May 9, 1865

Tuesday, May 9, 1865

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The military commission of the Lincoln assassination conspirators officially convened for first time at 10 o’clock in the morning. The courtroom for the commission was located on the third floor of a building attached to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, the same facility where the conspirators were being imprisoned. The commission consisted of the following nine military officers tasked with serving as the judges in the case.

Major General David Hunter, U.S. Volunteers (President of the Commission)
Major General Lewis Wallace, U.S. Volunteers
Brevet Major General August V. Kautz, U. S. Volunteers
Brigadier General Albion P. Howe, U.S. Volunteers
Brigadier General Robert S. Foster, U.S. Volunteers
Brevet Brigadier General Cyrus B. Comstock, U.S. Volunteers
Brigadier General T. M. Harris, U.S. Volunteers
Brigadier General Horace Porter, Aide-de-camp
Lieutentant Colonel David R. Clendenin, 8th Illinois Cavalry

In addition to the commission members, the courtroom also contained the men who would act as the prosecution.

Brigadier General Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General

Hon. John A. Bingham of Ohio, assistant Judge Advocate

Brevet Colonel Henry L. Burnett, assistant Judge Advocate

At 11 o’clock, the eight accused conspirators were brought into the court room for the first time. They consisted of:

Lewis Powell, alias Payne

David Herold

George Atzerodt

Mary Surratt

Dr. Samuel Mudd

Samuel Arnold

Michael O’Laughlen

Edman Spangler

The conspirators were brought in wearing chains and padded hoods, a part of their incarceration used to prevent any communication between them. The hoods were worn by all of the male conspirators except Dr. Mudd. Commission member Lew Wallace made the following sketch of how Lewis Powell appeared wearing his hood on this date.

Lew Wallace sketch of Lewis Powell, 5-9-1865, Special Collections, Pelletier Library, Allegheny College, Meadville, PA

At some later date, Gen. Wallace expanded on his sketch and created this full drawing of how Samuel Arnold appeared during this arraignment.

The conspirators’ hoods were removed in the courtroom for identification purposes.

The conspirators were seated on a long bench behind a railing that had been created for the purpose. Between each conspirator sat a guard to prevent them from communicating with each other. The bench was not long enough to fit all eight conspirators and their guards, so Dr. Mudd and Mrs. Surratt were given chairs in front of the other prisoners, outside the railing.[1]

Though it is not recorded, it is likely the commission began the process of establishing rules for the court which were officially agreed to the following day.

The conspirators were asked if they wished to employ counsel. All of them replied in the affirmative. In order to grant the conspirators time to secure counsel, the commission adjourned early at around 12:20 pm.


General Kautz made the following entry in his dairy concerning the first official day of the commission:

“The Commission met this morning at ten. Eight prisoners were arraigned one of them a woman. There seems to me to be unnecessary severity exercised in the control of them and great mystery in their arraignment. We did not do much business. It rained a great deal today. We adjourned about half past one and the rest of the day was devoted to visiting.”[2]

In his diary, General Comstock also recounted this first official day of the military commission noting his continued dislike about the proceedings:

“Met at ten, prisoners 8-10 were brought before court with black linen masks covering all their faces except tip of nose & mouth, heavily chained & each led staggering & clanking in, by his keeper. It was a horrid sight. Nothing remarkable about their faces. I questioned the Presdt. as to jurisdiction. Gen. Holt replied that the Atty. Gen. had decided we had jurisdiction. Gen. Holt proposed limiting counsel to 5’ [minute] arguments and to have closed doors as the evidence if public would prevent the arrest of others implicated & as some of the witnesses dared not give their evidence in public. I doubted the jurisdiction of the court, opposed the 5’ idea & closed doors. Prisoners made their applications for counsel.”[3]

In addition to his period diary, General Kautz recalled the initial entry of the conspirators in a memoir he wrote many years later:

“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 again.”[4]

