Colonel John S. Mosby was one of the great counterintelligence officers of the Civil War. He served briefly as a scout for Jeb Stuart before forming his own unit known as Mosby’s Rangers in the South and Mosby’s Raiders in the North. Their area of operations in Northern Virginia became known as Mosby’s Confederacy during the war, and retains some of that aura today so strong was his imprint.
Mosby had an extensive spy network operating in the North, mostly focussed on penetrating the Radical Republican cabal running Washington DC. His most valuable secret agent was dating the daughter of the Senator from New Hampshire and was a famous actor and matinee idol of his day. For the first few years of the war John Wilkes Booth had been mostly involved with smuggling quinine to Mosby so it could be distributed to Confederate troops, which greatly endeared him to Southern belles in Washington and Richmond. Many attractive women also worked as secret agents during the war.
John Beall was a Confederate agent based out of New York City. Despite pleas for clemency from inside Congress, Beall was hanged on February 24th, after a failed attempt at releasing Confederate prisoners-of-war held near Chicago. Booth signed the clemency petition and likely did his best to get his secret fiancee and her family to sign it as well. But Lincoln let Beall swing. A few days later, on March 2nd, a Union cavalry detachment arrived on the outskirts of Richmond, where the leader was shot and killed by the home guard. A 13-year-old found documents on his body that indicated the raiders were to torch the city and assassinate President Jefferson Davis and any of his cabinet they could find.
These two events in quick succession moved Mosby to retaliate, and he began plotting the Lincoln kidnap. We know he was in on that plot because his troops moved to the border the day of the planned kidnapping, movements large enough to alarm Union troops near the border.
Mosby never realized Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had slipped numerous double agents into the Confederate spy network, the most important of which was Louis Weichmann, who later became star witness at the tribunal responsible for hanging Mary Surratt. Weichmann took up residence at Surratt’s boarding house and volunteered to assist the kidnap as soon as he got wind of it, but had been rebuffed by Mary’s son John Surratt as he “could neither ride nor shoot.”
Mosby sent a hulking giant with heart of stone to make the actual snatch. His name was Lewis Powell. Apparently, Mosby was a deeply moral soldier and feared Lincoln might be killed during the attempt due to his size. Mosby wanted Lincoln alive so he could be put on trial for fomenting the Davis assassination attempt. And he also wanted the prisoners Beall died to save returned to the Confederacy. Powell was the only one large enough to handle Lincoln solo and you can date the origins of the kidnap plot from the day Powell crossed Union lines and signed the loyalty oath so he could enter Washington.
It’s telling when Powell arrived, he went straight to Surratt’s boarding house to make contact with Booth, whom he always referred to as “captain.” And just as telling, Booth and his team only referred to Powell as “Mosby.” The kidnap plan was intricate and involved a team of agents along the route to create obstructions to slow any pursuit. Fallen trees were to appear as soon as the carriage with Lincoln passed by. Meanwhile, Mosby’s Rangers would be racing North through enemy lines to provide escort. But this elaborate plan never materialized because Weichmann told the War Department everything, and Stanton simply changed Lincoln’s itinerary at the last moment.
George Atzerodt was a minor figure in the kidnap plot, tasked with providing a boat for crossing the Potomac. He seems to have suddenly been drawn into the assassination plot the day it unfolded, something that catapulted him into a state of panic. Powell was tasked with murdering the Secretary of State, who was recuperating from a recent carriage accident. Two murders were timed to create confusion for the getaway. Booth must have known all protection for Lincoln going to dissolve, else he would not have shown up armed with a single shot derringer.
Atzerodt’s first confession was suppressed and not discovered for 117 years. In it, he admitted that a New York element had paid for Powell’s transfer to Washington D.C. The day after the assassination, a local newspaper was already printing the Mosby connection to Booth.
“He has been in Washington for some months past, ostensibly for the purpose of organizing an oil company, but really for the purpose of consummating his scheme of wholesale assassination, under the direction of Mosby. There is no doubt that Booth contemplated the act long ago, and only delayed its execution because of some private instruction from Mosby,”
The Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, PA, April 15, 1865.
One important element to keep in mind is there is no free press in America during the Civil War, and stories like this were fed from the Union War Department. Just as Oswald’s biography went out on the international wire services very quickly after JFK’s assassination, the press began laying a trail to the Confederacy. In fact, the military tribunal would find the Confederate leaders guilty of plotting Lincoln’s murder, a conviction tainted by bribes and false testimony. The trial, in fact, was a kangaroo court, yet this fact has never seeped into the American imagination, probably because it reveals the likelihood that Lincoln’s killing was an inside job.
To solve these riddles, one only need examine who in New York thrived the most post Lincoln’s assassination. The financial center of the nation moved from Philadelphia to New York during the war, thanks in part to the rise of Jay Gould, who made his great fortune during the war. It seems Gould had a knack for knowing the outcome of battles before anyone else on the street.
Powell had been captured at the Surratt house the night of the assassination only because the dim-witted conspirator tasked with watching his horse while he killed the Secretary of State had panicked and bolted, leaving Powell riderless. And since he had little knowledge of the streets of Washington, it took hours to wend his way back to Surratt’s where he was immediately seized on arrival as his excuse for being there at such a strange hour was not credible.
Powell was moved to an isolated cell aboard an ironside in the Potomac, a heavy canvas and leather bag locked around his head to prevent contact or communication with anyone. Only one man was ever allowed to interview Powell, Thomas Eckert. Soon, they would completely rewrite Atzerodt’s original confession in order to remove all mention of New York City. After the tribunal, Eckert resigned from the military and accepted Gould’s offer to become head of Western Union.