The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Four Smoking Guns

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Release Date: 
October 30, 2023
Pen and Sword History
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“the author combines his background as both a historian and lawyer to present his guilty verdict on the Confederate government in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. . . . “

Americans love historical conspiracies, and few attract attention as the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. As the author notes in the beginning of this volume, nearly everyone from Vice President Andrew Johnson to the Knights of the Golden Circle have been implicated in the assassination. However, the scope and scale of the actual conspiracy provide a much more interesting historical tale.

In this new volume, the author combines his background as both a historian and lawyer to present his guilty verdict on the Confederate government in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and many of his Cabinet members.

The book is a compelling amalgam of previous work by the Lincoln conspiracy ensemble that have produced investigations over the last few decades arguing that the plot was not merely the work of John Wilkes Booth and few associates, but a wide-ranging covert operation by a desperate and revenge seeking Confederate government.

Earlier readers of Lincoln assassination histories will recall, for example, that the Federal cavalry raid into Virginia in early 1864 led by Ulric Dahlgren, while ostensibly about freeing Federal officers imprisoned in the Richmond area, in fact, had a wider mission. Papers were found on Colonel Dahlgren’s body expressing a desire to then use these freed prisoners to burn Richmond and kill or capture the Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. Widely used as propaganda in the South at the time, the author maintains that senior members of the Confederate government, especially Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, considered this action beyond the pale and were determined to retaliate.


Moving beyond retelling of the story of many of the convicted plotters in Booth’s group, the author casts a much wider net to fit the Lincoln conspiracy into a range of increasingly desperate Confederate covert actions to subvert the Union cause by spreading terror and insurrection. Many of these activities were carried out be a very elaborate network of agents in the Union states, Canada, and even overseas, and the author describes an elaborate cast of characters as he methodically steps through what he terms “four smoking guns” showing the deep involvement of the Confederate government in what amounted to an attempted decapitation strike against the Union.

All of these “smoking guns” detail the wide network of Confederate agents who conspired against the Union. While some of their links to the Lincoln assassination were tenuous, the author attempts to build evidence of a pattern of behavior by the Confederate Secret Service, under the direction and support of Davis’s government. There can be no doubt that these agents attempted to carry out a variety of what would be termed terrorist acts, from intentionally spreading disease through Northern cities, to attempting to launch a secession movement by the upper midwestern states where anti-Republican and anti-abolition sentiments were strong.

The author ties it all back together by describing how Booth and his band of assassins clearly had a great deal of help, both financial and logistical, to carry out their plot. As the author convincingly demonstrates, the collective group did not have either the planning or financial ability to create so elaborate a scheme on their own, much less carry it out with the expectation of escaping what would be no doubt be a swift Union reaction.

Yet despite their own issues, and as the author notes, Booth had plenty, they almost carried off an operation that could very well have paralyzed the Union government. The author makes an assertion that the wider conspiracy aimed to kill many more Union officials than those actually attacked, and if the assassins had managed to kill Lincoln and his top Cabinet officials, the government could very well have been plunged into turmoil. It is notable to remember that even after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, many hard-core Confederates wanted to carry on the fight. If Booth and his crew had been successful, the end of the Civil War may have played out very differently.

One issue that remains unexplored is that, if, as the author asserts, many Union officials had deep suspicions about the involvement of the Confederate government in Lincoln’s death, why wasn’t this brought out to the northern press after all the numerous investigations and interrogations of the conspirators? Certainly, there were several Radical Republicans and even Secretary of War Stanton that wanted a harsher peace with the South, and digging into the assassination to blame Davis and his government would have seemed a straightforward means of riling up the North to impose more punishment. Yet the assassination has long been considered an elaborate plot by a bunch of southern malcontents who basically got lucky due to circumstance. Clearly there is still more history to uncover concerning one of the great events of American history.