A Checkered Beginning
The small steamer (216 feet long, 1,113 tons displacement) had been commissioned the November before, thus missing the Civil War entirely, but the Swatara's brief history before sailing for Europe had already been colorful. While fitting out at the Washington Navy Yard, her steam engine fell to the deck during installation when some lifting tackle parted. Some months later after returning from the West Indies at the end of her first cruise, at the request of Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch the ship was searched for smuggled goods and her officers interrogated. All were exonerated.
On 27 June 1866, she steamed out of Hampton Roads for the passage to Fayal, in the Azores, and from there to Europe with 16 officers, 126 enlisted Sailors, and 15 Marines on board. Below in the hold, together with everything else she carried, were 200 tons of coal (two or three weeks worth of steaming at something less than ten knots) and 2,000 gallons of drinking water, a ten days' to two weeks' supply. Once in the Mediterranean, the Swatara would stop often to take on coal and water, meat, vegetables, and bread.
She was at Marseilles undergoing repairs to her balky boilers and engines when telegraphic orders from Admiral Goldsborough arrived directing Commander Jeffers to sail to Civitavecchia, where the Swatara arrived on 12 December. Once there, Jeffers met with General King and collected Sainte Marie, a former Papal Zouave who had unearthed John Surratt in his hiding place as an enlisted soldier in Pope Pius IX's small army. On 8 November, the conspirator had escaped arrest and extradition by the Zouaves, hiked to Naples, and talked his way aboard a British steamer, the Tripoli, sailing to Alexandria.
Pursuing Surratt, the Swatara raced from Civitavecchia on 14 December to Malta, covering the roughly 325 nautical miles in two days. After quickly taking on 900 gallons of water, she sped to Alexandria, approximately 835 miles in four more days. Just after noon on Thursday, 20 December, the screw sloop anchored off Alexandria and exchanged a 21-gun salute with the fort guarding the port. Alternating from ship and shore, the shots boomed out through the clear, warm day like rolling thunder. Her gun crews were exercised again the next morning when Consul-general Charles Hale came aboard for an official visit, an event punctuated by the deep reports of a nine-gun salute.
An Early Christmas Present
Later that day, the warship took aboard 145 pounds of fresh beef, 145 pounds of vegetables, and 116 pounds of bread. The midshipman on watch, Leonard Chenery, duly noted these deliveries in the deck log. Arrested by Hale three weeks earlier soon after the Tripoli docked at the port, and prepared for the experience to come by long days in an Egyptian jail, Surratt was brought aboard early in the afternoon. His arrival was also recorded in the log in Midshipman Chenery's loose, open script, just as the beef, vegetables, and bread had been: "At 1 PM received on board a person delivered by the U.S. Consul General, Mr. Charles Hale, supposed to be John H. Surratt, one of the conspirators implicated in the assassination of the late President Lincoln."
Surratt's time on board would be governed by Jeffers' written standing orders to officers and sentries. The commander proudly told Congressman George Boutwell of the House Judiciary Committee in Washington two months later that they were so strict and complete Admiral Goldsborough had thought of nothing to add to them. During the passage to Washington Surratt was to be kept in single irons in a locked compartment furnished with a mattress and two blankets, allowed out under guard only "when necessary to use the captain's water closet," and fed from the officers' wardroom, his food diced up and served with a spoon. Surratt was to speak with no one and be allowed to overhear nothing but conversations about routine ship's work. If the prisoner grew violent, he was to be placed in double irons, with his hands locked behind him.
"It is to be carefully borne in mind," Jeffers instructed his crew, "that the prisoner is put on board for safe-keeping and transportation to the United States, and that his death is preferable to his escape." Loaded carbines-the stubby Sharps & Hankins 1861 Navy model with its distinctive leather-wrapped barrel-were kept in ready-issue lockers on deck, to be used should Surratt attempt to escape. Curiously, no provision in Jeffers' otherwise comprehensive standing orders addressed care of the prisoner in the event of an emergency on board.