Colonel Porter later recalled his first (and only) impressions of the conspirators as they came into court on the first day:

“I sat one day at the trial, which was interesting from the fact that it afforded an opportunity of seeing the assassins and watching their actions before the court. The prisoners, heavily manacled, were marched into the court-room in solemn procession, an armed sentinel accompanying each of them. The men’s heads were covered with thickly padded hoods with openings for the mouth and nose… The prisoners, whose eyes were thus bandaged, were led to their seats, the sentinels were posted behind them, and the hoods were then removed. As the light struck their eyes, which for several days had been unaccustomed to its brilliancy, the sudden glare gave them great discomfort. Payne had a wild look in his wandering eyes, and his general appearance stamped him as the typical reckless desperado. Mrs. Surratt was placed in a chair at a little distance from the men. She sat most of the time leaning back, with her feet stretched forward. She kept up a piteous moaning, and frequently called for water, which was given her. The other prisoners had a stolid look, and seemed crushed by the situation.”[6]

In his much later memoir, conspirator Samuel Arnold, recalled his introduction to the court room:

“The next morning I was removed from my cell and conveyed up several flights of stairs, to be seated upon a bench, when the hood was removed and I found myself in the presence of a number of the martial heroes of the United States, decked in their glittering uniforms, and on either side, victims like unto myself, weighted down with chains and irons.”[5]

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[1] John F. Hartranft, The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft, ed. Edward Steers, Jr. and Harold Holzer (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 89 – 90.
[2] August V. Kautz, May 9, 1865 diary entry (Unpublished diary: Library of Congress, August V. Kautz Papers).
[3] Merlin Sumner, ed, The Diary of Cyrus B. Comstock (Madison: Morningside, 1987), 317.
[4] August V. Kautz, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Unpublished manuscript: Library of Congress, August V. Kautz Papers).
[5] Samuel Bland Arnold, Memoirs of a Lincoln Conspirator, ed. Michael W. Kauffman (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1995), 58.
[6] Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (New York: The Century Co., 1906), 501 – 502.


13 thoughts on “May 9, 1865

  1. Pingback: The Trial Today: May 9 | BoothieBarn

  2. Paul Hancq

    Great descriptions. It’s almost like being there.

  3. Carol Van Gilst

    I had to look up what a domino was. Just a black cape. 

    • I believe the drawing Lew Wallace made of Samuel Arnold that is included on this page shows the domino (cape) that the male conspirators wore.

  4. Bill Stoeckert

    Thank you so much for this ambitious project. I havre had the Pittman book for years and have struggled through it. I am looking forward to each day of your report. I did want to ask your opinion of Arnolds, Memoir of a Conspirator. I had not heard of that before and was curious of its accuracy and value to the study.

    • Bill,

      I would say that the true value of Arnold’s book lies in his memory of his time at Fort Jefferson and the conditions there. Arnold felt very mistreated by the government for his conviction and imprisonment and the memoir is, in some way, the airing of grievances by an old man. It’s a very unique perspective and a valuable one that gives us some background into Arnold’s role as a conspirator, but is mainly a memoir of his time in prison. He spoke very little regarding the specifics of the trial and so we won’t be seeing much from his memoirs as the project continues.

  5. Graham Baldwin

    Fascinating. This project is long overdue and you should be complimented once again for taking on this enormous task.

  6. jett

    shocking in comparison to court hearings today. booth made the correct choice to fight it out in the barn

    • I think Booth knew that the result of any trial for him would be death so he took it upon himself to force the 16th NY to kill him. Boston Corbett may have jumped the gun a bit, but the effect was the same as what Booth wanted, I think.

      • Paul Hancq

        Interesting. I have often thought that Booth should have been tried, convicted, and hanged like the other conspirators because he was most culpable. Apparently, Booth had a different view.

        • Paul Hancq

          But Booth had “too great a soul to die like a criminal,” or so he wrote.

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