Saturday, May 9, 2015

Trip report, X marks the spot

Today I had the pleasure of accompanying Dwight "My Liege" Sullivan on one of our occasional road trips.

We went first to see a presentation at Fort Lesley J. McNair.  We were there to hear about the trial of the Lincoln conspirators.  Thus we heard a lecture in the refurbished courtroom in which the trial was held, toured some statics displays, and then toured the "X's."

In preparation, I had read a book, short but wholesome dive into some minutiae and also a document of 120 single-spaced printed pages.

Toward the end, the presenter made the statement that the guards treated the prisoners humanely as did the person who gave the X tour.

In John F. Hartranft, Jr.,  Steers Edward, and Harold Holzer, The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft (Louisiana State University Press 2009), we have the verification of a humane approach to the detention of the prisoners, in Brevet Major General Hartranft's own words.  I do question whether keeping two of the prisoners with a ball and chain anklet, and keeping six of the eight hooded 24/7, and until near the end being in a cell 24/7, is actually humane.  Having observed one of the hoods on display, I'm quite confident I could not have withstood that device for a minute.  But that's today's thinking is it not?

The lecture was something of a disappointment.There was perhaps five minutes of talking about law, and the rest of the time was devoted to talking about the conspirators and the manner in which the conspiracy developed.  Nothing was said about the lawyers or the members of the military commission. or how the proceedings were conducted.  Nothing was said about the debate over the legality of the commission.  Dwight characterized this as a "lost opportunity."

(In regard to my question today about the Type III accuser, the book says this:  "George Atzerodt, . . .  was assigned the job of killing Vice President Andrew Johnson. . . . he lost his courage at the last minute."  at 16.) 

For those unfamiliar with Fort McNair, almost nothing has been preserved of the original military prison.  What is preserved is Grant Hall, with the courtroom on the third floor.  The bottom two floors are in use by an active duty organization related to some overseas countries.  The cell block is gone as are the walls.  Thus the X's.  Unfortunately this national "monument" is administered by DoD, not the U.S. Park Service.  I've toured many Civil War sites and can say that the U.S. Park Service and various private organizations go to great effort to illustrate a significant period in this nation's history.

There is an X where John Wilkes Booth was buried for a while to keep his body away from molesters, and X's for several other important sites.  For the initial grave sites of the hanged they do a little better with a paint sprayed rectangle and the name.
The place where the gallows was situated is now covered by the tennis courts.  So here they marked out the necessary dimensions with blue tape.

As to the document, the beginning and end caught my special attention.

In the third paragraph they heard and we see:
It is a matter of great moment to all the people of this country that the prisoners at the bar be lawfully tried and lawfully convicted or acquitted.  a wrongful and illegal conviction or a wrongful and illegal acquittal upon this dread issue would impair somewhat the security of every man's life, and shake the stability of the republic.
In the last paragraph they heard and we see:
I am not conscious that in this argument I have made any erroneous statement of the evidence, or drawn any erroneous conclusions; yet I pray the Court, out of tender regard and jealous care for the rights of the accused, to see that no error of mine, if any there be, shall work them harm. The past services of the members of this honorable Court give assurance that, without fear, favor or affection, they will discharge with fidelity the duty enjoined upon them by their oaths. Whatever else may befall, I trust in God that in this, as in every other American court, the rights of the whole people will be respected, and that the Republic in this, its supreme hour of trial, will be true to itself and just to all, ready to protect the rights of the humblest, to redress every wrong, to avenge every crime, to vindicate the majesty of law, and to maintain inviolate the Constitution, whether assailed secretly or openly, by hosts armed with gold, or armed with steel.

I have since come across this: Brigadier-General Henry Lawrence Burnett, Assassination of President Lincoln And the Trial of the Assassins.

Regardless, it was worth the price of admission--free.


  1. My Liege,

    If I could add one codicil to your most excellent report of Phil and Dwight's Excellent Adventure, it would be to note that the most satisfying stop of a quite eclectic afternoon was the F Street District Tacos.

  2. I should have been quick enough to put a big X on the Roti Med. Grill door.


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