Accommodating Surratt was not easy. Jeffers explained in a letter to the admiral dated 5 January 1867 that
I was much exercised relative to a suitable place of confinement on board so small a vessel in a case where I considered it essential that no communication whatever should be had with the prisoner, or where he could overhear unguarded conversations of officers & crew.
After some consideration, I appropriated to the purpose a part of my own quarters, a small store and bath-room, on deck, in the after cockpit. Here he could be perfectly isolated, and the room was large enough to contain a movable sleeping berth for which in the daytime a chair is substituted . . . placed in this room in single irons, where he is more comfortably situated than any of the junior officers.
Shortly after noon the day after Christmas, with Surratt locked away, coal and water topped up, and the holiday observance over, the Swatara started home from Egypt. A few days later, while she was steaming "against persistent head winds" through the central Mediterranean, Consul Hale telegraphed the good news to Secretary Seward. He thriftily limited his report to the essential minimum: "I delivered Surratt aboard Corvette Swatara twenty-first December. No trouble." The telegram was received at the War Department's Military Telegraph Office on 29 December.
Last Stops in Europe
To keep Surratt in more perfect isolation, Welles had wanted the Swatara to sail nonstop from Alexandria to Washington, but as the Navy Secretary ought to have known, no small steamer in the 1860s had that kind of endurance. The ship's first stop for water and a little coal on her long passage west was in the quarantine anchorage at Port Mahon, Minorca, on 2 January 1867. Out of port on the morning of the 4th, the corvette arrived the next day in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, to allow Captain Jeffers to report directly to Admiral Goldsborough in the Colorado. Here Sainte Marie was put ashore, either at his own request because of ill treatment (his version of the story) or because he had finally exhausted Captain Jeffers' patience (the captain's). "Since he has been aboard," Jeffers explained to Goldsborough while he was in the port, "I find that he is a babbler-a fellow of little head, less principle, and evidently actuated in the affair by the prospect of the reward offered, i.e. blood money."
Camped out with Asa Aldis, the U.S. consul in nearby Nice, and with no money or good ideas, Sainte Marie promptly wrote his mentor, King, in Rome for help. After a flurry of transatlantic correspondence, Secretary of State William Seward sent Consul Aldis instructions by telegraph: "Buy tickets for Surratt St. Marie [inserted] and send him forward by first steamer for New York or Boston. Your account will be paid." Those concerned-Aldis in Nice, King in Rome, and Major General John Dix, the U.S. minister in Paris-managed to get Sainte Marie aboard a French steamer to New York on 2 February. After several weeks spent improvising a solution, the three American diplomats must have been elated to have this important and tiresome young man at sea, irreversibly heading toward a distant continent and the trial to come.
The Swatara was at sea, too. Stores topped up and Surratt carefully confined, she departed Villefranche at 1450 on 8 January for what turned out to be a slow, 15-day passage to Funchal, Madeira, in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. In a letter that was read to President Andrew Johnson's cabinet by Secretary Welles on 25 January, Admiral Goldsborough reported that the Swatara had sailed on the 8th with Surratt on board and, according to Interior Secretary Orville Hickman Browning's diary entry that day, described the ship's prisoner as "a handsome, cultivated, well behaved young man, perfectly self possessed, about 23 years old, and who conducted himself with great propriety." Before sailing, Surratt had promised Jeffers that he would cause no trouble,
Three deserters from the corvette were left behind, ashore somewhere in France. Their clothes and kit were sold to the crew at auction the next day. On 25 January, after loading coal, water, and victuals, the Swatara got under way from Funchal for Washington with Jeffers worried about her engines and boilers. She carried five civilians in addition to Surratt, three of them "distressed seamen" embarked in Madeira for passage to the United States at the request of the resident U.S. consul.
