Tyrants and Madmen: Lewis Powell's War

Lewis Payne is sentenced to death

Lewis Thornton Powell, also known as Lewis Payne or Lewis Paine, was born April 22nd 1844 and hung at the age of 21 on July 7th 1865. Powell was a conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln. Acting in this capacity attempted to murder the sitting Secretary of War William H. Seward while John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot at Lincoln.

Powell was a former Confederate soldier who enlisted at age 17 in the 2nd Florida Infantry. Fighting at the Second Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863 the now 19-year-old Powell was shot through the wrist during skirmishing and captured by Union forces. Powell was sent to a Pennsylvania P.O.W. hospital before being transferred to a facility in Baltimore. During his brief stay Payne managed to escape to Alexandria, Virginia.

In late fall of 1863, Powell met up with Confederate forces and rode out with the 43rd Battalion, Company B of Virginia. During his time with these Rangers, in 1864, Powell became involved in the Confederate Secret Service or CSS.

On April 9th 1865 Robert E. Lee, the highest ranking Confederate General, surrendered. This began a wave of crushing defeats and surrenders by the remainder of the Confederate States.

A week later, plots for revenge were being hatched at Confederate sympathizer Mary Surratt's boardinghouse in Washington DC, a murderous vengeance was being planned.

Wilkes wanted to cripple the leadership of the victorious Union. His first plot was to do so by abducting President Lincoln but he had to change his plans when Lincoln deviated from a pre-existing schedule. Ultimately, Wilkes decided upon assassinating the three most powerful men in America for their part in the Confederacy's defeat starting with Lincoln.

1865 War Dept. poster
War Dept. poster issued for suspects in Lincoln's assassination and the attack on Seward.

The plan was for Booth to murder the President personally, while sending George Atzerodt to simultaneously kill the Vice-President and for 21-year old Lewis Powell to assassinate the Secretary of War. If carried out correctly, the murders would happen just minutes after each other beginning at 10 PM.

The night of April 14th 1865, the three assassins sought their individual targets. Powell, for his part, visited the Seward home on a pretense then stormed into Seward's bedroom, stabbing the War Secretary repeatedly with a large Bowie knife as he laid in his bed.

Earlier in the same month, Seward had been injured in a carriage accident, and suffered a concussion, a broken jaw and a broken right arm. The crude jaw splint worn by Seward ended up saving his life by deflecting the knife away from his jugular vein. The assassination attempt only succeeded in inflicting deep facial lacerations to Seward - including a stab wound went entirely through the Secretary's right cheek. During the attack, Powell injured two of Seward's children, his nurse, Sergeant George F. Robinson, and messenger Emerick Hansell, who arrived as Powell was fleeing the Powell residence.

George Atzerodt failed to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson when he lost his nerve and got drunk instead. Booth, himself, infamously succeeded in his own part of the bloody conspiracy but was killed outside a farmhouse in Virginia.

Three days later, on April 17th 1865, Lewis Powell was captured at Mary Surratt's boardinghouse while insisting he was an innocent ditch-digger. He and nine others were charged with treason and murder.

At his trial, held by military tribunal, thirty-two witnesses were called, including Secretary Seward's son, Augustus, and William Bell, who worked for the Seward household as a servant and doorman, and admitted Powell the night of the assassination attempt. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

The execution of Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt.
Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt are executed at Fort Nair, Washington DC July 7th 1865

Three months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the attack on William Seward, Lewis Powell was brought to Fort Nair, in Washington D.C., to be executed with three of his fellow conspirators: Mary Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. On July 7th 1865, the four went to the gallows. Powell was reported to accept his fate calmly and quietly. The hangman, who'd undoubtedly had seen many men lose their composure when walking the gallows steps, told the stone-faced Powell, "I hope you die quick."[0] Powell simply replied, "You know best, Captain."

When Lewis Powell was pushed from the hastily built wooden gallow's platform he died slowly of strangulation[1].

[0] = Perhaps one of the reasons Lewis Powell expressions were always so bland and frozen was that he was reportedly kicked in the face by the family mule as a child.
[1] = It was reported that at the end of Lewis Powell's descent from the gallows he found his neck was not broken. In mid-air, Powell pulled his body into a sitting position in order to hasten his own end.

Wikipedia, Lewis Payne
Lincoln Center Research by R.J. Milton, Lewis Powell

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