John Wilkes Booth (Captain, Confederate Secret Service) had a superior officer in Washington DC at the time of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and that man was 37-year-old Major Benjamin Franklin Ficklin. Why has Ficklin been excluded from almost every history book when he obviously deserves a proper place in history? He looks the part of a prosperous Southern planter, and was a great spook and adventurer much of his life, and described as a “refined pirate.”
Not only were the War Department records on the assassination sealed for reasons of national security for 100 years, the files were so padded with documentation that sorting out the real story was like looking for needles in a haystack. This is a common technique in counterintelligence ops and known as “snowing.” Snow appears when tracks need to be covered. For decades, the mysterious Major Ficklin was buried, like so many other members of this wildly misunderstood saga.
Ficklin operated at the highest levels of both sides of the conflict, swinging huge deals and dancing through raindrops. Immediate suspicion fell on him after the assassination, and his presence at the Kirkwood House became known to the police within hours because Ficklin was one of the most notorious operators during the war. Unlike Booth, however, he was “untouchable.”
After being caught up in the dragnet, Ficklin admitted to owning a small stake in the Coquette, a 200-horsepower iron steamer, schooner-rigged with three masts. She could stuff over 1,200 bales of cotton in her hold and had been purchased from the Rebel Navy Department. The Coquette ran cotton one way and war munitions the other. In truth, Ficklin owned and operated two other blockade runners, the Virginia and Giraffe, all of which were captained by Confederate naval officers.
More than 300 steamers made over 1,300 attempts running the Union blockade during the Civil War. Early on, these were just normal-looking vessels, but as the war progressed, blockade-runners got sleeker, shallower and faster.
Ficklin was the rebellious son of a wealthy Southern merchant and had been shipped off to military school as a teen, where he buried the headmaster’s boots in snow, painted a horse with zebra stripes, and discharged a howitzer, breaking several windows. He was expelled, of course, but returned later with evidence of having served in both the Mexican-American and Mormon Wars and managed to secure a belated diploma.
In 1860, while working for the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, he came up with the audacious idea of a Pony Express, a 2,000 mile horse relay system between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. After getting that mission off the ground, he joined the Confederate Army, but soon drifted into intelligence and smuggling. He grew very rich and on November 17, 1864, paid $80,500 for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
When arrested, Ficklin was found to have secret pockets everywhere: his hatband, coat lining, and even his pantaloons were stuffed with messages and documents. Among these was a tiny envelop addressed to Maj. B. F. Ficklin, 7th Street that contained a request for two calicoes, two cossets, a hoop skirt, gloves, shoes, and one black lace veil. A letter of introduction addressed to the Archbishop of New York was written by a J. McGill of Richmond. The strangest scrap of paper, however, contained the names of Mr. Browning, Lncljn Hughes, Mrs. Whitney and Gen. J.W. Singleton, Metropolitan Hotel, and was written on Kirkwood House stationary.
The interrogation of Ficklin by Major O’Beirne was proceeding nicely until it hit this speed bump:
Q. When you came to Washington, did you or did you not take the Oath of Allegiance?
A. I did not, and desire to state to the following reason. Senator Browning from Illinois, whom I know, was to apply to the President for a permit for me to return south without taking the Oath of Allegiance, in order that I might not impair my influence which I wished to exert in pacifying the country and restoring peace.
The interrogation was terminated and Ficklin moved to more comfortable accommodations than those afforded Mary and Anna Surratt, who festered in a filthy cell despite being innocent of anything other than being Southern sympathizers. You see, the mere mention of the word “senator” carried enough clout to cause any police officer to tread carefully, lest he annoy the powers-that-be.
Needless to say, Ficklin would not make an appearance at the conspiracy trial. On May 25, a letter arrived from former Senator Orville H. Browning (who had been a close friend of Lincoln’s) requesting Ficklin be released. Browning “was thoroughly satisfied Mr. Ficklin had no knowledge or participation in the atrocious act” and “prayed” for his discharge. The sole reason for his being in Washington, according to Browning, was to deliver a confidential message regarding a cotton deal from a lady in Lexington, Kentucky.
Before the assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister, widow of a Confederate General, had appealed to Mary for help salvaging a few thousand dollars worth of cotton. Trading in cotton during the war was perfectly legal and a booming business, as the North needed cotton, you just had to obtain proper documentation and pay duties involved no doubt. The President reportedly gave a pass to retired General James W. Singleton for allowing this small shipment of cotton belonging to his sister-in-law to come north to market.
However, Singleton and Browning soon arrived at the White House with a list of contracts totaling $7 million, which they planned to pay for entirely with greenbacks, thus supporting the war effort. Lincoln gave them permission for the deal, but when a wagon train with $7 million worth of cotton and other supplies began assembling, that shipment was so alarmingly huge it attracted unwanted attention from Congress and was halted, ending Browning and Singleton’s bid to become instant millionaires. But like the $3 trillion announced missing from the Pentagon on 9/10 by Donald Rumsfeld, the entire episode soon disappeared in the snow.
I only add this to show the size of graft involved during the Civil War and immense fortunes realized by those who could dance through raindrops and make deals at the highest levels. Since the retired General had been a commander during the Mormon War, he and Ficklin were no doubt well acquainted, and no doubt Ficklin was the important go-between.
Two months before the assassination, John Yates Beall, a Confederate spy and blockade runner had been captured in New York City. Beall’s exploits are far too numerous to detail in this short space, but he’d masterminded a series of successful plots, including the capture and scuttling of Union ships on the Great Lakes and the escape of valuable Confederate officers from prison camps in the North.
His arrest and trial by military tribunal had been kept secret, and only released to the press after his death sentence was announced, provoking an enormous effort to save his life. I am sure Booth read the exploits of his fellow spook with a tinge of envy and dreamed of fomenting a plan on similar levels.
Six Senators (including Browning) and 91 members of Congress signed a petition requesting clemency for Beall, but Lincoln let Beall swing. Many notable private citizens also signed that appeal, including John Wilkes Booth.