In Washington on the last day of January, President Johnson and Welles discussed Surratt during a private meeting. Welles wrote that evening in his diary:
The President remarked that no good could result from any communication with Surratt, and that the more reckless Radicals, if they could have access to him, would be ready to tamper with and suborn him. The man's life was at stake, he was desperate and resentful. Such a person and in such a condition might, if approached, make almost any statement. He, therefore, thought [Surratt] should not be allowed to communicate with others, nor should unauthorized persons be permitted to see him.
Welles agreed. Surratt was to be held incommunicado as long as possible. On board ship such hermetic isolation was possible, but once the prisoner was brought ashore it would not be.
Atlantic Crossing and Arrival
The early winter crossing was through remarkably good weather, allowing the steamer to stay under sail, pushed along by the prevailing easterlies through mid-ocean while burning only a few hundred pounds of coal each day. The warship arrived in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 16 February and was at the mouth of the Potomac River by 1500 the next afternoon.
With the ocean passage over, Surratt's delivery into custody in Washington went much more quickly and easily than initially feared. The winter of 1866-67 along the eastern seaboard was a frigid one. Well through January pack ice closed many Chesapeake Bay ports, including Baltimore and Annapolis. Along the Potomac, Georgetown, Washington, Alexandria, and small put-ins on both banks of the river for 40 miles south of the capital were also closed by ice.
Such winters were unusual but not unheard of. Hampton Roads, at the bottom of the Bay, however, had been ice free and open during the last week of January 1867 when the subject of Surratt's return came up during a cabinet meeting. Johnson, Seward, Stanton, and Welles agreed that the Swatara would be held in the roadstead incommunicado with the shore until she could pass to Washington.
Monday, 18 February, was a pleasant day on the Potomac, clear and 40 degrees in the afternoon, although a large and brilliant halo around the moon that night promised a change to come. As the Swatara steamed past Mount Vernon to her port side, Jeffers had the ship's bell tolled and the flag lowered to half staff, a ritual honoring the memory of President George Washington. By the time the ship finally dropped anchor in three fathoms of water off the Washington Navy Yard at 1615, Surratt had been below in solitary confinement and chains for 60 days.
Once the corvette had been reported anchored in the stream, Secretary Welles issued clear instructions to the yard commandant:
Upon the arrival of the "Swatara" having on board John H. Surratt, you [Commodore William Radford] will direct the Swatara to anchor in the stream, off the yard, and you will permit no one to go aboard or hold communication with her without a written permit from the Department. You will post a sufficient guard on the adjacent wharf to enforce this order. The prisoner will be held subject to the order of the Department.
You will also direct the officers and men of the Swatara to give no information concerning the prisoner, his conduct, or conversation during the voyage, or upon any other matter pertaining to him.
The next day Surratt was delivered in manacles to Acting U.S. Marshal David Gooding and then handed over to Warden Thomas Brown of the Washington Jail, who would be his keeper in the months to come. As luck had it, Midshipman Chenery once again had the deck watch. "At 4:40," he wrote, "delivered the state prisoner John H. Surratt to D. S. Gooding, U.S. Marshal, by order of the Navy Department. Weather overcast & cool. Wind light at ENE. Sea smooth."
A drawing of the prisoner turnover from the Navy to civil authority appeared as an engraving in the 9 March 1867 issue of Harper's Weekly. Artist Andrew McCallum sketched Surratt, hands chained, stepping from the Swatara's cutter into a crowd of 40 or 50 people standing on the pier. Behind the assembled observers rises one end of the Navy Yard's western ship house and to the right is a small mountain of stacked solid shot, reminders of the war. Everyone appears appropriately serious, as if aware there is an artist present recording the moment. Remarkably, the reception party on shore includes three Sioux in feathered headdresses.
The turnover of the prisoner to Marshal Gooding and Warden Brown formally marked the transfer of custody from the federal executive to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia and from Navy to civilian control. Once in Gooding's hands, Surratt would never again fall under military incarceration or military judgment.
