl. Grant, either from want of courage or want of sufficient intelligence. He excited no sympathy from anyone.
Dr. Mudd was the most intelligent looking and attracted the most attention of all the prisoners. There was more work done in his defense. His subsequent career showed him to be a man of more character and intelligence that anyone of the prisoners.
Spangler does not seem to have been a conspirator knowingly. He was simply a tool of Booth’s and held his horse for him, and cut the stick with which Booth held the door to the box, in which Mr. Lincoln was in at the theater. His greatest crime was his ignorance, and that he did not see the ends to which he was being used.
Arnold was shown to have been associated with the conspirators, but what part he performed and to what extent he was implicated was not shown to the Commission. He was a good looking, amiable young man, who seemed to have gotten into bad company. The same degree and character of guilt applied to McLaughlin.
All of the prisoners had counsel but the greatest effort was made in behalf of Mrs. Surratt and Dr. Mudd. The Hon. Thom. Ewing made an elaborate defense of Mudd and Mr. Johnson, by proxy, defended Mrs. Surratt, through Mr. Aiken.
The members were not released until the 30th of June when the Commission adjourned sine die. The deliberations were not protracted, the last ten days were taken up with time allotted to the counsel and Judge Advocates to make their arguments in the case. The Judge Advocates, under the influence of the Secretary of War, evidently, were very persevering and wanted evidently to have the seven prisoners all hung, and they were very much put out when a paper was signed by a majority of the Commission recommending Mrs. Surratt to executive clemency on account of her sex. We, who signed it, did not deem it wise or expedient to hang her. This paper afterwards became a matter of much controversy. When public sympathy, as we who signed the paper foresaw, had reacted to such a height as to make it desirable for Mr. Johnson to shift the responsibility, he endeavored to do so, by claiming that this paper was withheld from the proceedings, and that he never saw it. This did not seem to be very sincere, in view of the fact that within a day or two after the adjournment of the Commission, the recommendation with the names of those who signed it, and there were five of the nine members, was published in the daily papers.
It was apparent that if John Surratt had been one of the prisoners tried, his mother’s life would have been saved. In those early days after the assassination the country seemed to require victims to pay for the great crime. It was apparent to me however, that there would be a reaction and that those who were instrumental in causing her execution would regret that they had permitted Mrs. Surratt to be hung.
The reaction came even before the close of Mr. Johnson’s administration and he alleged that the recommendation of the court was not attached to the proceedings when he acted on them. Judge Holt and Bingham, however, denied that any mutilation of the proceeding had taken place and that the papers were intact when submitted to the President.
There has been much controversy over the course pursued by the Administration to punish the conspirators, mostly originating with the adverse political element. Some of my Democratic friends were fond of telling me that when the party got into power again, I would hang for my part in the proceedings. There might be abuse of the slight statutory authority for Military Commissions, but the one organized for the trial of the assassins will never, I think, be styled such by posterity. It was the only way for speedy result which the loyal spirit of the country seemed to demand at the time. The result of the trial of John Surratt by the Civil Courts a few years later, go to show that the civil courts could not have been depended upon for a speedy result in this remarkable case.