150 Years Ago This Week: Straight out to sea

July 1865

Finally, on Monday, July 17, after waiting nearly three weeks to learn where their sentences for complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln were to be served, Samuel Mudd, Edman Spangler, Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold were taken from their cells to the jail-yard of the Arsenal penitentiary in Washington and stood before Maj. Gen. John Hartranft, in charge of the prison.

The gallows on which ended the lives of the other four Lincoln assassination conspirators on July 7 — Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt — had long since been dismantled, and if the remaining prisoners noticed the four new graves near the east wall of the arsenal, no mention was made of it. Hartranft read to the four condemned the findings of the military commission and the sentence of President Andrew Johnson: hard labor at the federal prison at Albany, N.Y. Three were sentenced to life; Spangler was to serve six years. Not a word was mentioned of the terrible Fort Jefferson, located in the Gulf of Mexico some 70 miles southwest of Key West.

At midnight that night — the hour that, back in late April, the body of assassin John Wilkes Booth was secretly buried beneath the floor of the warehouse at the opposite end of the building from where the courtroom had been — the four condemned were awakened and hurried to the wharf outside the prison walls where a river steamer was waiting.

The steamer made its way down the Potomac River through the darkness to Port Comfort, at the Chesapeake Bay, where a rendezvous was made with the U.S. Navy steamer USS Florida. Acting Volunteer Lt. Cmdr. William Budd of the Florida was handed sealed orders and told to steam straight out into the Atlantic for four hours; then he was to open and obey his orders.

This was the way to spirit the four condemned men away from any possibility of rescue. The officers on board the Florida suspected something was up; this was not the way to Albany. The thought was that perhaps they were going to head towards Boston, where many government prisoners were held at Fort Warren.

After steaming east for four hours, Budd opened his sealed orders and ordered the Florida turned southward. In an instant, all of those on board the steamer understood their destination: Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas. On deck, Samuel Arnold was reported to have exclaimed with great despair that they were being sent straight to hell. It would be another week before Florida arrived at the bare, baking island of the Dry Tortugas. From Fort Jefferson, there was no possibility of escape.

Out in the Bering Sea off the west coast of Russian America (today’s Alaska), CSS Shenandoah picked its way through the ice floes, attacking and capturing ships of the Northern whaling fleet. The Confederate raider had taken so many whalers and commercial vessels that the captured crews had to be towed in open whale boats behind Shenandoah. When it was convenient, Lt. James Waddell, the ship’s commander, set the whaling crews on land at various points. It was summer, and weather conditions were not harsh.

In northern Mexico, the 1,000 unsurrendered former Confederate soldiers under Maj. Gen. Jo Shelby continued their ride south towards Emperor Maximilian in Mexico City, where they planned to offer their services to him as a foreign legion.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.