150 Years Ago This Week: Legal arguments in Washington

June 1865

Lt. James Waddell, commander of the CSS Shenandoah.
Lt. James Waddell, commander of the CSS Shenandoah.

Continuing in his efforts to appoint provisional governors of the former Confederate states before the Radicals in the U.S. Congress could intervene and thwart his efforts to introduce a “softer” Reconstruction of pro-Union governments in the South, President Andrew Johnson in Washington on Tuesday, June 13, appointed William Sharkey as provisional governor of Mississippi.

Sharkey’s duties included the early convening of a convention of loyal Mississippians to alter or amend the state constitution and establish a new regular state government. President Johnson also issued a proclamation on the same day which declared trade and commerce open east of the Mississippi River except for contraband of war. Four days later, James Johnson (no relation) was appointed provisional governor of Georgia and Andrew J. Hamilton as governor of Texas.

In Washington, the military trial continued of the eight persons accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in the murder of Abraham Lincoln and the attempted murder of Secretary of State William Seward in April. With the reprieve in Federal court of Lambdin Milligan and William Bowles on June 2 from the sentence of execution imposed by a military commission on civilians, the hot debate raged anew between the defense and the prosecution in the Lincoln conspiracy trial as to the validity of the military commission to try the eight civilians in the dock.

While it would be argued by the commission that President Lincoln had been commander-in-chief of the Army and the Navy on April 14, while Union forces still were fighting in the field, the defense argued that the federal courts were open and functioning, and that the trial should be heard in a civilian court.

This scenario would, of course, take the proceedings out of the purview of the War Department and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The arguments for and against the domain of the military commission took up almost as much of the court’s time as did testimony pertaining to the crimes for which the defendants were accused.

The validity of the military commission to try Mrs. Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Dr. Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, and Edman Spangler continues to be debated to the present day in 2015. The arguments of the defense were overruled, and the trial dragged on, with the prosecution making attempts to implicate the Confederate government in this crime and other acts of sabotage, murder, and such mayhem as trying to breed infection in the North with yellow fever from the clothing and bed linens of the infected; train derailments; poisoning New York City’s water supplies; incendiary fires; and escape attempts from Union prisoner of war camps.

At Fortress Monroe, a federal installation located at the mouth of the James River at the Chesapeake Bay, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis languished in his casement cell. After his capture and arrest in Georgia on May 10, Mr. Davis was being held for treason and a host of other charges against the United States, but no formal charges had been yet filed against him. In the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, CSS Shenandoah continued to attack and destroy Union whaling vessels and commerce ships. Lt. James Waddell and his crew were still unaware of the end of the war.


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