Wednesday, April 21, 2010

April 22: Lewis Thornton Powell, Angry Attempted Assassin

He was young, strong, handsome, and the son of a preacher. Yet – hardened by four years of civil war, he would attempt to assassinate the U.S. Secretary of State in a plot hatched by John Wilkes Booth.

Lewis Thornton Powell was born on April 22, 1844, in Randolph County, Alabama. His parents were George Cader, a farmer, tax assessor, and later a Baptist minister, and Patience Caroline Powell.

Powell would be the sixth surviving child of the first eight children born to the Powells, who eventually had ten children. In 1847 his father was ordained into the ministry and moved the Powell family to Steward County, Georgia. All of the children were educated by their father, who served as the teacher at the local school.

As a child, Powell was quiet and introverted, a young boy who loved to read and study. He earned the nickname “Doc’ because he cared for sick animals. A change occurred, however when he was twelve. He was kicked in the face by the family’s mule. His jaw was broken, and when it healed, his jaw was more prominent on the left side of his face.

Around the age of fourteen, young Powell was heavily involved in Sunday School, prayer meetings, and other religious activities. He would conduct prayer meetings, was popular, liked to sing, and was a favorite of the ladies in the community.

In 1860 the Powell family moved to the outskirts of Live Oak, Florida. The sixteen-year-old Lewis worked supervising his father’s farm there, cognizant of the increasing tensions between the North and the South that would ultimately lead to the Civil War. On January 10, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, and on May 30th the seventeen-year-old Powell enlisted in the Jasper Blues (Hamilton County), which later became Company I of the Second Florida Infantry.

Powell would see action in several major battles during the war. He served in the Army of Northern Virginia and was at the battles of Seven Pines, Second Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg. On July 2, 1863, he was wounded in the right wrist at Gettysburg, and captured by the Union forces. At the Gettysburg hospital, Powell would become a male nurse, aiding the doctors in treating the wounded of both sides, and becoming so involved in his work that he began calling himself ‘Doctor Powell’. He was reported to be good at his work, and kind to the sick and wounded.

In September 1863 the prisoner-orderly was transferred to the West Buildings Hospital in Baltimore. At this hospital, aided by a female nurse he had met at Gettysburg who now worked at the hospital in Baltimore, Powell escaped, walking out of the hospital in a Union uniform provided by his female friend.

Making his way back to Virginia, Powell gave up trying to find his old unit, and joined with Colonel John Mosby’s Rangers, a partisan guerrilla organization. While with the Rangers, Powell began spying operations for the Confederate Secret Service. It was during one of these missions that he met John Surratt – who would be one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.

By 1865, the war was obviously moving toward a conclusion, with victory in sight for the North.
Powell was brought into a plan by John Wilkes Booth to kidnap President Lincoln while the President was attending a play at the Seventh Street Hospital on the outskirts of Washington. The kidnapped President was to be spirited to Richmond, and used as a bargaining chip in an exchange plan for Confederate soldiers. The planned kidnapping was called off when Lincoln cancelled his visit to the play.

After the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865 – and the revealing of plans by President Lincoln to let former slaves have the right to vote – a more deadly plan was hatched – this time to assassinate several top officials of the Union – Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Powell was again brought into the plan by Booth, and on April 13, 1865, Powell, John Wilkes Booth, George Atzerodt, and David Herold met in Powell’s room in a boarding house in Washington. It was there that almost 21-year-old Powell was given the assignment to assassinate Seward.

Seward had been injured in a carriage accident in early April, and was still recuperating at his home in Washington. During the evening of April 14th, Powell broke into Seward’s bedroom, stabbing at him repeatedly. The bandages on Seward’s injuries – a broken jaw and broken arm – saved his life by deflecting several knife blows. Powell also attacked those trying to rescue Seward – two of Seward’s children and Seward’s nurse, Sergeant George F. Robinson. Powell – outnumbered and in an alerted household, escaped, wounding a messenger who had arrived while Powell was escaping. After the trial, Sergeant Robinson, credited with actually forcing Powell to flee, asked for and was given the knife used by Powell in the attack.

Fleeing the city, Powell was thrown from his horse near a cemetery. He hid in the cemetery for three days, and then went to Mary Surratt’s boarding house - arriving just as she was arrested. Even though she denied knowing him, Powell found himself in chains and taken aboard a Navy monitor, the USS Saugus.

A military commission was formed to try Powell – foregoing the civilian trial by jury. Powell was tried under the name of “Payne” – a name he had used months earlier when he was arrested for spying by the Union and signed a loyalty oath to get released. He was defended by William E. Doster. Thirty two witnesses testified against Powell, and the evidence against him was overwhelming. Doster tried to claim that Powell was insane – which was rejected on the stand by Government witnesses. He then tried to claim that Powell was a soldier acting under orders – an argument that was rejected out of hand by the court.

Powell was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and treason.

Powell was executed on July 7, 1865, along with three other convicted conspirators – Mary Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. His body was buried in the penitentiary courtyard near the gallows where he was hanged. His body was re-interred several times over the years, and its present location is unknown. However, in January 1992 his skull discovered and identified in the Smithsonian Anthropology Department where it lay among mostly Indian remains that were being identified for return to their appropriate tribes. The skull, which had been tagged at some point in the past, was claimed by the nearest living Powell relative, and on November 12, 1994, was buried next to his mothers grave in Geneva, Florida.

Abraham Lincoln Research Site
Alias Payne
Geneva History
Spartacus Educational
University of Missouri – Kansas City


Picture of Powell, Indiana History Digital Image Library
The assassination attempt on Seward, Wikipedia
Powell under Guard, Harpers Weekly, May 27, 1865: Son of the South
Booth and his Associates, Indiana Digital Image Library
Alexander Gardner’s picture of conspirators arriving at the gallows – Powell is second from the right, next to Mary Surratt, Indiana Digital Image Library
Powell’s gravesite, Waymarking

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