George Atzerodt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln

Bob Diamond

Few people realize that John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln also included the killing of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The time of the three assassinations was to be ten-fifteen on April 14, 1865. Atzerodt, a twenty-nine year old co-conspirator, was instructed by Booth to kill Johnson, who was staying at a local hotel. Atzerodt was to knock on Johnson’s door and shoot him when he responded. Atzerodt was then to disappear with the other co-conspirators into the Deep South.

Atzerodt had serious emotional problems. He had consented to the original plot to kidnap the three men but “tried to back out when the plot was later changed to murder.” A few hours before the intended assassinations, Atzerodt started drinking whiskey at a local bar and became totally drunk.

Johnson, the only president who never attended school, married young, became a tailor and was taught to read and write by his wife. Having oratory skills, Johnson entered local politics in Tennessee and worked his way up to the U.S. Senate. With the South seceding, including Tennessee, Johnson remained loyal to the Union and was appointed by Lincoln as military governor of Tennessee. In the presidential election of 1864, Lincoln needed strong political support to keep the Southern Border States from seceding and asked Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, from Maine, to step down and Lincoln then appointed Johnson, who successfully ran with him on the ticket.

Johnson was lucky. Too drunk to kill Johnson, Atzerodt backed out of the conspiracy and did not harm anyone. Arrested and charged with the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, Atzerodt, Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell and David Herold were found guilty by a Military Tribunal and all four were hanged by their necks. Four other men passively involved in the conspiracy were given jail terms. The time from the date of the death of Lincoln, to the arrests, trials, appeals and hanging was less than three months. The following year, the Supreme Court ruled that criminal trials of civilians before Military Tribunals were unconstitutional and must be held in Civil Courts.

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