The Conspirator: Abraham Lincoln's 9/11

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The news put Americans in a state of shock; they knew that, after that unprecedented day, they would never be the same. With this dastardly attack, and after the greatest loss of civilian lives the U.S. had ever known, the federal government abridged the liberties of those it suspected of giving aid and comfort to the nation's enemies. It tried civilians in military courts, deprived them of due process, suspended the right of habeus corpus. The few lawyers to speak up in defense of the accused were overruled or drowned out by high government officials who spun fantasies into imminent threats, predicting anarchy if the suspects were not railroaded to conviction. And when it couldn't find the real perpetrators of the attack, the government went after people who might slake the country's thirst for righteous revenge.

The news, of course, was of Abraham Lincoln's bloody death, a few days after the Civil War ended. The vindictive government officials included Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The civilian on trial in a military court was Mary Surratt, whose son John was part of the plot that killed Lincoln. Despite a spirited defense by a young war hero, Frederick Aiken, she was convicted of treason by a Commission that recommended she be sentenced to life in prison. President Johnson overruled that sentence — as well as the writ of habeus corpus Aiken had secured — and on July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was hanged. She was the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government....

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