The National Defense University and Fort McNair
last week dedicated Grant Hall, which contains a re-creation of the 1865 court
room where the Lincoln conspirators were tried. Below are comments made at the
dedication by Hans Binnendijk, former vice president of NDU, who led the team
that remodeled Grant Hall and recreated the trial scene:
evening we are gathered to dedicate Grant Hall and to witness the recreation of
the 1865 court room where justice was dispensed to those conspiring to
assassinate Abraham Lincoln and to decapitate the United States government. It
is here that the last chapter of our calamitous Civil War ended.
is fitting that this historic building be named in honor of Ulysses S. Grant,
the General-in-Chief of the Union Army during our Civil War and subsequently
our 18th President. He was in command while the trial of the Lincoln conspirators
took place and this part of the original penitentiary was preserved during his
presidential administration. Grant Hall's proximity to Lincoln Hall reminds us
of the friendship and trust these two men shared.
trial began on May 9, 1865, less than a month after Lincoln's assassination. A
laundry room above the Deputy Warden's quarters was converted to a court
room. That court room now looks much as
it did in 1865. The eight defendants were held in the cells isolated,
handcuffed and chained. The men were forced to wear cloth hoods over their
heads. The nine person jury or commission was made up predominantly of Army
officers. The use of a military court to
try civilians was controversial at that time, as it is now. A simple majority
was needed to find guilt and a 2/3rds majority was required for the death
penalty. Defense attorneys were given very little time to prepare. There was no
appeal except to President Andrew Johnson.
And he was in no mood to grant appeals.
trial lasted longer than Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would have liked. He
wanted a very speedy trial to avoid any chance of rekindling the Confederacy. A
total of 351 witnesses were called. On July 5 the commission sent its verdict
to President Johnson who concurred with all of their findings except for
clemency for Mary Surratt.
July 6 the defendants were told about their fate and on July 7, 1865, four were
hanged. Alexander Gardner captured their
execution in a series of photos that set a new standard at the time for
photojournalism. The other four defendants were sent to prison in the Dry
Tortugas - three returned alive. Three of the four who were hanged (Lewis
Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold) were in my view clearly guilty of a
capital offense. Powell assailed and
nearly killed Secretary of State Seward. Atzerodt got drunk and decided not to
assassinate Andrew Johnson, but he had advance knowledge of the plot. Herold
joined Booth in his escape.
fate of Mary Surratt has led to continued controversy. Many books and now the
movie The Conspirator argue her case. She was certainly a Confederate
sympathizer and her son John Surratt was among the earliest of Booth's
conspirators. Her boarding house on H Street was considered to be "the nest in
which the plot was hatched." She visited
her home in what is now Clinton, Maryland, on the day of the assassination to
deliver a package for John Wilkes Booth; that was Booth's first stop after
assassinating Lincoln. The issue became "what did she know and when did she
know it." There was clearly some witness-tampering and she was convicted based
on circumstantial evidence.
this ceremony, Grant Hall joins several other buildings that played a crucial
role in the events surrounding Lincoln's assassination and that have been renovated.
There is Ford's Theater with its wonderful museum in the basement, the Peterson
House where Lincoln died; the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland; and
now Grant Hall. Mary Surratt's boarding house on H Street has a historic plaque
on it but remains a Chinese restaurant. That should be the renovators' next target.