Clandestine, slippery, and young — John Surratt was the only Confederate co-conspirator who evaded justice after the assassination of President Lincoln.
John Wilkes Booth, the infamous assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, didn’t act alone. In fact, he was involved with a group of conspirators who would almost all see justice after the death of Lincoln. That is, almost all except John Surratt.
Surratt would manage to escape prosecution for the assassination of Lincoln several times while even his mother was hanged for the crime — he once even launched himself out a prison window and into a pile of human feces to avoid justice.
Surratt would even be able to live to a ripe old age to tell and retell the tales of his time as a Confederate spy, his part in the plot to kidnap the president, and how he was a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
John Surratt’s Early Years
John Surratt was born John Harrison Surratt, Jr., on April 13, 1844. His parents lived in Surrattsville, now Clinton, Maryland. The Surratts were fiercely loyal Confederates and owned around six slaves. Their town was south and east of Washington, and farmers there traditionally kept slaves to work their fields.
Farming proved not to be the Surratt-family forte, and after their tobacco crop failed, Surratt’s father built a tavern in town. The family also owned a blacksmith shop and carriage shop, and their patriarch became the postmaster of Surrattsville.
John Surratt Jr. enrolled in St. Charles College in 1859 at the age of 15. He intended to enter the priesthood as his mother, Mary, was a devout Catholic. His father, however, had accumulated large amounts of debts both from his failed farm and from his tavern, and as he drank himself away, talk of secession and rebellion flared across the country.
As slave and big business owners down South, the Surratt’s didn’t want to see their cushy way of life disappear. They ardently joined the war effort for the South.
In July 1861, the younger Surratt left school and returned home. By this point, several states had seceded from the Union and the Battle of Fort Sumter had already begotten the American Civil War.
The Surratt boys, John Jr. and his brother Isaac, were quick to join the Confederate cause. Isaac became a member of the Confederate Army in Texas in the 33rd Cavalry. John, still under 18, signed up with the Confederate secret service. Anna, their sister, ran the tavern in Surrattsville which became a meeting place for Confederate forces.
Upon John Sr.’s death in 1862, his namesake John Surratt Jr. succeeded the father as postmaster. Between the tavern and the post office, it was easy to hide messages to and from spies within the Confederacy. There was an entire network of postmasters in southern Maryland, technically a border state, that sent messages from Richmond to operatives in the north — and it was all under the eye and fist of the Surratt family.
Confederacy Espionage And Conspiracy
John Surratt carried out his duties well, and sometimes for a price. Hand-delivering clandestine messages needed extra time, effort, and cash. His most common duty was relaying dispatches regarding troop movements in and around the nation’s capital and delivering them to Confederate boats stationed on the Potomac River.
After the war, Surratt remarked how he carried these secret messages “sometimes in the heel of my boots, sometimes between the planks of the buggy.” He mocked the Union officers he escaped, “I confess that never in my life did I come across a more stupid set of detectives than those generally employed by the U.S. government.”
He was once arrested in 1863 but released without much trouble. Indeed, Surratt came to be exhilarated by and enjoyed his clandestine missions outsmarting his enemy.
Then in the fall of 1864, Surratt met his destiny. A mutual friend, Dr. Samuel Mudd, introduced Surratt to the handsome and wealthy John Wilkes Booth.
Booth then introduced Surratt to the idea that bold actions could help the South to win the war. He told Surratt of a grand plan to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, transport him to Richmond, and then barter for his life. Booth wanted the federal government at the very least to release thousands of Confederate prisoners of war. At most, Booth hoped he could negotiate better terms for the South.
Surratt was initially opposed to the idea of kidnapping Lincoln — he thought it was foolish. But Booth outlined so precisely what would happen, the when, the who, and the how, that Surratt eventually assented.
The Failed Kidnapping Of Abraham Lincoln
By 1865, Mary Surratt, the matriarch, leased her tavern to a neighbor and opened a boarding house mere blocks from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. where Confederate agents met and conspired. The Confederates met regularly there, until the afternoon of March 17, 1865, when Surratt and Booth heard that Lincoln was planning to attend a play.
It was a production of Still Waters Run Deep at Campbell Hospital. The location was near the old soldier’s home on the Seventh Street Road at the outskirts of Washington. Unlike a place like Ford’s Theatre, security here was not much of a concern. The kidnapping had to happen quickly. Surratt and Booth, in conjunction with six others, gathered their supplies, mounted their horses, and galloped to the scene.
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