Lincoln’s assassination changed everything. The ending of the Civil War might have merely been the surrender of Confederate armies and a prolonged discussion and action about Reconstruction with reconciliation at the forefront. With Booth’s bullet, wild cry, and flying leap, the nation plunged into political turmoil, fears, and the fact that not all Southerners would accept surrender and the new freedoms and equality granted and enforcible by law. Meanwhile, Northerners’ spirit of vengeance and retribution also rose to the surface and threatened the early reconciliation measures. Caught in the middle and present at one of summer 1865 controversies, General Winfield Scott Hancock entered a storm of opinion, politics, and personal feelings and emotions that had far reaching consequences for his future.
“General Hancock being the military commander of the district, his orders were to contribute in every manner to allay the alarm that was so widespread, and take measures to meet the peril that every public man felt surrounded him.” That’s how Mrs. Hancock described the moment when word arrived about the president’s death. While the general was in the midst of angling for the Mosby Rangers’ surrender, the scenes were already opening for his next role in the 1865 tragedies.
Since Hancock’s military district included Washington City, President Johnson ordered him to the city to help restore order. Rushing to the capital by special train, Hancock took immediate command of the garrisons in and around Washington, restoring order and confidence in the Federal military’s ability to protect. The next duty would be the apprehension and trial of John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators.
Johnson directed Hancock to stay in Washington through the trial of the conspirators, but Major General John F. Hatranft—provost marshal of the capital—had been appointed by executive order to oversee the military commission for the trial. Though Dr. Samuel Mudd David Herold, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, Mary Surratt, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, and Edmund Spangler stood trial within Hancock’s military department, he was not given authority over Hatranft or the commission. Hancock simply had to keep order, according to president’s directions.
Hancock sorrowed over Lincoln’s assassination and believed in legal process and justice, but he did not allow inhumane treatment of prisoners. When word reached him about the conditions the accused conspirators faced in prison, he took swift action. Particularly distressed about Mary Surrat, he “offered [her] every kindness in his power and was anxious that she should be spared by a pardon.”
Mary Surratt had owned a boarding house in Washington where Booth and his conspirators had lodged and plotted their crimes. During the war, her son had served as a courier for the Confederate Secret Service, and in early investigations, she lied about his whereabouts. Charged with abetting, aiding, concealing, counseling, and harboring the other trial defendants, Mary Surrat stood a seven week trial. She was ill and suffered physically during the trial, though Hancock and others took measure to relieve her discomfort as much as possible.
Surratt’s case troubled Hancock. Privately, he was opposed to executing a woman and also felt that the case against Surratt was not strong enough to warrant capital punishment. Publicly, there was little he could do with the trial in the hands of the military commission headed and guided by General Hatranft.
The sentences were passed. Surratt, Payne, Atzerodt, and Herold were sentenced to hang on July 7, 1865. Since he ensured order and commanded the garrisons, Hancock felt duty-bound to be present at the execution.
Another motive prompted him to be there. If Mary Surratt was innocent or if she got a sentence reprieve, he would do everything possible to ensure her safety.
Early on the morning of the execution day, Miss Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter, arrived at the hotel where General Hancock temporarily resided. She pleaded with him for advice: how could she save her mother? Hancock gently told her that his authority could not stay the execution. Instead, she must “go to the President, throw yourself on your knees before him and beg for the life of your mother.” Miss Surratt hurried to the White House where she was denied entrance.
Meanwhile, Hancock appeared in civil court, a last ditch effort to save Mrs. Surratt. He carried an executive order from President Johnson which suspended the civil court’s writ and ordered the military to proceed with the executions. No matter his personal opinions, Hancock had little legal or military choice left.
He went to the Arsenal—the location for the hanging. Arriving he met John W. Clampett, one of Surratt’s defense counselors. In later writings, Clampett recalled asking Hancock “Are there any hopes?” Dismounting from his horse, the general shook his head and with a catch in his voice replied: “I’m afraid not. No there is not.”
He issued orders for soldiers to be posted at intervals along the roads leading from the White House to the Arsenal to ensure that a last minute reprieve from the president had every possible chance of halting Mary Surratt’s execution. Hancock had hoped Miss Surratt might make a successful appeal, but when she arrived at the Arsenal, weeping, hopes sank again. Gently, the general explained to the daughter that he could not countermand the presidential orders and the authority of the military court. However, he promised her that he would personally stay at the Arsenal since any last minute order to stay Mary Surratt’s death would be sent directly to him as military department commander. But no presidential message arrived or was even sent. On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt died by hanging, the first woman executive by the United States federal government.
General Hancock spoke to John Clampett in an anguished moment that day: “I have been in many a battle and have seen death, and mixed with it in disaster and in victory. I’ve been in a living hell of fire, and shell and grapeshot, and, by God, I’d sooner be there ten thousand times over than to give the order this day for the execution of that poor woman. But I am a soldier, sworn to obey, and obey I must.”
In later years, Hancock’s political critics spun a tale that differed from the facts and even the general’s personal beliefs. They criticized him for denying Mrs. Surratt safety, prison comforts, or even the visits from a religious priest—exactly opposite from what Hancock actually allowed. They pinned the blame for the trial and execution on Hancock when reality and primary documents from those weeks suggest he was not allowed to take an active role or express other options. The military court had its verdict, the president refused to extend leniency or pardon, and Hancock had to enforce to the punishment. His willingness to work with a civil court, compassion and advice for Anna Surratt, posting of guards between the Arsenal and the White House, and verbal declaration all point to one of the most conflicted moments of his life when duty forced him to follow orders.
General Hancock had forged a reputation on the battlefields of the Civil War, but in the immediate aftermath of April 9, 1865, he faced two challenging leadership moments: attempting to force John Mosby’s surrender and restoring order and “justice” within the Federal capital in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination. From his decision in California in 1861 to the Virginia Peninsula, Gettysburg fields, or Overland combat, Hancock had based his decisions and beliefs on the principles “I am a soldier, sworn to obey.” That motto was put to an ultimate test on July 7, 1865, when he stood by—waiting for a pardon that would never arrive—but determined to “obey I must” the difficult orders he had been given.
Hancock, Almira. Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock. New York, 1887.
Larson, Kate C. The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. Perseus Book Groups, New York, 2008.
Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life. Indiana University Press, 1996.
Tucker, Glenn. Hancock The Superb. Morningside Bookshop, Ohio, 1980.
University of Delaware: Winfield Scott Hancock Papers, referenced through finding aid details online: https://library.udel.edu/special/findaids/view?docId=ead/mss0099_0815.xml;tab=print