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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Booth died a few days later, chased down to the Virginia peninsula across the Potomac, shot by federal troops as he hobbled on his broken leg through a burning tobacco barn. His co-conspirators were gathered up. Among them was David Herold, the young man who'd ridden with Booth to Mudd's house that night. Before a tribunal of federal officers, hastily assembled in Washington, all eight of the accused were convicted, on one charge or another, after a month-long trial. Five were sentenced to hang, and did so a week after the trial's close, on July 7. Mudd and three others received a sentence of life at hard labor. Quickly and quietly they were shipped to Ft. Jefferson, a malarial compound thrown up on the Dry Tortugas, at the tail end of a Florida archipelago.

Suddenly fatherless, Mudd's family despaired. Union troops loitered about the farm for many months, scavenging food, menacing visitors, chasing off what few farmhands remained. Mrs. Mudd commenced a campaign on her husband's behalf--the same campaign that continues today. She pressed her case with politicians, journalists, and in time even the president. A month before leaving office, in disgrace himself and with nothing to lose, Andrew Johnson pardoned the surviving conspirators. Mudd was released after four years in jail, but his conviction stood unexpunged in the record, and no compensation was ever offered for the damage already done. He returned to his wife and four children and to his devastated farm, disgraced and penniless, in feeble health, a broken man. His medical practice declined, and he dabbled halfheartedly in politics, and then at the early age of 49 he died, having lived long enough to hear the phrase "His name is Mudd" become a commonplace pejorative among his countrymen, and pleading his innocence to the end.

"HE'S AN AMERICAN DREYFUS," a historian said to me a few years ago, when I began to nose around the case of Dr. Mudd. Even at the time the label struck me as overripe, but down the generations the Mudd family has embraced it, especially Dr. Dick: for it fits so well the Mudds' sense of naked injustice, of an uncauterized wound. Dr. Dick's lifelong efforts to keep the case alive approached a climax of sorts in 1992. With the ingenuity that sometimes comes to desperate men, he decided to file a claim before the Military Records Review Board, an obscure commission languishing in a cobwebby corner of the army bureaucracy. He asked it to instruct the secretary of the Army to "correct the military record" by overturning the tribunal's conviction of his grandfather.

Unexpectedly, not to say miraculously, the board agreed with Dr. Dick. The secretary of the Army, however, did not. The jurisdictional tug of war between the board and the secretary brought Samuel Mudd's case once again to various federal courts, where it had already bounced around during the nineteenth century. Dr. Dick was technically the plaintiff in the case (a role Tom later assumed, following Dick's death), but no one doubted that it was his grandfather who was again on trial. Through a decade of appeals and remands and dilatory pleadings, the case wound its way at last to Courtroom 20 of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where on a sunny morning this past September, the judges sat to hear oral arguments.

The hearing did not go well, and to most of us who gathered there--including a dozen direct descendants of Sam Mudd, and another dozen friends, neighbors, and buffs--this fall's final ruling could not have come as a shock. Mudds, however, are not easily discouraged, as you may already have noticed. On the phone Tom Mudd spoke to me idly of appealing the decision to a higher panel of the appellate court, and then to the Supreme Court, of course, before he alighted on what really troubled him.

"You saw in the court's opinion where someone quotes that phrase, about the 'ravages of history'? This to them is an abstraction. But it's not abstract! Did the judges stop to ask, Who was hurt by the 'ravages of history'? Dr. Mudd was hurt. My family was hurt.

"But as my dad always said, and this is much more important, the cause of justice has been hurt. The conscience of the country has been hurt.

"So you ask, will this put an end to our efforts? No. I'm sorry, but this is bigger than our family."