One hundred and fifty years ago an executive order establishing the military commission to try the accused Lincoln conspirators was issued. There was some newspaper opposition to not according the alleged conspirators a civil trial, but by and large a military tribunal met with approval throughout the North. As Commander-in-Chief in time of war it was argued that the murder of Lincoln was a military offense. Additionally it was pointed out that passions were running so high in the weeks after the assassination that empaneling an unbiased civil jury would have been impossible. Since the Confederacy was defeated, I can see little justification for trying civilians before a military tribunal in time of peace. Edward Bates, former Attorney General under Lincoln, and Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, criticized the use of a military tribunal instead having the accused conspirators tried in a civilian court. Here is the text of the order:
A military commission is hereby appointed to meet at Washington, D.C., on Monday, the 8th day of May, 1865, at 9 o’clock a. m., or as soon thereafter as practicable, for the trial of David E. Herold, George A. Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, Michael O’Laughlin, Edward Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Mary E. Surratt, Samuel A. Mudd, and such other prisoners as may be brought before it, implicated in the murder of the late President, Abraham Lincoln, and the attempted assassination of the Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, and in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate other officers of the Federal Government at Washington City, and their alders and abettors.
Detail for the court.
Major-General David Hunter, United States Volunteers.
Major-General Lewis Wallace, United States Volunteers.
Brevet Major-General August V. Kautz, United States Volunteers.
Brigadier-General Albion P. Howe, United States Volunteers.
Brigadier-General Robert S. Foster, United States Volunteers.
Brevet Brigadier-General Cyrus B. Comstock,* United States Volunteers.
Brigadier-General T. M. Harris, United States Volunteers.
Brevet Colonel Horace Porter,+ aid-de-camp.
Lieutenant-Colonel David R. Clendenin, Eighth Illinois Cavalry.
Brigadier-General Joseph Holt, Judge-Advocate-General, United States Army, is appointed the judge-advocate and recorder of the commission, to be aided by such assistant or special judge-advocate as he may designate.
The commission will sit without regard to hours.
By order of the President of the United States:
E. D. TOWNSEND,
*Brevet Brigadier-General James A. Ekin substituted;
+Brevet Colonel C. H. Tompkins substituted; see Special Orders, No. 210