[LINCOLN, Abraham, ASSASSINATION]. HOLT, Joseph (1807-1894), U.S. Judge Advocate General, Chief prosecutor in trial of the assassins. Printed document signed ("J. Holt Judge Advocate General"), the official Charge and Specification against the Lincoln assassination conspirators, with Holt's subscription "By order of the President of the United States," Washington, D.C., [ca.May 1865]. 3 pages, folio, bold heading on page 1: "Charge and Specification Against David E. Herold, George A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, Michael O'Laughlin, Edward Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Mary E. Surratt, and Samuel A. Mudd." With five words added to the text on page 1.
THE OFFICIAL INDICTMENT OF THE LINCOLN ASSASSINATION CONSPIRATORS, SIGNED BY THE GOVERNMENT'S CHIEF PROSECUTOR
A very rare printing of the military indictment, signed by the Judge Advocate General. The charges go well beyond simple murder to include conspiracy to subvert the Constitution. The eight individuals are accused of "maliciously, unlawfully, and traitorously, and in aid of the existing armed rebellion...combining, confederating and conspiring together with one John H. Surratt, John Wilkes Booth, Jefferson Davis,...and others unknown, to kill and murder Abraham Lincoln, late and at the time...of said conspiring, President...; Andrew Johnson...; William H. Seward...; Ulysses S. Grant..." It asserts that the conspiracy went into action on "on the 14th day of April..., together with said John Wilkes Booth and John H. Surratt maliciously, unlawfully and traitorously murdering the said Abraham Lincoln..." The objective, we are told, was "designing and intending by the killing and murder of the said Abraham Lincoln...to deprive the Army and Navy of the United States of a constitutional commander-in-chief...; and thereby to aid and comfort the insurgents...in the subversion and overthrow of the Constitution and laws of the United States." At several points, the indictment specifies that these crimes took place "within the Military Department of Washington, and within the fortified and entrenched lines thereof"; this fact furnished the technical justification for the military as opposed to the usual criminal indictment and trial. The separate assassination attempts on 14 April are described; Booth, at Ford's Theatre, on 10th Street, "unlawfully, maliciously and traitorously...did discharge a pistol,...the same being loaded with powder and a leaden ball, against and upon the left and posteror side of the head," causing his death. Spangler is accused of having obstructed the door of the Presidential box and aiding Booth in his escape; Herold is charged with aiding in Booth's flight; Payne with the knife assault on Seward and members of his household; Atzerodt and O'Laughlin with lying in wait to kill Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, respectively; Samuel Arnold and Mary Surratt with knowledge of the conspiracy and aiding the conspirators. Dr. Mudd, the charge claims, did "advise, encourage, receive, entertain, harbor and conceal" the plotters.
The omitted text added by hand on page 1 suggests that the indictment was rushed into print; although it carries no imprint, it is likely to have been issued by the official government printer. In this form, the full official charge was frequently reprinted in newpapers throughout the nation. The decision to try the assassins before a military commission, rather than a civil judge and jury, was a highly politicized one: Secretary of War Stanton wanted a quick trial and harsh verdict, partly through fear of the strong Radical Republican group in Congress. President Johnson went along with the proposal, even though many Republicans and several cabinet members believed it to be illegal. Holt was the foremost agent for the execution of the plan. A passionate Union man, Holt had been appointed by Lincoln to his post in 1862, in spite of his Democratic politics, and proved a staunch and militant opponent of treason in all forms. "Lincoln's assassination brought out Holt's stern streak and his penchant for finding conspiracies...He was the prime mover behind the idea of trying the alleged conspirators by military commission." He attempted to keep the commissions sessions completely secret, but a storm of popular protest forced Stanton to over-rule him; "he believed deeply that the assassins were Jefferson Davis's minions." (Neely) Unfortunately, Holt, in managing the trial, so strongly pursued his conspiracy theories that he neglected other, possibly useful avenues of exploration and accepted testimony from men of questionable veracity. When the verdicts were reached (on 30 June 1865) he allegedly failed to pass on to President Johnson the commission's recommendation that Mary Surratt's death sentence be commuted. She and the other conspirators went to the gallows on 7 July.