May 16, 1865 (Tuesday)
“It is very important to have the rebel War Department papers here immediately for use on the present trials,” wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Henry Halleck and General John Schofield. The latter replied: “I have all the archives of the late rebel War Department, including all the army muster-rolls, officers’ reports, captured flags, &c. They amount to about two car-loads. What shall I do with them?”
Halleck, in response, told him to “box up” everything and send them to Charles Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, in Washington. “Preserve every paper, however unimportant it may appear. We have the key to their ciphers. Important links of testimony have been discovered here of the Canadian plot.”
The prosecution in the conspiracy trial placed Samuel Chester on the stand. He was an actor and friend of Booth, and had been rounded up with the lot of them and faced the commission on the 12th of May. It was in November of 1864, he recalled, “about the time we were to play Julius Cæsar in New York. Booth then claimed, when asked about his wardrobe, that it was still in Canada. But he talked to Chester about various speculations in which he was involved. Oil, coin, and then another.
A month later, they met again and discussed this other. “He had often mentioned this speculation,” stated Chester, “but would never mention what it was. If I would ask him, he would say he would tell me by-and-by.” It was then, in December, when he finally told all.
“When we got into the unfrequented portion of the street, he stopped and told me that he was in a large conspiracy to capture the President, and to take them to Richmond.” Booth wanted Chester in on the deal, but Chester refused, “and asked him to think of my family.” Booth countered with an offer of several thousands of dollars, and the details of the plot. All Chester had to do was hold open the back door at Ford’s Theater. It was sure to succeed, “but needed some one connected or acquainted with the theater.” Booth claimed that there were upwards of 150 people involved in this plot, including Confederate authorities.
Chester’s refusal didn’t even stop Booth from asking again and again as the months went by. In January and February, Booth tried again, even sending Chester fifty dollars. But in the latter month, Booth apparently told Chester that he had given up the kidnapping plot as some of the parties had backed out. A week before the assassination, they met again in New York, where Booth lamented the fact that he missed the chance to kill Lincoln at the Inauguration ceremonies.
And so, by Chester’s word, it seemed as if Booth was acting mostly on his own (with a small band) in the assassination. If Davis’ connection to the plot was to be established, Chester was hardly their man.
But there was another. The Federal government was desperately searching for anything to see if Jefferson Davis was linked to the assassination of President Lincoln. The Rebel agents in Canada, as well as Clement Clay, they suspected, were that link. Both were now in custody and on May 12th, Richard Montgomery, a double agent, began naming names.
Montgomery had carried dispatches from Jefferson Davis to other agents in Canada, stopping off in Washington to drop off copies. When John Wilkes Booth was in Canada in October of 1864, Montgomery had reported that there was a plot to kidnap Lincoln. He knew (and told) also of the plot to burn New York City, as well as the St. Albans, Vermont raid. Montgomery was certainly trusted by Confederate authorities and his word was gold.
In his words: “When Mr. Jacob Thompson [Clay’s second, though both were selected by Jefferson Davis] spoke to me of the assassination, in January of this year, he said he was in favor of the proposition that had been made to him to put the President, Mr. Stanton, General Grant, and others out of the way; but had deferred giving his answer until he had consulted his Government in Richmond, and that he was only waiting their approval. I do not know, of my own knowledge, that he received an answer; my impression, from what Beverly Tucker said, was that he had received their answer and their approval, and that they [the assassins] had been detained waiting for that.”
Secretary Stanton was in need of any papers that might connect the former rebel government to any of these crimes. The problem was, however, deniable plausibility. He could understand that even if Davis himself had given a silent wink and nod to the idea of kidnapping or murdering Lincoln, there would not be even a shred of such evidence. But if anything was to simply turn up, it would be with the War Department papers. Or perhaps it would be one of the multitude of witnesses they were calling for the trial.
Thus far, all they had was the word of a double agent – spy who played both sides throughout the war. His sympathies were obviously not with the South, but neither could they have been said to be with the Union. Richard Montgomery did not come this far through loyalty to anyone but Richard Montgomery. And now that he was telling the court almost exactly what they wanted to hear, more evidence was needed.
The War Department papers would arrive in Washington shortly.1
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 3, p509-510; Montgomery’s and Chester’s testimony was printed in The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators compiled by Benn Pittman, recorder of the commission, published in 1865. [↩]