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Conspirators court-martialed for plotting to kill Lincoln, Grant and Andrew Johnson

On this day in 1865, President Andrew Johnson signs an executive order that confirms the military conviction of a group of people who had conspired to kill the late President Abraham Lincoln, then commander in chief of the U.S. Army. With his signature, Johnson ordered four of the guilty to be executed.

Confederate sympathizers David E. Herold, G. A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, Mary E. Surratt, Michael O’Laughlin, Edward Spangler, Samuel Arnold and Samuel A. Mudd were arraigned on May 9 and convicted on July 5 for “maliciously, unlawfully, and traitorously” conspiring with several others, including John Wilkes Booth, who had assassinated President Lincoln on April 14, 1865. In addition to targeting Lincoln, the conspirators had planned to kill General Ulysses S. Grant as he led Union armies in the Civil War against the southern states. Vice President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln to the presidency, was also one of the group’s intended prey.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, although not charged in this particular action, was implicated for inciting the traitorous bunch to kill the Union’s key leaders. Davis was a former U.S. senator from South Carolina who led that state’s secession from the Union in 1860. The court claimed that Davis “aided and comforted the insurgents, engaged in armed rebellion against the said United States [and aided] the subversion and overthrow of the Constitution and laws of the said United States.”

According to the War Department’s records, Mary Surratt and Edward Spangler had helped John Wilkes Booth gain entrance to the theater box in which Lincoln sat at the time of his murder. Spangler then “hindered” efforts to save Lincoln. Herold helped Booth escape through military lines. For his part, Payne attempted to kill Lincoln’s secretary of war, William H. Seward, at Seward’s home on the same night that Lincoln was shot. Seward suffered knife wounds to the face and throat from the attack, but survived. Atzerodt had apparently lain in wait for Vice President Johnson on the night of April 14; the report did not specify where. Finally, O Laughlin was charged with lying in wait to murder Grant. The others were convicted of giving aid or support to Booth at various times before and after Lincoln’s assassination.

Herold, Atzerodt, Payne and Surratt were sentenced to death by hanging. Spangler, O’Laughlin, Mudd and Arnold were given life in prison with hard labor.

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