The Testimony Most Wanted: Davis Approved of the Plot! (On the Other Hand….)

May 20, 1865 (Saturday)

Sanford Conover’s name was actually Charles Durham, and though he had been a clerk in the Confederate War Department, he was actually from New York. He had lived in Baltimore and Columbia, South Carolina. At the latter place, he was conscripted into the Rebel army, but was plucked from the ranks to work under James Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War. Soon enough, he task was to get to Montreal, Canada, and slipped away in December of 1863, walking much of the ground to Washington. There, he became a reporter for the New York Tribune. This lasted until October of 1864, when he finally left for Canada.

Jacob Thompson - "Conover who?"
Jacob Thompson – “Conover who?”

It was because of his pastimes in Canada that he was caught in the net cast after the assassination of President Lincoln. While in Canada, he became, as he testified on this date, “intimately acquainted” with the likes of Jacob Thompson, Clement Clay, Beverly Tucker, all Confederate agents, spies and secret service, as well as John Surratt and John Wilkes Booth, though only once.

Conover had attended many meetings where things like the burning of New York City had been discussed. In one February meeting, the subject of capturing the President and holding him for ransom was suggested. This quickly – perhaps over a few days or weeks – turned to an assassination plot.

“There is a better opportunity,” Thompson was to have said, “a better chance to immortalize yourself and save your country.” Conover said he was ready to do anything. “Some of our boys are going to play a grand joke on Abe and Andy,” came Thompson’s reply. The plot was “to remove them from office.” He assured Conover that “the killing of a tyrant was no murder.” It was Thompson, said Conover, who commissioned Booth for the task. These commissions, however, came from Secretary Seddon’s desk, and according to Conover, who had worked under Seddon, the signatures were authentic.

Conover asked if the Confederate government would approve of such a drastic measure. Thompson was fairly certain that they would, and would find out for sure in a few days. Those few days turned into a few months, but by April, Thompson and Conover had their answer.

This was all learned at an April meeting attended by John Surratt, who had just come up from Richmond.

“I saw him,” said Conover of Surratt, “in Mr. Thompson’s room; and, from the conversation, Surratt had just brought dispatches form Richmond to Mr. Thompson, to which their conversation referred.”

One of the messages came from Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, while another was written in code by, Conover believed, Jefferson Davis himself.

St. Albans Raid
St. Albans Raid

When the dispatches were delivered, Jacob Thompson placed his hand upon them, saying, “This makes the thing all right.” Apparently, according to Conover’s word, the Confederate authorities assented to the assassinations of Lincoln, Johnson, Stanton, Seward, Chase, and General Grant.

“Mr. Thompson said, on one of these occasions,” Conover’s testimony continued, “that it would leave the Government entirely without a head. That there was no provision in the Constitution of the United States by which, if these men were removed, they could elect another President. Mr. Welles (Secretary of the Navy) was also names; but Mr. Thompson said it was not worth while to kill him.”

The conversation wound around the room, as other agents and officers gave their opinions. General William Carroll of Tennessee, according to Conover, “expressed himself as more anxious that Mr. Johnson should be killed than anybody else. He said that if the damned prick-louse were not killed by somebody, he would kill him himself.”

Conover declined to participate, not actually being a full Confederate agent, and told the Tribune about the assassination plot. The Tribune, however, declined to publish it, telling him that they had gotten in trouble before for printing too sensational of stories. Conover desided not to tell the Federal government, apparently figuring that the Tribune would do so, even though they declined to print the story.

In the beginning of April, Conover saw Surratt in Montreal, talking to him about the plot. Just what this plot might be wasn’t said, and Conover wasn’t sure it was back to kidnapping or still at murder.

The day before, or perhaps the day of – Conover could not recall – he had a conversation with one of the various Confederate agents in Canada. He spoke with William Cleary at a hotel, discussing the rejoicing in the north over the surrender of Lee. “Cleary remarked that they would put the laugh on the other side of their mouth in a day or two,” told Conover. “The conspiracy was talked of at that time about as commonly as one would speak of the weather.”

Except, all of this was a lie. Literally all of it. But it might have stood as truth if the court recorder hadn’t given part of the testimony to the press. In save face, the Federal government published several other similar testimonies. This set off a chain of events that eventually discredited everything Conover said. In fact, there wasn’t even a man named Sanford Conover.

There was, however, at least for a time, a man named James Watson Wallace. Mr. Wallace had already given testimony to the courts concerning his knowledge of the St. Albans, Vermont raid, and his name was known for that. He would show up in Montreal in June of 1865, around the time that Conover’s testimony appeared in the papers. When Wallace read these papers and saw the uproar they created, he immediately tried to leave the country. This was mostly because of one small line uttered by Conover in his testimony: “While in Canada I went by the name of James Watson Wallace.”

John Surratt will not be your friend.
John Surratt will not be your friend.

This was bad. Wallace immediately got himself a lawyer – William H. Kerr, who had defended the St. Albans raiders, and signed a statement saying that while his St. Albans testimony was all true, he had never used the name of Sanford Conover. He had, said Wallace, never testified in Washington, never worked for the Tribune. This Conover fellow had assumed his identity, impersonating him in Washington, and feedling lies to the court. Wallace tried to distance himself from Thompson, denying he was at any of the meetings Conover mentioned and had never even seen John Wilkes Booth.

To prove all of this, he wanted President Johnson to give him a pass to come to Washington to clear his name and prove he wasn’t Conover. If that wasn’t bold enough, Wallace offered a reward of $500 for Conover’s capture.

Nothing was going well for Wallace. In the middle of June, he was jailed in Montreal for being a loafer. There, according to a newspaper: “he now confesses that he is Sanford Conover, and wishes to disclose how and by what means he ws induced to go to Washington at the instance of Federal pimps for perjury….”

Once released from jail, Conover was back in Washington to clear things up. When the court read Wallace’s statement that Conover had impersonated him, he denied it. That statement, he said, was given by him (Conover) at the barrel of a dozen pistols. The Confederates in Canada forced him to sign it and offer the reward for his own capture.

Nobody really knew what to do with Conover’s testimony – or Wallace’s for that matter. In the end, it, along with several other statements that mirrored Conover’s own, was disregarded.

And then there was Charles Dunham. He had, it seems, paid and coached a string of witnesses, all testifying that Jefferson Davis was complicit in the assassination of Lincoln. Dunham even got in on the act himself, posing at a witness named Sanford Conover who sometimes went by the alias James Watson Wallace. All three – and many more, it turned out – were the same person.

Charles Dunham was tried for perjury, but little came of it. In fact, not long later, he would find himself at work again, employed by Radical Republicans to oust President Johnson from the White House. This, too, would backfire, and he would eventaully wind up in jail and unknown. But that, I’m afraid, is a tale too distant for telling here and now.1

  1. This is a ridiculous story that’s told in far better fashion in the book Devil’s Game – The Civil War Intrigues of Charles Dunham by Carman Cumming; The testimony came from The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators compiled by Benn Pittman, recorder of the commission, published in 1865. []


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