The Magazine

The Last Battle of the Civil War

In 1865, a military tribunal convicted Dr. Samuel A. Mudd in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Was he guilty?

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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ONE FRIDAY THIS PAST NOVEMBER, without much to-do, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed the case of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. The court's reasoning, what I could make of it, seemed highly technical. "Appellant's insurmountable problem is that his claim is not arguably within the zone of interests to be protected or regulated by the statute in question," the judges wrote. The ruling was rendered unanimously, and bloodlessly--though bloodlessness, in my opinion, is an odd tone to adopt in a case so heartfelt and long-lived as Dr. Mudd's. Having died in 1883, the doctor is no longer around to defend himself, and the case is showing its age, too, having begun with Mudd's conviction, 137 years ago, of aiding John Wilkes Booth in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln.

In a brief item the next day, the New York Times noted the ruling's definitive quality, and issued, Times-like, a definitive ruling of its own: The court's decision, the paper said, "effectively ended the decades-long campaign of the descendants of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd to clear his name."

That didn't strike me as quite right either. Americans are famous for their disdain of history, as our history bears out, but no American has yet summoned the power to kill the case of Samuel Mudd. It has rattled around, in one form or another, in the courts and elsewhere, since the end of the Civil War. His family has worked hard to keep the case alive. This most recent attempt was the handiwork of Dr. Mudd's grandson, Dr. Richard D. Mudd, more commonly known among the family as Dr. Dick. He died this spring, Dr. Dick did, at the age of 101. He had spent most of his life, from the early 1920s onward, arguing his grandfather's innocence in newspapers and courtrooms, on radio and television, in film documentaries and before congressional committees. The family's work would not cease, he often said, until justice was done--until the same federal government that had convicted his grandfather admitted its mistake, and certified that this good man had had nothing to do with the most consequential crime in American history.

With Dr. Dick's death, the family duty has fallen to his son Tom. When I heard about the court's decision I called him up.

"The Times says this will put an end to your efforts," I said.

"Oh for heaven's sakes," he said. "We've had lots of peaks and valleys. A door opens up, and we say 'At last! Justice will be done!' And then it slams shut. Well, this door just slammed shut. But another one will open up again--somewhere, sooner or later. This is a very long story."

THE STORY, as the Mudd family tells it, begins in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 15, 1865. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd lay sleeping in the back bedroom of his farmhouse in Charles County, Maryland, about twenty miles south of Washington, D.C., when he was awakened by two strangers clamoring at the front door. One of the men had a broken leg--the result, his companion said, of a tumble taken from his horse as they rode hard through the rain on their way to Washington. The men seemed unduly excited, and Dr. Mudd was a cautious man, but after some hesitation he helped the injured rider across the threshold into his front parlor, where he laid him up on a settee, and did his best to splint the leg.

Dr. Mudd took little note of the men's appearance: One was young and talkative, no more than 20, the other was older and wore whiskers. They slept the night in the upstairs guest room. After lunch the next day, while the older visitor rested in bed, Dr. Mudd and the young man canvassed the neighborhood for a carriage that could carry them the rest of the way to the capital. Without luck, the young man returned to the farm to gather up his friend and take their chances with their exhausted horses. Dr. Mudd rode on another four miles or so, to the nearby village of Bryantown, to visit patients and run errands.

He found the village in high panic, swarming with federal troops. A soldier told Mudd the president was dead, shot by a man named Booth the night before. Mudd returned to the farm in the late afternoon. By the time he got home the strangers were gone--or perhaps they were just leaving; the two accounts that Dr. Mudd later gave are unclear. But once they were gone he grew suspicious. The next morning, after church, he asked a cousin headed into town to tell the authorities about his mysterious visitors.

That was Sunday, April 16. On Tuesday morning a party of soldiers arrived to question Dr. Mudd. Two days later they returned, then again the next day. On Saturday they arrived without warning to take him to Washington, where he was charged with aiding and abetting Booth in his escape.