Writing History in a Vacuum

Thomas R. Turner

in The Lincoln Assassination

Published by Fordham University Press

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780823232260
Published online March 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780823240784 | DOI:

Series: The North's Civil War

Writing History in a Vacuum

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This chapter discusses the legal ramifications of the use of a military court to try the Lincoln conspirators. It notes that, after a war that cost 620,000 lives—Northern and Southern—Americans were traumatized as never before. It shows how the staggering death toll profoundly affected the pursuit, imprisonment, and trial of the assassins. The use of a military commission to try them was a rational decision in 1865, and the commission proved more objective than a civil trial might have been at the time. Nevertheless, the emotions of the moment had much impact on the proceedings. To show this, the chapter focuses particularly on the later trial of John Surratt, the son of the conspirator Mary Surratt, who, unlike his mother, escaped conviction at a civil trial because of a hung jury. Surratt's release fueled the impression that the 1865 military commission had been biased in favor of the prosecution. It is argued that the major difference between the two trials was the less frenzied environment that prevailed in 1867.

Keywords: Abraham Lincoln; military court; conspirators; John Surratt; assassination trial

Chapter.  5774 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas

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