Trial of the Conspirators

After the Lincoln assassination conspirators were arrested, federal authorities jailed them in Washington. For seven weeks in May and June 1865, the nation’s attention was riveted on the third floor of Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary (now Fort McNair), where John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators were on trial for their lives.

President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton insisted on trying the conspirators before a nine-member military commission, where a vote of only five of the nine judges—rather than a unanimous vote like in a civilian trial—was required to establish guilt. Six votes could impose the death penalty.

Why a military trial?

The decision was controversial. Federal authorities argued that because Washington, D.C., was a war zone in April 1865—Confederate troops were still in the field—the assassination was an act of war. Opponents argued that a civilian court would allow for a fairer trial.

While the accused were allowed by attorneys to question the 366 witnesses to their various crimes, the accused were not permitted to speak on their own behalf.

What did those witnesses say? What were the verdicts?

Americans still debate when it is appropriate to use military versus civilian courts for major offenses. What do you think?

Conduct Your Own Investigation
As you look at each testimony, consider:

  • How does this evidence match—or not—with other evidence?
  • Who gave the testimony? What might the person’s motives be for saying what they did?
  • When did this person give the testimony? Was it soon after the event? Much later? How might that affect what they said?