Friday, 18 September 2015

Collateral damage: how a bungled and misguided assassination claimed an unintended victim

Most people know that John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln. What they may not know is that Booth had planned a triple assassination, to happen that same evening of 14 April 1865. The intention was that Lincoln's Vice President, Andrew Johnson, and the Secretary of State, William Seward would also die. So within days of Robert Lee’s surrender of Confederate forces to Ulysses Grant, the top three politicians of the United States would be dead.

The man assigned to kill the Vice President chickened out, so nothing at all happened to him.

One Lewis Powell made a serious attempt to kill William Seward, however. Seward was in bed recovering from a serious carriage accident. Powell showed up pretending to be bringing medicine for him; when William’s son Frederick challenged him and insisted on taking the medicine into his father himself, Powell attempted to shoot him; however, his gun misfired so instead he beat him around the head with the gun butt, causing several fractures and leaving him critically injured.

Lithograph recreating Powell's attack on Frederick Seward
Powell then burst into Seward’s room, slashing at him several times with a Bowie knife. Seward fell out of his bed on the far side, and had the impression of being caught in rain, so thickly his own blood was falling.

In the end, Powell fled the house, leaving three other wounded people behind him, including Seward’s daughter and his nurse.

The entire assassination plot was one of the most misconceived plans in history. No one can say what would have happened had Lincoln not been murdered, but most leaders of the former Confederacy realised that his death would make things significantly worse for their States. Lincoln was committed to restoring the South to the Union as quickly and painlessly as possible; with him out of the way, far more radical and vindictive elements took charge. According to Carl Sandburg, in his outstanding biography of Lincoln, Confederate General Joseph Johnston told William Sherman, to whom he surrendered and from whom he learned of Lincoln’s death, that the assassination was “the greatest possible calamity to the South.”

Mary Boykin Chesnut of South Carolina kept a diary of the Civil War in the South, from which Sandburg also quotes:

Lincoln, old Abe Lincoln, has been killed… Why? By whom? It is simply maddening… I know this foul murder will bring upon us worse miseries.

Booth was a devoted follower of the Confederacy, but not devoted enough to actually fight for it. He spent the years of the war on Union territory, plotting for his cause but otherwise living a comfortable life as an actor. He left taking action until the war was all but over, and made things far worse by doing so.

As for his accomplices, they failed entirely. Although Lewis Powell had injured five people, including Frederick who came close to death, they all survived.

Oddly, though, he claimed one life. Seward’s wife Frances had been in poor health. She spent the next weeks nursing her injured husband and son. The strain undermined her. On 21 June 1865, she died of a heart attack.

Booth was killed in a shootout with Federal troops soon after the assassination, but four others died on the gallows, including Powell. That didn’t happen until 7 July. So they survived Frances by nearly three weeks.

A sorry little story. But it seems to sum up fittingly a plot which was misguided from the outset, botched in its execution and dire in its unwanted consequences.


Faith A. Colburn said...

Kind of like our "targeted" drones strikes.

David Beeson said...

Excellent point – I hadn't thought of it – that kind of targeting represents a certain tradition...