Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft

Overview

On May 1, 1865, two weeks after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, recently inaugurated president Andrew Johnson appointed John Frederick Hartranft to command the military prison at the Washington Arsenal, where the U.S. government had just incarcerated the seven men and one woman accused of complicity in the shooting. From that day through the execution of four of the accomplices, the Pennsylvania-born general held responsibility for the most notorious prisoners in American history. A strict adherent to protocol, ...

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Overview

On May 1, 1865, two weeks after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, recently inaugurated president Andrew Johnson appointed John Frederick Hartranft to command the military prison at the Washington Arsenal, where the U.S. government had just incarcerated the seven men and one woman accused of complicity in the shooting. From that day through the execution of four of the accomplices, the Pennsylvania-born general held responsibility for the most notorious prisoners in American history. A strict adherent to protocol, Hartranft kept a meticulously detailed account of his experiences in the form of a letterbook. In The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators, noted Lincoln scholars Edward Steers, Jr., and Harold Holzer, in partnership with the National Archives, present this fascinating historical record for the first time with contextual materials and expert annotations, providing a remarkable glimpse behind the scenes of the assassination's aftermath.

Hartranft oversaw every aspect of the prisoners' daily lives, from making sure they were fed and kept clean to ensuring that no one communicated with them except on the written orders of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. In his Letterbook, Hartranft scrupulously recounts the arrival of each prisoner and describes the prison routine -- which included three simple meals a day, a twice-daily cell inspection by Hartranft himself, and frequent physical examinations by an army physician. The prisoners wore wrist and leg shackles and, controversially, most of them wore special hoods designed to isolate them from their surroundings.

When the conspirators' trial began, the nation waited eagerly for news, and many sought retribution against those they held responsible for the nation's grief. Hartranft resisted calls for both vengeance and mercy and continued to treat his notorious charges as humanely as possible, facilitating meetings with clergy and sending letters to and from family members. Yet, as his detached, detailed description of the execution of four of the conspirators shows, he did not allow emotion to impede the performance of his duty.

The legal and moral issues surrounding the conspirators' trial -- the extraordinary use of military rather than civil justice, the treatment of the accused while incarcerated, the fine line between swift and precipitous justice -- remain volatile, unsettled issues today. Hartranft's keen observations, ably analyzed by historians Steers and Holzer, will add a riveting new chapter to the story of Lincoln's assassination.

LSU Press

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Two weeks after Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson appointed John Frederick Hartranft as commandant of the Washington Arsenal military prison to guard and look after the eight conspirators awaiting trial in the assassination plot. As part of the official government record, Hartranft kept a letterbook, mainly containing retained copies of his official reports on the daily tasks that his oversight involved. Renowned Lincoln scholars Steers (Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln) and Holzer (Lincoln President-Elect) provide background information about Hartranft, the conspirators, and the legal issues surrounding the military tribunal, followed by a transcription of the letterbook itself, a primary source that offers a unique look into one of the most controversial chapters in American history. It shows that Hartranft had a keen eye for detail and a strict adherence to protocol in relaying information objectively; as the trial itself progressed, he never allowed his emotions to get in the way of doing his duty. He granted small privileges to the prisoners, such as mailing their letters to family members, and he allowed five of the convicted conspirators to have their padded hoods removed for their hanging owing to their distress in wearing them. This strong addition to Lincoln assassination studies is highly recommended for academic libraries.
—Gayla Koerting

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807133965
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2009
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,037,855
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Steers, Jr., is the author or editor of numerous books and articles on the life and death of Abraham Lincoln, including The Escape and Capture of John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President. He lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

Harold Holzer is the author or coauthor of 31 books and 400 articles on the political culture of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era. In 2005, he received a Lincoln Prize for his book Lincoln at Cooper Union and performed "Lincoln Seen and Heard" with actor Sam Waterston, broadcast live on television from the White House. He lives in New York, where he is senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

LSU Press

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