Nine weeks later, in a petition to the court for a speedy trial that would be ignored, Surratt's defense counsel wrote:
That in the month of October [actually November] last he was arrested in Egypt and placed on board of an armed vessel of the United States, and from that time forth was kept in close confinement; heavily ironed; allowed only a brief time occasionally to breath the fresh air; wholly excluded from all intercourse with any human being but those who were employed to administer to his absolute needs; without change of external raiment, obliged to wear the very dress in which he was arrested, and thus kept in prison until the month of February.
That said, counsel concluded, "He has no complaint to make of the severity of his confinement on board ship where he was treated with as much levity [?] as the officer in command deemed consistent with his duty, and where he was not subjected to any indignity or personal injury." Had he known, Captain Jeffers would have been pleased by this unsolicited confirmation that his orders to Swatara's crew had been obeyed so scrupulously.
John Surratt's trial in mid-1867 on capital charges, before a civilian judge and jury in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, ended with a hung jury instead of the death sentence the U.S. district attorney-and the judge-had fervently hoped for. Some attributed the outcome to biased jurors (seven were from Virginia, Maryland, or Washington City, and assumed to be Confederate sympathizers), but the government's case had been presented so ineptly that even the New York Times thought the evidence against Surratt was unpersuasive.
The prosecutor, District Attorney Edward Carrington, was unwilling to quit. Through 1867 and into 1868 Carrington tried to get a grand jury indictment that could result in a conviction. In the end it was Carrington's own bungling, and not government distraction with Reconstruction or a public moving beyond vengeance that defeated the DA and set Surratt free. The statute of limitations for the crime charged in the second indictment was found by the judge to have expired, and so Surratt was released without a second trial.
In April 1916 John Surratt passed away in his home in Baltimore, Maryland, in the company of his wife and several of his adult children. He had spent his last five decades living quietly and working in that city. When he died, at age 72, Surratt was by many decades the last of John Wilkes Booth's familiars, indeed the last alive of anyone connected directly to Booth's infamous kidnapping and murder plots.
From Monitor to Prisoner Monitor
The USS Swatara's first commanding officer, William Nicholson Jeffers (1824-83), was a veteran of 26 years of Navy service when he brought Surratt back to the United States for trial in 1866-67. The corvette was Jeffers' fifth of six ship commands during a 43-year career that at its apex saw him promoted to commodore and offered command of the Asiatic Squadron.
After graduating from the Naval Academy fourth of 47 in its first class in 1846, Jeffers served at sea during the Mexican and Civil wars. For six months in 1862 he commanded what was arguably the Union Navy's most famous ship, the USS Monitor, the pioneering ironclad. He took command immediately after her historic Hampton Roads battle with the CSS Virginia in March 1862, and was on board during her unsuccessful attempt in May to force the James River at Drewry's Bluff, a dozen miles or so south of Richmond. He was, by one account, the least well-liked of Monitor's several commanding officers, but he returned the favor, writing a careful critique of the ship and her class that focused on its deficiencies in gunnery.
Jeffers is remembered today as the author of several professional books and as an expert in ordnance, arguably second only to Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren in his influence over the development of 19th-century naval guns.
This article is drawn from a chapter in The Last Lincoln Conspirator, John Surratt's Flight from the Gallows (Naval Institute Press, 2008) as supplemented by later research, including especially a letter from Captain Jeffers to Admiral Goldsborough dated 5 January 1867, found after the book was published. The letter was acquired in November 2008 by the Naval Historical Foundation during an auction of the estate of Dr. John Lattimer, a well-known collector of Lincolniana, and is now a part of the collection of the Navy Department Library. The original of Secretary Welles' 18 February 1867 letter to Rear Admiral Radford quoted here is in the private collection of Professor Allen Ottens, of Rockford, Illinois.
Other sources include contemporary newspapers, the deck log of the USS Swatara, held in the National Archives, government documents, and official correspondence between the secretary of state and American diplomats in Europe during 1866.
My thanks to Bill Edwards-Bodmer of the Mariners' Museum for biographical information on Captain Jeffers.